New video of Ruby Franke's son reveals details that led to arrest

A new "20/20" looks at the fall of the mommy vlogger.

BySamantha Wanderer ABCNews logo
Saturday, March 23, 2024
New video of Ruby Franke's son reveals details that led to arrest
A new "20/20" unravels unimaginable child abuse at the hands of Ruby Franke and her business partner, told through never-before-seen body camera video, recorded calls, and Ruby's own journal detailing the horrific abuse.

Mommy vlogger Ruby Franke holds a camera with one hand and places her other hand around her son. He grins ear-to-ear as she announces the multi-day celebration that she has planned for his 10th birthday.

In the video, posted to her popular "8 Passengers" YouTube channel in 2021, Franke says: "We're just going to be celebrating his birthday all week."

MORE: YouTube vlogger Ruby Franke sentenced in child abuse case

On August 30, 2023, a little more than two years after that video was posted, Franke's son arrives on the doorstep of a house in the picturesque Red Rock valley of Ivins, Utah. He is 250 miles away from his family home in Springville, Utah.

In newly released Ring camera footage, first obtained by ABC News, the boy's appearance is in stark contrast to that shown in the vlog. He is markedly thinner, without shoes, and is described by first responders as "stoic."

That camera video is just one piece of evidence that was released by the Washington County Attorney's office today. This comes 30 days after Franke and her former friend, therapist, and business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were each sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.

They had previously pleaded guilty to four felony counts of second-degree, aggravated child abuse in December 2023.

The victims are Franke's two youngest children, who ABC News is referring to by their initials: R, the 12-year-old boy who first escaped from Hildebrandt's sprawling 10,000-square-foot home in August, and E, a 9-year-old-girl who was found in the same home later that day.

There was no evidence found in this investigation that the two oldest children -- Shari, 21, and Chad, 19 -- or the middle two teenage daughters, were physically abused. Shari and Chad had already moved out of the family home, while the middle teens were still living in Springville at that family home.

Still, even in 2020, some of the viewers of the "8 Passengers" channel expressed concern for the Franke children's well-being. Most of the criticism targeting the parenting style that Ruby presented online.

A petition from May 2020 called for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to check on the children's wellbeing. It cited punishments that Ruby spoke about in her videos, including taking away bedroom privileges for her eldest son, Chad, and forcing him to sleep on a bean bag chair for months after he pulled a prank on a sibling. That petition garnered more than 18,000 signatures.

But authorities would later discover that Ruby Franke's and Hildebrandt's actions in the summer of 2023 went far beyond the bounds of strict parenting.

The newly released evidence includes never-before-seen body camera footage, interrogation tapes, crime scene photos and jail calls. It paints a picture of, as Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke describes it, "horrific abuse" perpetrated by both Hildebrandt and Ruby Franke.

Clarke said that the abuse resulted in "physical long-term effects" for R and was what one prosecutor called "one of the most severe emotional abuse cases" he had ever worked on.

This evidence explains how Hildebrandt entered the lives of the Franke family and details the abuse. Franke chronicles her and Hildebrandt's actions in a journal - a collection of unlined pages covered in neat handwriting. It's a manicured, day-by-day account detailing how the women isolated E and R from the outside world, stripped them of food, water, and shelter, and physically and emotionally abused them.

MORE: Video shows police swarming Ruby Franke's home on day of arrest

Franke describes in her journal a 2023 birthday for R that was very different than the one in her sunny vlog from 2021.

In July 2023, Franke writes, "It's [R's] birthday & he doesn't even know what month it is." She continues on a later page: "I told R[] that he needs God. I invited him to fast & pray."

Deputy Washington County Attorney Zachary Weiland told "20/20" that on R's birthday, the boy woke up and was immediately made to stand on the back patio.

"Now, mind you, this is Ivins, Utah," Weiland said. "It was extremely hot, and he stood on that back porch all day." R's birthday came about two months after Franke brought R and E to Hildebrandt's home, in May of that year. Washington County attorneys believe that this was when the abuse began.

In an all-new "20/20," airing March 22 and streaming the next day on Hulu, ABC News' Juju Chang tells the story of this prolonged emotional and physical abuse, providing the first in-depth coverage of this story since the news first broke.

In Chang's report, first responders and prosecutors explain the evidence and share their first-hand accounts from last summer and the months that followed. The consensus among them: R is the hero of this story, and his and E's path to freedom began when he rang that neighbor's doorbell.

But the neighbor's Ring camera video reveals R did not think he was about to be free. In fact, he expected to be taken to jail.

When the elderly homeowner opens his door, R asks him for a favor: "Can you lead me to the nearest police station?"

Investigators told "20/20" they believe that R asked this not so he could receive help, but rather so he could complete the repentance process that his mother and Hildebrandt told him was required to absolve his sins.

"They told these kids that you have to repent first and then you're going to jail," Weiland said.

Clarke told Chang that both E and R were convinced "that they had done atrocious acts."

In her journal, Franke describes the children as "possessed" and refers to the abuse that she and Hildebrandt inflicted on them as their chance at repentance.

Investigators say that R attempted to escape for the first time in July. Before leaving the property, though, Franke writes in her journal that he took the time to spell out in small pebbles: "Jail. I will call when I get there." Forced to sleep outdoors, he'd left the message next to the spot where he had been sleeping on the concrete.

Weiland said this action shows that R was both convinced he needed to be locked up and that whatever he would experience in jail would be better than the conditions at Hildebrandt's home. Video shows the neighbor who met R after his second escape dialing 911 to get help, as his wife steps in to bring R water and a snack.

This is when he describes R's condition for the first time: "He has duct tape around each ankle, there's sores around them." His voice breaks with emotion as he continues, "This kid has obviously been - I think he's been, he's been detained. He's obviously covered in wounds."

Body camera footage captures the moment EMTs arrive at the scene and make their initial assessment of R.

"That first look at him," Maddee Ickes, an EMT with Santa Clara-Ivins Fire and Rescue, said, "it just hit that there was something wrong."

R is taken to the ambulance for treatment, and body camera footage shows him on a gurney. He's wearing a blue button-down shirt that hangs off his body and a baggie of pretzels sits at his side.

Evidence photos taken by officers that day show the severe open wounds on R's wrists and ankles that were underneath the duct tape. Clarke said the wounds had been dressed in a honey, cayenne pepper mixture.

Santa Clara-Ivins Police Officer Simon Pikyavit said that, upon questioning, R told him that his mom and Hildebrandt had "bound his arms and his feet to weights on the ground" that restricted his movement.

Officers later learned that R also had been handcuffed at his wrists and ankles before the duct-tape had been applied.

While R is being treated, he tells officers that two of his siblings are still in Hildebrandt's home. A group of officers, including Pikyavit and Sgt. Nick Tobler, quickly drive down the block to Hildebrandt's home.

Body camera footage captures the moment that Hildebrandt finally swings open her large, wooden front door. She is dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt and holding a phone up to her ear. Her first words to police are, "I have my attorney on the phone."

Hildebrandt's demeanor in that video is vastly different than her calm, polished online persona. She is the founder of the defunct online life coaching business ConneXions. The company posted publicly accessible videos to social media and offered other resources like mental health workbooks behind a paywall.

Hildebrandt and Franke are seen together in dozens of ConneXions videos, most notably in a series called "Moms of Truth with Jodi & Ruby."

In these videos, Hildebrandt and Franke sit side by side on a couch discussing topics like parenting and offering self-help tips.

The women continued posting content up until August 16, 2023. Two weeks later, on the day of R's escape, Hildebrandt is physically removed from that home.

Officers enter without a warrant, citing exigent circumstances based on the tip from R that his siblings were still inside the home. They quickly make their way through a maze of multiple bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways.

Minutes later, they discover a child with a buzzcut sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor of an empty closet.

"We at first thought it might've been a little boy sitting there," Tobler told Juju Chang, "just staring up at us."

The child would not say who they were or how they ended up in Hildebrandt's closet. Hoping R could help identify the child, Tobler called his colleague, Detective Jessica Bate, who was still with R.

"I began asking R, 'Hey, do you have a little brother?'" Bate told Juju Chang. "He said, 'No, I have a younger sister there."

That was when officers realized: the child in the closet was R's sister E - the spunky, youngest Franke child who was known by fans for speaking her mind in the "8 Passengers" videos. But the child that is seen on body camera footage is quiet and reserved. Officers told ABC News that she seemed scared and was initially unwilling to leave her spot on the floor.

Body camera footage shows first responders taking turns, each one trying to entice her to get up. Only these words from Tobler catch her attention: "I bet you like pizza." E nods her head.

E is timid to eat at first, but eventually she eats an entire personal pizza and half of a large one. Finally, after 4 hours, she leaves the closet with the EMTs.

"The abuse that E had received, a lot of it was emotional, and it was very hard to even talk with E at first," Weiland told ABC News.

While E is being taken to the hospital, Ruby Franke finally arrives at the home. For hours, Hildebrandt and Franke sit, waiting in separate rooms as officers finish their search. Detectives find handcuffs, ropes, and Franke's journal in the home, but they do not find Franke's other two minor children - who at this point are still unaccounted for.

Police eventually located the two girls, unharmed, four hours from Ivins, in American Fork, Utah. They're found with Pam Bodtcher, the president of ConneXions.

Bodtcher has not been charged with any crimes connected to this case and Springville Police say she fully cooperated with their investigation.

While Hildebrandt and Franke wait for officers to finish their search back in Ivins, officers told ABC News that neither woman asked about the safety of the children. Bate eventually determines her team has collected enough evidence; she places both Franke and Hildebrandt under arrest and they are driven to the police station.

But hours earlier, someone else had arrived at that station, asking about the children.

"The same day that we placed Ruby Franke and Jodi under arrest, Kevin Franke also came to the police department looking for his kids," Bate said.

And at the time, Franke's estranged husband Kevin was considered a suspect. Striking interrogation footage captures the moment officers tell him about R's condition, saying he was emaciated and "skinny, scrawny."

"I'm sorry, what?" Kevin Franke asks, seemingly stunned.

Investigators learn that Kevin Franke had moved out of the family home and had not seen his wife or children in over a year. He says that under Hildebrandt's guidance, Ruby Franke had asked him to move out in July 2022.

Investigators quickly determined that Kevin Franke was not a suspect in this case.

"He was off the hook pretty quickly, because there just wasn't any evidence," Clarke said. "We had a journal saying everything that had happened in the [Hildebrandt] home over the summer, and it never said he was in the home."

Nearly seven months later, Kevin Franke is seeking to regain custody of his four minor children, and he's filed for divorce.

"20/20" has learned that R and E have been placed in foster care together and Bate told Juju Chang that they are doing much better. Bate said, "They've put on weight, they look healthy, they're happy, they're back to their hobbies."

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