by Mike Templeton
The focus of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is primarily the people and issues that define the urban Appalachian experience. That said, we are never removed from the people who live in the Appalachian regions. There has always been a dialogue, indeed, a continuous conversation between urban Appalachians and the rural regions that many of us still call home. In the past few years, some terrible news has come out of Appalachian Ohio. It is of the utmost importance that we pay attention to more than just the surface information of what happened in Pike County.
I venture that everyone in greater Cincinnati, if not this entire region of the country, has at least heard something about the horrific murders in Pike County, Ohio in 2016. On the night of April 21-22, 2016, eight members of the Rhoden family were shot and killed while they slept. Evidence suggests at least one of the men fought the attackers before he was murdered. A toddler and two infants were spared as they slept while their mothers were murdered. Last month, George Washington Wagner IV was convicted of 22 counts that include convictions for the murder of the Rhoden family. Two more members of the Wagner family await trial for murder and other roles in what has now been called the Pike County Massacre. These crimes have become one of the most gruesome, complicated, and costly crimes in Ohio history. Crimes such as these lend themselves to sensationalism. These are the kinds of crimes that are fodder for network crime docu-dramas and true crime podcasts. What gets lost in this sensationalism is the humanity at the core of the events and how these kinds of horrifying acts impact people, families, and communities. Fortunately, Chris Graves is a reporter who covered the investigation, the trial, and the people who underpin all of this with compassion and sensitivity.
A defense lawyer in Cincinnati, while claiming that he meant nothing derogatory, described the killings as something that comes out of “the law of the hills.” Perhaps he did not mean anything derogatory, but this kind of characterization relegates these crimes to a stereotypical view of rural and Appalachian people that has its origins in Hatfield and McCoy mythology more than facts and an understanding of the lives people lead in Appalachian Ohio where all this unfolded. The material realities of the Rhoden and Wagner families are what emerged in Chris Graves’s coverage of the murders and subsequent investigation, and this is what becomes clear in the ways she has written about it all. I spoke to Graves about her approach to the stories behind the sensation, and she explained that it is a combination of her background as a reporter covering urban crime and her own personal background that made it possible for her to reach people and discover the humanity at the core of something that is arguably inhumane.
“I see it as my responsibility to string together facts with some degree of human-ness. I believe the way to talk about issues is through people, not just cold facts,” Chris Graves told me. This approach made it possible for her to get to know members of these families and tell their stories. Graves’ approach is one of “being reflective, of being reflective of other people, of being aware that I will be the conduit for their stories.” This approach is one of compassion rather than a position of dispassionate observer.
In speaking of the families connected and/or involved in these terrible events, Graves repeatedly came back to a moment when the staff at the funeral home asked Leonard Manley, of the Rhoden family, who had just lost his daughter, three grandchildren, and a son-law, what he needed. His reply: “My friends are here. My family is all here. What else could a man need?” Graves insisted this encapsulated the tight family bonds, the perseverance, and the strength of the people she met in Pike County. These are people who survive against just about anything, and they do this by sticking together. Sadly, these kinds of unshakeable bonds may have been at the heart of what motivated the murders, but what emerged for Chris Graves is that these tight bonds are what hold people together who live with more than their share of struggles and hardships.
Pike County is in the Appalachian foothills in southeastern Ohio. If you have been out that way you know that this is one of the most beautiful regions of the United States. This is also one of the poorest regions of Ohio. Like so many other parts of Appalachia, industry has disappeared, towns are in decay, and poverty has overtaken the region. This all comes with the predictable consequences of the fraying of social bonds, drug and alcohol abuse, and crime. But the goal here is to survive, and that is what they do, and they do this by growing their own food, hunting, and piecing together a living through a variety of manual labor jobs. Chris Graves made it her priority to get to these facts. She sat and listened, and she kept coming back. As she explained: “I never approach anyone with the attitude that I know things, that I am somehow above them. I ask questions, and most important, I make it clear that I am listening to them—hearing them.”
Graves talked to Leonard Manley repeatedly. Even after moments when he not only made it clear he did not want her around but also yelled at her, Graves came back, and gained trust. This was never a disingenuous process to get the “big story.” Her motivation comes from her own life and background. “I grew up in an economically disadvantaged part of the country. And I spent years covering the kinds of crimes that are a symptom of urban poverty,” she said. Graves has some understanding of struggles, and her background as a reporter and editor disposed her as a sympathetic listener in Pike County. Graves told me, “The parallels between urban struggles and crime and what I discovered in Pike County were astounding. So many of the struggles, the family ties, and the dangers that arise from these conditions were strikingly similar.”
No one, least of all Chris Graves, will make a case that the struggles of poverty justify anything that happened in 2016. Crimes like these are not the inevitable outgrowth of some primitive “law of the hills.” The crimes were horrific, and some measure of justice is being dispensed. Chris Graves and her compassionate way of covering something of this magnitude make it possible for anyone to take a moment and reflect on these things and refuse to become prone to easy judgments and narrow portrayals of real people.
Finding the points of connection, combined with a deeply humane willingness to listen, made it possible for Chris Graves to report on the gruesome headline while revealing the humanity and even the beauty of poor Appalachian people who are up against systems that are stacked against them. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition makes it a priority to address the conditions of urban poverty through advocacy and activism. The portraits given to us by Chris Graves remind us that our rural neighbors are just as much a part of our network of communities.
Chris Graves is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. She began covering these events as the Metro Columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer from 2015-2017, and continues her reporting as a freelance journalist. You can read more about Chris Graves at her website. The website also includes articles on the Pike County Murders: https://www.chrisgraves-journalist.com/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.