Exclusive: Center City lawyer's suicide followed parents' violent deaths

This is the last known picture of John Wagner and his mother, Carolyn. It was taken on Christmas Eve 2012 at Carolyns home in Ocala, Fla. Carolyn, 64, was found shot to death six days later in the bedroom of her home. Her son, John, 32, later committed suicide at his Pine Street apartment and was named the only suspect in his mothers death.
This is the last known picture of John Wagner and his mother, Carolyn. It was taken on Christmas Eve 2012 at Carolyns home in Ocala, Fla. Carolyn, 64, was found shot to death six days later in the bedroom of her home. Her son, John, 32, later committed suicide at his Pine Street apartment and was named the only suspect in his mothers death.
Posted: March 05, 2013

JOHN Conrad Wagner didn't talk about his father's death.

The 32-year-old lawyer and Center City resident had heard his father's cries as he plunged from a cliff while they hiked alone in 2011 in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

But when his mother, Carolyn, would ask about that devastating day, he refused to talk about it, her best friend, Patsy Batsch, said.

"It did bother her. I think she did have questions," said Batsch. "She said when the time is right she was going to try and talk to him about it."

The time never came.

On Dec. 30, Carolyn Wagner, 64, was found fatally shot in her bed at her home in an upper-middle-class subdivision of Ocala, Fla. Her only son had visited for Christmas, and authorities say he was the last person to see her alive.

His final words to her, police said, were left on her voice mail, after he arrived back in Philadelphia: "Hey, Mom, it's a winter wonderland here."

As the Marion County, Fla., Sheriff's Office probed her death, the evidence led to just one suspect - her son.

In January, as authorities were homing in on him, John Conrad Wagner killed himself in his apartment on Pine Street near 18th, near Rittenhouse Square. He did not leave a note.

"We'll never know his motive," said Marion County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Sandlin. "What is our opinion? Financial. He had a lot of student loans that were outstanding."

'A very godly woman'

John's father, Roger, had worked as an accountant for the Navy, and when he retired in 1994, he moved his family from Indiana to Ocala, where he started a real-estate-appraisal business. He enjoyed photography, biking and hiking, which he'd often do with his son.

A devout Christian, Carolyn was a group leader for Bible Study Fellowship International and an active member of her church. She liked baking bread and watching "Jeopardy."

"She was just a wonderful woman, a very godly woman," Batsch said. "She was an example to everyone and an inspiration."

John Wagner attended Sunday school, youth groups and Christian schools. He went to Florida State University, then moved on to law school at Villanova. After graduation, he stayed in the Philadelphia area, but had trouble finding work. He took a job with a local temp agency for lawyers that would send him to pore over piles of documents for firms representing pharmaceutical companies.

"It was just a hundred attorneys going through boxes," recalled lawyer Simi Mayall, who worked with Wagner during 2007-08. "It was really boring."

Mayall said Wagner was well-liked. "He always had a smile on his face and was a really good-spirited person," she said.

Mayall said that she, Wagner and other colleagues socialized after work and that he was a "romantic-at-heart kind of guy."

"He didn't have a girlfriend, but I knew he wanted one," she said. "He always wanted a relationship, wanted a girlfriend and wanted to get married."

Batsch said that his mother wanted those things for him, too.

"Carolyn was hopeful that he would get married, settle down and get a permanent job," she said. "It's just that he had some student-loan debt that was heavy. It was taking up a lot of his salary. He just felt like he couldn't."

Roger Wagner had told a friend on several occasions that his son was "heavily in debt," court records show.

That friend, whom police interviewed after Carolyn's death, said Roger had told him that he and his wife had aided their son with finances in the past, but could no longer afford it, because Roger's business was struggling.

A 40-foot drop

In September 2011, Wagner, then 30, and his father, then 59, met in Seattle and traveled to Mount Rainier National Park. They had gone on father-son hiking trips since John was 14, Carolyn Wagner told her local newspaper, the Ocala Star-Banner, after her husband's death.

Kevin Bacher, spokesman for Mount Rainier, said that John had explained that he and his father were alone on a popular trail along the top of a steep canyon when his father slipped and fell while taking pictures.

"It's definitely a very dramatically beautiful spot but also a hazardous one if you were to misstep," Bacher said. "It would have been a 40-foot drop into a pretty fast-moving stream."

Because it was dark by the time authorities were alerted, rescuers could not begin recovery efforts until the next morning. Roger's body was found about 100 yards downstream from the 69-foot double waterfall over which he'd been swept.

Wagner told authorities that he had been standing on a nearby bridge and that he had not seen his father fall but heard him cry out. The death was ruled accidental.

Batsch said Roger's death was "very, very, very hard" for Carolyn.

"She was still grieving," Batsch said. "You just don't get over something like that quickly."

Carolyn's family believed that "John had never properly grieved for his father and characterized his reactions as being somewhat removed," according to court documents.

Most people just thought Wagner was holding everything inside, Batsch said. His refusal to talk about the incident bothered Carolyn, but still she "only spoke well of John," Batsch said.

A final Christmas

On Dec. 21, Wagner rented a car and drove to Florida to visit his mother for Christmas, the Marion sheriff's department's Sandlin said. This was unusual, he said, because Wagner would always fly home.

He arrived Dec. 22, and the two seemed to have a pleasant stay, one that included a visit from Batsch and her husband on Christmas Eve.

"The tree was up, and there were gifts under it," Batsch said. "It just seemed liked a normal Christmas."

Things seemed fine two days later, authorities said, when Carolyn's sister called her hours before Wagner was slated to leave for Philadelphia.

"She just called to cheer her up," Sandlin said. "[Carolyn] said John decided to stay, that he wasn't leaving until the next morning and that everything was great."

But three days later, after newspapers were piling up at Carolyn's house and her garage door had been open for days, neighbors Amin and Sally Khan grew worried.

"By the third day, we were like, 'Something is not right here,' " Amin Khan said. "That's when we found her body" in her bed.

"At first, we didn't know she had been shot. We just saw all the blood around her head and the pillows."

According to court documents, Carolyn's house was "extremely neat and tidy," and nothing was amiss, aside from the grisly scene in the bedroom.

Missing were her purse, her phone and her wedding rings.

"I just thought I was in a nightmare, just like when Roger went off the mountain," Batsch said. "It was a nightmare, and we're still in a nightmare."

After Carolyn's funeral, which Wagner attended, Batsch hosted a reception at her Ocala home.

"He looked visibly upset, and he was very withdrawn and in his own shell," she said.

Determining that Wagner was the last person to see his mother alive, Florida police asked him to go back and meet with detectives.

In interviews, Wagner denied using any credit cards on his trip to or from Florida to visit his mother, but police later discovered that he was lying, court documents said.

He also told Florida police that he never owned a gun, yet upon his return to Philadelphia, he reported to city police that his house had been burglarized and that a 9 mm Ruger handgun he owned had been stolen, Sandlin said.

That gun has never been found, but the shell casings at the scene of Carolyn's killing were consistent with bullets fired from a 9 mm Ruger, police said.

An unusual response

During a walk-through of his mother's house, Wagner "appeared void of any emotion," police said, and when detectives asked him what he thought the motive for his mother's murder was, "He immediately said it was random," Sandlin said.

While he was being interviewed by authorities in Florida in early January, detectives with the Marion County Sheriff's Office came to Philadelphia and executed a search warrant on his apartment.

Authorities seized his computer and found that he'd done searches for "who did the shooting" and information on guns, forensics and ballistics, Sandlin said.

After that, Wagner stopped cooperating with authorities. As police began to regard him as a suspect, Batsch said, so did many who knew him.

"No one wanted to think that he could do that, but everything pointed in that direction," she said.

With mounting evidence against Wagner, Sandlin said, the Marion County Sheriff's Office had probable cause to believe he had killed his mother.

"Ultimately, we would have arrested him for that," Sandlin said.

But when Florida authorities traveled to Philadelphia a second time and went with local police to conduct another search of Wagner's apartment on Jan. 31, they found he had killed himself with a gun he'd bought the day before, Sandlin said.

No one may ever know the full story behind Carolyn's death, but if Wagner did pull the trigger, police believe that his motive would have been outstanding student-loan debt, Sandlin said.

However, Carolyn did not have a life-insurance policy, according to police, and Batsch said she wasn't wealthy. All that Wagner would have received from her death would have been her assets and her bank accounts.

And what about Roger Wagner, who died under such unusual circumstances just 15 months earlier?

Mount Rainier National Park Chief Ranger Chuck Young said that case is closed, but he's been in touch with Florida officials "just to see what they've found."

"We're open to seeing what new information might have been found," he said.

In fact, the cases in all three violent deaths are closed. But those who knew the Wagner family may never reach closure.

"Law school isn't worth killing your mother over," said Khan. "Whatever the motive was, nobody will ever know, because only he knows what made him do it."


On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

Blog: PhillyConfidential.com

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