Ruby Franke, Jodi Hildebrandt sentenced to prison in Utah child abuse case

The two were arrested in August after a couple of Franke’s children were found malnourished in Ivins, where Hildebrandt lived.

(Sheldon Demke | Pool) Ruby Franke appears during a sentencing hearing in St. George, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Utah parenting influencer Ruby Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, will each spend at least four years in prison on aggravated child abuse charges, a judge ruled Tuesday, nearly six months after the women were first arrested.

Franke and Hildebrandt were each initially charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse after police said Franke’s 12-year-old “emaciated” son escaped Hildebrandt’s Ivins home on Aug. 30 and asked a neighbor for help. Responding officers soon found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter also malnourished inside Hildebrandt’s home.

Both women pleaded guilty to four counts each of aggravated child abuse in December, with two of their original counts dropped as part of their plea agreements.

Franke and Hildebrandt were each sentenced Tuesday to one to 15 years prison for each of their four child abuse counts. Their sentences will run consecutively. That means the women could serve up to 30 years in prison, since Utah state code prohibits consecutive penalties to exceed 30 years.

Franke and Hildebrandt’s total prison time will be determined by the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, 5th District Judge John Walton said Tuesday.

[Read more: Ruby Franke, Jodi Hildebrandt’s full sentencing statements]

Franke’s plea agreement — which she entered into a little over a week before Hildebrandt — stipulated that Franke would not contest a prison sentence and that she would testify against Hildebrandt. In return, Franke’s plea agreement stated that the Washington County attorney’s office will “remain neutral” for future hearings before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said Tuesday “it could be argued” for Franke to receive a lesser sentence than Hildebrandt because of Franke’s cooperation with the state.

But he still acknowledged the severity of her crimes, describing the “concentration camp-like setting” he said Franke and Hildebrandt held two of Franke’s children in from May to August 2023.

“Had the older of the children not had the courage to run away and ask a neighbor to call the police, heaven only knows how much longer he could have survived in that situation,” Clarke said Tuesday.

Before sentencing Hildebrandt, the judge said the circumstances of the case were “largely” of Hildebrandt’s making. Hildebrandt had been a licensed clinical mental health counselor since at least 2003 before voluntarily surrendering her license after she was charged with child abuse.

“Adults with specialized training, in particular, are supposed to protect children. You didn’t do that in this case,” Walton said to Hildebrandt. “In this case, you terrorized children. ... What happened to these children, and your philosophy in dealing with them, frankly, seems detached from reality or any objective standard of decency, or even common sense.”

Plea deal details

(Sheldon Demke | Pool) Jodi Hildebrandt appears during a sentencing hearing in St. George, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Franke’s December plea agreement detailed the abuse prosecutors say her two youngest children suffered during the three months leading up to Franke and Hildebrandt’s arrests — including that Franke forced her son’s head underwater, cut off his oxygen by smothering him with her hands and kicked him while wearing boots.

The filing also states Franke’s youngest daughter was denied food and water, made to run barefoot on dirt roads repeatedly and was told she was “evil and possessed.”

[Read more: Ruby Franke case: A timeline of events]

Winward Law — the firm representing Franke — said in a statement that Hildebrandt took advantage of Franke and “systematically isolated” her from her family, which resulted in Franke “being subjected to a distorted sense of morality, shaped by Ms. Hildebrandt’s influence.”

“Initially, Ms. Franke believed that Jodi Hildebrandt had the insight to offer a path to continual improvement,” the statement reads. “Ms. Hildebrandt took advantage of this quest and twisted it into something heinous.”

Hildebrandt’s plea agreement contained details similar to those outlined in Franke’s agreement, stating that Hildebrandt “inflicted and allowed another adult to inflict” serious physical injuries upon the children. The agreement detailed the “physical torture” of Franke’s son through repeated physical labor, and stated both children were denied food and water and suffered “severe emotional harm.”

Hildebrandt’s plea agreement also detailed specific abuse perpetrated by her — including that she “physically forced or coerced” Franke’s daughter to jump into a cactus “multiple times.”

In a statement after Hildebrandt’s plea hearing, Hildebrandt’s defense attorney, Douglas Terry, told reporters outside the St. George courthouse that his client chose to plead guilty so Franke’s two children would not have to testify, and that she made the decision to plead guilty before Franke did.

“She takes responsibility,” Terry said, according to video posted by a KSL-TV reporter. “It is her main concern at this point that these children can heal — both physically and emotionally.”

Franke and Hildebrandt’s history

(Utah Fifth District Court) Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt make an appearance in Fifth District Court in St. George, Friday, Sept. 8., 2023.

Before their arrests, Hildebrandt and Franke ran an online self-improvement program together called ConneXions, based out of Ivins, where Hildebrandt’s home is located.

It’s unclear how the two met, but Hildebrandt first acquired her associate clinical mental health counselor license in May of 2003, according to the Utah Division of Professional Licensing. She became a licensed clinical mental health counselor in July 2005, records show.

In 2010, a teen living with Hildebrandt reported to authorities that Hildebrandt had been forcing them to sleep outside, had not enrolled them in school and acted like the teen was “evil.” The teen said their parents had sent them to live with Hildebrandt because Hildebrandt was the teen’s aunt and a licensed therapist, and because the parents had been having problems with the teen. Hildebrandt was not charged in connection with the teen’s allegations.

On Sept. 19, Hildebrandt voluntarily surrendered her counseling license in light of the felony child abuse charges filed against her. The move essentially limited her ability to practice in any way until the child abuse case was adjudicated and a disciplinary investigation is conducted.

The surrender was not considered a disciplinary action, and Hildebrandt was able to consult with an attorney before doing it, according to a stipulation and order regarding the surrender. The division has not issued a finding of unlawful conduct.

Franke’s husband, Kevin Franke, filed for divorce on Nov. 29. His formal petition for divorce was classified as private, according to court records, but a domestic relations injunction filed in the case that is publicly available states that neither of the parents can disparage or attempt to influence the children’s views of the other parent. Kevin Franke’s lawyer previously said the couple was separated for about a year before Ruby Franke’s August arrest.

Ruby Franke first became known as a parenting advice video-blogger after she launched a YouTube channel in 2015 called “8 Passengers.” The channel garnered more than 2 million subscribers at its height, and was named for Franke, her husband and their six children.

But the channel drew controversy for Franke’s parenting decisions — in a 2020 video, one of Franke’s sons said he was forced to sleep on a beanbag for months as punishment for his prank on a sibling. In another, Franke said she refused to bring food to her then-6-year-old daughter at school, who had forgotten to bring it that day.

The channel was deleted in 2022, the same year Kevin Franke said he and Ruby Franke separated, and the same year Ruby Franke appeared to begin working on ConneXions with Hildebrandt.

Before Hildebrandt surrendered her license in September, Division of Professional Licensing records stated that Hildebrandt had received “no disciplinary actions.”

Yet in 2012, she was put on probation for 18 months after she allegedly discussed a patient with his leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and at Brigham Young University without his permission, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. In those conversations, the patient said, Hildebrandt accused him of having serious problems, but never actually diagnosed him or spent enough time with him to do so.

The omission of that disciplinary action is likely because, according to Utah law, state websites with public access to professionals’ disciplinary records must remove a record after 10 years have passed, unless otherwise required by federal law. Professionals may also petition that a disciplinary record be removed once five years have passed since a final disciplinary order was issued, the statute says.