‘I will not feed a demon’: YouTuber Ruby Franke’s child abuse case rooted in religious extremism

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The malnourished and badly bruised son of a parenting advice YouTuber politely asks a neighbor to take him to the nearest police station in newly released video from the day his mother and her business partner were arrested on child abuse charges in southern Utah.

The 12-year-old son of Ruby Franke, a mother of six who dispensed advice to millions via a popular YouTube channel, had escaped through a window and approached several nearby homes until someone answered the door, according to documents released Friday by the Washington County Attorney’s office.

Crime scene photos, body camera video and interrogation tapes were released a month after Franke and business partner Jodi Hildebrandt, a mental health counselor, were each sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. A police investigation determined religious extremism motivated the women to inflict horrific abuse on Franke’s children, Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke announced Friday.

“The women appeared to fully believe that the abuse they inflicted was necessary to teach the children how to properly repent for imagined ‘sins’ and to cast the evil spirits out of their bodies,” Clarke said.

Franke, 42, and Hildebrandt, 54, pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse that included convincing Franke’s two youngest children they were evil and subjecting them to manual labor, dayslong fasting and conditions Clarke has described as “concentration camp-like.”

The women, who have said they belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were arrested last August at Hildebrandt’s house in Ivins, a picturesque suburb of St. George, after her neighbor Danny Clarkson opened his door to find the emaciated boy. Their actions have been condemned by other Mormon parenting bloggers who say they misrepresented their community and the religion.

In the video, the boy is seen shoeless, walking away — wearing torn socks with his ankles wrapped in bloody duct tape and plastic wrap — but turns back when Clarkson answers the door. He and his wife, Debi, could be seen on their Ring camera feeding the child, calling 911 and asking him about the lacerations on his ankles and wrists, which the boy insisted were his fault.

“I got these wounds because of me,” the boy tells the couple as they share worried looks. He tells first responders his younger sister is still in Hildebrandt’s house, and police rush to the home.

The boy later told investigators that Hildebrandt had used rope to bind his arms and his feet to weights on the ground. She used a mixture of cayenne pepper and honey to dress his wounds, according to the police report. He had been told by Franke and Hildebrandt that everything being done to him was an act of love.

In handwritten journal entries also released Friday, Franke chronicles months of daily abuse that included starving her son and 9-year-old daughter, forcing them to work for hours in the summer heat and isolating them from the outside world. The women often made the kids sleep on hard floors and sometimes locked them in a concrete bunker in Hildebrandt’s basement.

Franke insists repeatedly in her journal that her son is possessed by the devil. In a July 2023 entry titled “Big day for evil,” she describes holding the boy’s head under water and closing off his mouth and nose with her hands. Franke tells him the devil will lie and say she is hurting him but that she is actually trying to save him.

She later justifies withholding food and water from her son, writing, “I will not feed a demon.”

Franke’s attorney, LaMar Winward, and Hildebrandt’s attorney, Douglas Terry, did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment on the new evidence.

Body camera video shows officers entering Hildebrandt’s house and detaining her on the couch while others scour the winding hallways in search of the young girl. They quickly discover a child with a buzzcut sitting cross-legged in a dark, empty closet. After hours of sitting with the girl and feeding her pizza, police coax her out.

Franke describes shaving the girl’s head several times for whining, and writes in her journal, “If she is going to act sick, she can look sick.”

Franke and her husband, Kevin Franke, launched “8 Passengers” on YouTube in 2015 and amassed a large following as they documented their experiences raising six children in a Mormon community in Springville. The couple also have a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old, as well as two adult children.

She later began working with Hildebrandt’s counseling company, ConneXions Classroom, offering parenting seminars, launching another YouTube channel and publishing content on their shared Instagram account, “Moms of Truth.”

Ruby Franke was already a divisive figure in the parent vlogging world. The Franke parents had been criticized online for banning their oldest son from his bedroom for seven months for pranking his brother. In other videos, Ruby Franke talked about refusing to take lunch to a kindergartener who forgot it at home.

The “8 Passengers” YouTube channel has since ended, and Kevin Franke filed for divorce shortly after his wife’s arrest. He appears stunned in interrogation footage when officers inform him of his son’s condition. He had not seen his wife or children since Franke asked him to move out in July 2022, investigators said.

Kevin Franke has filed several petitions in the months since his wife’s arrest in hopes of regaining custody of his four minor children, who were taken into state custody.

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