Before Aug. 30, Ruby Franke was best known as the incredibly strict mother behind “8 Passengers,” a popular family YouTube channel from Utah with over 2 million subscribers. Now, all eyes are on the controversial vlogger for another reason: six felony charges of aggravated child abuse, each of which carries a potential of 15 years in prison.
Franke and her business partner Jodi Hildebrandt, co-host of their podcast Connexions, were arrested in late August after Franke’s 12-year-old son went to neighbors, wounded, emaciated, and asking for help. According to police reports, the neighbors told emergency services that the boy had escaped from Hildebrandt’s house to ask for food and water, and appeared to have remnants of duct tape on his hands and ankle. After EMS brought him to the hospital, police searched Hildebrandt’s home and found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter, who also appeared to be emaciated, according to the Santa Clara-Ivins Police Department. Both Hildebrant and Franke were charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse, which accuse the two women of “physical injuries or torture, starvation or malnutrition that jeopardizes life, and causing severe emotional harm.” Representatives for Franke did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment, and Franke has not commented on the charges or entered an official plea since her arrest. Now, amid a wave of public interest in Franke’s case, experts tell Rolling Stone that intricacies in Utah law and the breadth of information involved means Franke’s case is anything but simple — and could take months or even years to resolve.
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As a family vlogger, Franke was often criticized online for specific and strict forms of punishment for her kids, like removing their doors and having them lose the privilege to eat certain meals, but she has always denied any allegations of abuse. However, following her arrest, “8 Passengers” viewers and true-crime TikTok users began combing through a backlog of Franke’s old videos, claiming they showed signs of abuse, causing a wave of misinformation in the process. But the focus on Franke’s case isn’t just from fans. In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone, Franke’s neighbors said they alerted both police and Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services “several times” over concern for Franke’s children, but nothing was done.
After similar news was reported by local news station KSL, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced that DCFS would hold a review to see if any mistakes were made in the case. “It’s one thing to disagree about parenting methods, which is some of the controversy, and I think it’s important to separate that from the allegations of this event, where a child was literally duct-taped to a chair, was malnourished, was emaciated,” Cox said during a September press conference. “I am concerned about making sure we’re doing enough to protect our kids. Like any others, when there’s a DCFS complaint, we review all of those to see what were the actual factors that were complained about, what was our role in that; is there anything that we could have done differently and do laws need to be changed?”
Family law experts Alison Satterlee and Virginia Sudbury, attorneys at LOVS practice in Utah, tell Rolling Stone that timing in cases like Franke’s can often stretch out for months after an initial arrest, and can get more complicated based on which court they appear in. Hearings about where Franke’s children will be placed and their immediate welfare will take place in juvenile court, which is usually sealed and behind closed doors, per Utah law. Hearings and the trial that determines the outcome of Franke’s felony charges will take place in criminal court. The length of the hearings could be further complicated by which plea Franke enters and how prosecutors approach the burden of proof, which could possibly include having Franke’s own children testify in criminal court, which would be public and accessible to the media. Judges in both criminal court and juvenile court are also required to coordinate with each other, which could also affect the timeline.
“It is not uncommon to have cases last years. And it’s not a person or an event or an attorney or a party’s fault. It’s because the more cooks you have in the kitchen, the longer it’s going to take to have resolutions,” Sudbury says.
“Part of the reason too is that, especially with criminal cases, you don’t want to make a misstep and then have that come down later down the pipe and you have to get a new trial,“ Satterlee adds. “That can cause a lot of problems. You want to make sure you do things right the first time, so things stick.”
Picking the correct jurors could become another factor in a slow trial, according to legal expert and professor RonNell Andersen Jones. She tells Rolling Stone that Franke’s case highlights the emerging phenomenon of social-media fame as a potential wrench in the works of a fair trial. According to Utah criminal procedure law, all felony cases are tried by jury unless otherwise requested, but since Franke’s case has become national news, her fame could complicate how and who is included in her trial.
“Judges are incredibly sensitive to this and have a lot of tools at their disposal to try to combat potential bias in a jury pool, including carefully questioning potential jurors and even, in more extreme cases, changing the timing or location of the trial,” Jones says. “We can expect the courts will be highly attuned to this problem in a case like this.”
Jones also notes that because so many hours of Franke’s parenting exist and are easily accessible online, it might also be difficult to separate out what the judge decides is admissible evidence versus what content is widely available. Although Franke’s YouTube channel was deleted earlier this year, a large majority of her videos are still accessible online and could possibly have already been seen by potential jurors. If a judge decides that the court can’t take into account the videos, or Franke’s actions in them, when deciding her case, the next step is making sure that jurors don’t have those videos in mind when deciding their verdict.
“The law has always had to figure out how to keep trials focused on only the admissible evidence, but in an era in which some people live huge swaths of their life on camera — including the portions that followers might think are related to their criminal charges — it’s a much more complicated task,” Jones says.
While all criminal cases are different, the one widely accepted fact is that Franke’s case will not be a quick one. Since her August arrest, Franke has been held without bail and has not entered a plea. Her last hearing was supposed to be scheduled for last week, but it was postponed after her lawyers said they needed additional time “to review copious amounts of discovery.” It will take place after Oct. 5, but no specific date has been scheduled.
“My client is incarcerated,” Franke’s attorney, LaMar Windward, told KSl. “And that looks like it’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.
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