SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah mental health counselor arrested alongside parenting advice blogger Ruby Franke pleaded guilty Wednesday to four counts of aggravated child abuse for physically and emotionally abusing Franke’s children.
Jodi Hildebrandt was the business partner of Franke, a Utah a mother of six who ran a once-popular YouTube channel called “8 Passengers” in which she documented her family life. The two worked together at Hildebrandt’s counseling company, ConneXions Classroom, offering parenting seminars, launching another YouTube channel and publishing content on their shared Instagram account, “Moms of Truth.”
Together, they doled out advice and promoted honest lifestyles, using their brand as parenting role models to conceal what was happening behind the scenes.
On Aug. 30, Franke’s 12-year-old son escaped through a window of Hildebrandt’s house in the southern Utah city of Ivins and asked a neighbor to call the police, according to a 911 call released by the St. George Police Department. The boy was thin, covered in wounds and had duct tape around his ankles and wrists. He told investigators that Hildebrandt put ropes on his limbs and used cayenne pepper and honey to dress his cuts, according to a search warrant.
Hildebrandt’s attorney, Douglas Terry, said his client pleaded guilty Wednesday instead of waiting until a later date because she did not want Franke’s children to have to testify.
“She takes responsibility, and it is her main concern at this point that these children can heal, both physically and emotionally,” Terry said.
The two women were arrested at Hildebrandt’s home and were each charged with six felony counts of aggravated child abuse. Hildebrandt pleaded guilty to four counts, and two counts were dismissed Wednesday as part of her plea deal. Franke also pleaded guilty to four of her six charges and not guilty to two at a Dec. 18 hearing. Each charge carries a prison sentence of one to 15 years, which could run consecutively.
Judge John J. Walton set a Feb. 20 sentencing date for both women after accepting the plea agreements. Franke and Hildebrandt have agreed to serve prison terms, and their sentences will be decided by the judge.
In Hildebrandt’s plea agreement, she admitted to knowingly inflicting and allowing another adult to inflict serious physical injuries upon two young children living at her home. The document reveals new details about how Hildebrandt physically forced or coerced Franke’s youngest daughter, who was 9 years old at the time, to jump into a cactus multiple times. Hildebrandt said she forced the girl to run barefoot on dirt roads for extended periods of time and kept her isolated from others.
She also admitted to helping Franke torture her youngest son. Both women have confessed to telling the two children that they were evil, possessed and needed to be punished to repent. The boy was told that everything being done to him was an act of love, according to the plea agreements.
Franke admitted earlier this month to forcing her son into hours of physical labor in the summer heat without much food or water, causing dehydration and blistering sunburns. He was kept in isolation without access to books or electronics. After he tried to run away in July, his hands and feet were regularly bound with ropes, and sometimes with handcuffs.
Franke admitted in her plea agreement to kicking her son while wearing boots, holding his head under water and closing off his mouth and nose with her hands. The boy and girl were taken to the hospital in August and were eventually placed in state custody along with two more of their siblings.
Before the arrest, the Franke family had faced criticism from viewers who questioned some of their parenting practices, such as locking their oldest son out of his bedroom for seven months and refusing to take lunch to a kindergartener who forgot it at home. Franke’s husband, Kevin Franke, has filed for divorce and has not been charged in the case.
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