By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
COLUMBUS (AP) — Objections by family members did not directly influence a coroner’s decision to shield full autopsy reports of eight relatives who were shot in their homes, the coroner said in a deposition filed Tuesday in the state Supreme Court.
Relatives of those victims raised concerns about the release of details of how their loved ones died, Pike County Coroner David Kessler said in his deposition.
“I met with the next of kin of all the deceased, answered their questions, and after preliminary autopsy, and at that point, they were not wanting information to get out in the public about exactly how things happened,” Kessler said.
The case involves seven adults and a teenage boy from the Rhoden family found shot to death at four homes near Piketon on April 22.
At issue in a case before the Supreme Court are lawsuits filed by the Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer seeking the full, unredacted copies of the autopsy reports.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is leading the investigation, is fighting the release of the full reports, saying it could compromise the investigation. DeWine’s office provided heavily redacted versions last fall.
Kessler said the family’s concerns were reflected in a statement he made in July regarding the release of the autopsies. “I do not want to release any information that might impede the criminal investigation or the families’ grieving process,” Kessler said in that July 22 statement.
Kessler also said he didn’t have conversations with criminal investigators about information he redacted in the full autopsy reports.
The redacted versions confirmed earlier accounts that all but one victim were shot multiple times in the head but otherwise provided few new details in the investigation.
As has previously been reported, one victim, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden, died of a single gunshot wound. His body was the last found by investigators.
The other victims were shot multiple times in the head and, in the case of 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr. — Kenneth Rhoden’s brother — in his upper body and torso, as well.
The other victims were Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr. and 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden; Frankie Rhoden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.
In the redacted autopsy reports, toxicology results, which could include the use of drugs or alcohol, were blacked out for all the victims. Evidence of injuries beyond the mention of gunshot wounds was also blacked out for all the victims.
Authorities haven’t announced a motive. DeWine’s office has said Christopher Rhoden Sr. “was operating a large-scale marijuana growing operation on his property,” leading some to speculate the killings were drug-related.
DeWine has said those responsible for the killings were familiar with the victims, their homes and the surrounding area in rural southern Ohio. His office, which is investigating along with the Pike County sheriff’s office, has also said authorities are operating under the theory there were multiple attackers.