These wooded hills have seen more than their share of death and illegal drugs.
Last summer, the nation’s attention was gripped by the heroin-linked deaths and disappearances of six women from the city of Chillicothe. Now there is a manhunt underway for whomever executed eight members of a Pike County family.
Both tragedies have drawn national and international media attention to a poverty-stricken part of the state that is now plagued by drug overdoses, unsolved deaths and unanswered questions.
And history suggests that southeast Ohio’s hills are chock full of marijuana growing operations. Some are skeptical drugs are a key factor in the killing of the Rhoden family. Others quietly say that few motives aside from the deadly mix of cold cash and illegal drugs make sense to explain the sheer brutality and well-planned nature of the killings. Each victim was shot in the head, one nine times. One victim was living a short drive from the others and some killings were done while victims slept, authorities have said.
State and local law enforcement officials aren’t ruling anything out publicly, and won’t dispel any rumors, saying they are working to track down every tip.
Regardless of whether Mexican drug cartels have anything to do with that tragedy, their involvement is well-documented in the drug running that has filled many hillside graves.
Fifteen Pike County residents died last year of drug overdoses — most from heroin or the drug’s cousin, fentanyl. That’s more than the previous three years combined, as the county already ranked among the highest in the state for drug overdose deaths per capita.
“I know several people, friends I went to school with, died because of that,” said Andrew Guilkey, 28, of Piketon. As he said this, his friends began to name them off. They estimated 10-15 people they know are dead in the past three years from overdoses.
“It’s a problem,” Guilkey said.
Pot and cartels
Natalie Snead assumes there are a lot of drugs in the hills around her home in Scioto County because she sees the eradication efforts every year.
“They fly planes over a lot of times,” she said.
Snead lives about a block away from where the Rhoden family and community gathered in West Portsmouth for a viewing the day before six members of the family were buried last week.
Like many in the community, her sympathy for the victims isn’t lessened by the fact some of them apparently were growing marijuana. Every family has its bad apples, she said.
Eradication efforts in the state found more pot plants in southeast Ohio last year than any other part of the state, according to numbers voluntarily reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Scioto and Meigs counties contributed the most, with 2,750 and 2,278 plants, respectively.
Since 2008, state and local efforts have led to the destruction of 27,614 pot plants from Pike County out of 351,849 statewide.
The state’s eradication program in August 2010 found nearly 23,000 plants off of Green Ridge Road and Zion Ridge Road, about 15 miles west of Piketon. Agents saw the plants from the air, but had to use ATVs to get to the site. They found well-organized, abandoned campsites with separate cooking, sleeping and working areas surrounded by trenches dug to channel water away, according to state investigation records obtained by this newspaper.
Tents appeared to house two people each, and were stocked with food including tortillas, rice and Mexican canned beans. The only guns found were pellet rifles, along with knives and other tools for cutting and drying marijuana. Prescription pill bottles were found with names on them, but no one was at the site and no arrests were made.
In August 2012 another aerial operation found a similar, but much smaller, operation, this time on Hickson Run Road 15 miles northeast of Piketon. Agents hiked hundreds of yards into the woods south of the road and found two campsites and multiple plots of marijuana totaling 1,200 plants.
Again there were tents with two cots each, pellet guns and frijoles. But no people, so no arrests were made.
Attorney General Mike DeWine released a statement saying the grow operations had “suspected ties to a Mexican drug cartel,” though records of the investigations obtained this week did not mention cartels.
DeWine estimated the value of the plants at $1,000 to $1,500 apiece.
When questioned about these seizures in connection with the Rhoden family killings, DeWine demurred from calling the 2010 and 2012 cases cartel-related, but maintained they were linked to Mexican organized crime.
“The planting methods and encampment styles were similar to other Mexican grows seen in other parts of the country,” wrote AG’s office spokesman Jill Del Greco in an email when asked what linked the grow sites to Mexico.
Death in Chillicothe
The spectacular tragedy in Pike County isn’t the first time the region has been in the throes of a major media event.
Last summer, reporters from state and national outlets descended on Chillicothe, a short drive from Piketon north on U.S. 23, as an investigation into the deaths and disappearances of six women expanded.
Looking back, the arrival of reporters and television satellite vans and demands for answers in Chillicothe eerily echoed what was to come in Pike County. There are no other known links between the Chillicothe investigation and the events in Pike County aside from the presence of illegal drugs in the lives of most of the victims.
Amid a community outcry and fears of a possible serial killer at large, a task force was formed in the city of 22,000. It included the FBI, Ohio State Highway Patrol, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, local police and sheriff’s offices to investigate the deaths of four women and the disappearances of two.
The six women all had several things in common. They had histories of heroin abuse and prostitution and frequented a part of town on Second and Bridge streets, notorious for both. They knew one another, family members said. They died or went missing from May 2014 to June 2015.
The death of Timberly D. Claytor’s, 38, was officially declared a homicide from gunshot wounds, and 26-year-old Tiffany Sayre’s death was ruled a homicide earlier this year, even as an autopsy noted a number of drugs in her body. Tameka Lynch, 30, died from an overdose, her autopsy said. Shasta Himelrick, 20, pregnant at death, was ruled a suicide.
The women’s bodies were found dumped in the surrounding forested area. Two of the women remain missing, Wanda Lemons and Charlotte Trego.
Lt. Michael Preston of the Ross County Sheriff Office, spokesman for the Missing Person’s Task Force, said a trial date has been set for July 11 for Jason McCrary, the man accused in the Claytor homicide.
The investigation remains active with the Southern Ohio Crime Stoppers offering a $5,000 reward for the arrest of a suspect or to anyone who knows the whereabouts of the two missing women, Trego and Lemons. The tip line 740-774-FIND(3463) and the email email@example.com are still active.
“Our community along with every community around us is facing a heroin problem,” Preston said. “The health commissioner has called it a heroin epidemic. We are not alone. It’s all over the country.”
Pill mills to heroin
Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader, a Democrat who has only been in office for a year and is running to hold on to his seat, has made cracking down on drugs an emphasis of his time in office.
Pike County’s history with drugs is a familiar tale across Appalachia. Prescription drug clinics, so-called “pill mills,” flooded the region several years ago with easy access to addictive drugs. DeWine and others responded with a slew of investigations, shutting down more than a dozen clinics in Pike and Scioto counties. But the addiction remained, and many turned to heroin.
This includes Jeremy Brickey, 35, of West Portsmouth.
“The pill mills all went and people couldn’t get what they needed,” he said.
Brickey said he has lost four close friends to heroin overdoses. His mom’s death in 2003 was so traumatic to him that he cleaned up.
“It’s not an environment where you want to raise your kids. I have a 15-year-old daughter and I’m scared to death,” he said.
He is a member of a support group called Solace: “Surviving our loss and living with it every day.”
He also works with a youth group called Legacy to help addicts.
“There needs to be more things for people to do except for partying and hanging out with the wrong crowd,” he said.
Reader has his supporters. Charles Leeth — known as “Chunk” to his friends — has a tall Reader campaign sign in his yard on U.S. 23 outside Piketon. “Stand with Pike County Sheriff Reader,” the sign says. “Focused on our future!”
“He’s a good guy,” Leeth said of Reader. “He’s trying, more than we ever had for a long time.”
‘A good family’
Interest in drug problems in Appalachia — especially in Pike County — spiked in the wake of the recent shootings. State and local investigators have made no arrests, and one of the few details they released about the crimes was that marijuana grow operations were found at three of the four crime scenes.
The Pike County prosecutor said there were hundreds of plants with a street value up to $500,000.
But none of the dead appear to have had any prior drug arrests, and those who knew them said they were known at church and weren’t well-heeled drug dealers.
They lived on a country road 10 miles west of Piketon, some in trailers. The seven miles between some of the homes is densely wooded hillside, cleared here and there for cattle grazing or lawns. Cellphones don’t work, and many roads aren’t paved.
“They were a good family,” said Sarah Smith, a close friend to Gary Rhoden who moved from Pike County to Clark County about two years ago. “All of us have one or two bad eggs in our family. That don’t make it right for a whole family to be massacred.”
Most residents of Pike County are private, hard-working people who like living in the country. A few do grow marijuana to supplement their income, Smith said, but they also gather ginseng and wild mushrooms.
“They do anything to live off the land,” he said.