ST. GEORGE — The second of two defendants charged with multiple counts of child abuse at a home in Ivins entered a plea in the case on Wednesday. The case stems after two severely malnourished children bound in duct tape were found in August.

The defaendant, Jodi Hildebrandt, 54, sits with Defense Attorney Douglas Terry and enters a plea during a waiver hearing held in 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, Dec. 27, 2023 | Court pool photo, St. George News

Jodi Ann Hildebrandt, 54, of Ivins, appeared for a preliminary waiver hearing at 5th District Court in St. George. She is the second of two defendants in the case. The state was represented by Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke and Prosecutor Ryan Shaum, and Hildebrandt was represented by defense attorney Douglas Terry.

During the hearing held before District Judge John J. Walton, Terry said his client would be waiving the preliminary hearing. He said she had signed a plea agreement, wherein she pleaded guilty to four second-degree felony counts of aggravated child abuse. The two remaining counts of the same charge were dismissed under the terms of the agreement.

Hildebrandt, founder of the now-deactivated YouTube channel ConneXions Classroom, along with her business partner and codefendant, Ruby Franke, a mother of six from Springville, were each charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse.

An emergency call about a malnourished boy at an Ivins residence asking for food and water started a search of Hildebrandt’s nearby residence, which revealed a second child who was also found in a malnourished state.

The incident 

On the morning of Aug. 30, St. George Communications Center received a report that an adolescent had climbed out of the window of an Ivins residence and run to a neighbor’s house, as previously reported by St. George News.

Responding officers described the 12-year-old boy as being in a “severe” state of malnourishment. Authorities also found open wounds and deep lacerations, reportedly caused by rope that was used to tie the child to the ground.

During the initial search, officers located what was described as a “panic room” underneath the garage of Hildebrandt’s home, according to 911 recordings captured at the time.

During a sweep of Hildebrandt’s residence, authorities found a second child in a similar malnourished state. Both children were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Franke, the children’s mother, who lived in the home with Hildebrandt and co-hosted the YouTube show, was reportedly seen in a video filmed in a downstairs room two days before the 911 call.

This led investigators to suspect the defendants were aware the children were being abused and neglected. Investigators say they later learned Franke used the ropes to keep the children tied to the ground. Once the children were bound, cayenne pepper and honey were applied to dress the wounds, the investigator noted.

Further details of the case were provided in a comprehensive summary that included additional background information relating to both defendants in a report published Sept. 21 by St. George News.

After the children were transported to the hospital, officers tracked down both women. When questioned, Hildebrandt  declined to speak with investigators, but once she was informed of the charges she told investigators that the children “should never be allowed around any other kids.”

Franke also declined to speak to officers and requested an attorney.

Prosecutors Ryan Shaum and Prosecutor Eric Clarke represent the state during a hearing in which Jodi Hildebrandt, 54, pleads guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse in 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, Dec. 27, 2023 | Court pool photo, St. George News

Facing multiple charges

The cases were filed and each defendant was charged with six second-degree felony counts of aggravated child abuse. Hildebrandt and Franke made initial appearances in 5th District Court via video on Sept. 8, where newly appointed District Judge Eric R. Gentry presided over the proceedings.

During the proceedings, the defense attorneys waived the reading of the charges and the judge ordered that both defendants remain in jail without bail.

The cases were then transferred to Walton, who was set to preside over future proceedings relating to the two cases.

A review hearing in both cases was originally scheduled to take place  Sept. 18 but was continued to allow the defense time to review the “copious amount of discovery,” which included evidence collected from cellphones, cameras and other communication devices belonging to both Hildebrandt and Franke.

Franke pleads out first

During Franke’s hearing held on Dec. 18, her attorney, Winward, said his client would be waiving the preliminary hearing and had signed a plea agreement, wherein she pleaded guilty to four second-degree felony counts of aggravated child abuse. The two remaining counts of the same charge were dismissed under the terms of the plea agreement.

Franke is scheduled to be back in court on Feb. 20 for sentencing.

The abuse of two children

Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke speaks outside of courthouse following hearing of defendant, Jodi Hildebrandt, 54, who enters a plea in 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, Dec. 27, 2023 | Court pool photo, St. George News

Additional details emerged in the defendant’s statement in support of the guilty plea that Hildebrandt signed prior to the hearing. The defendant admitted to forcing one of the children to “remain outside at all hours of the day and night for extended periods of time,” which resulted in “repeated and serious sunburns with blistered and sloughing skin.”

The child was also denied adequate water for several of the days he was required to remain in the summer heat, and was punished when he was caught “secretly” consuming water.

After a failed attempt to escape two months before the incident that led to both defendant’s being arrested, the boy’s hands and feet were regularly bound and he was tied to either an adult or to a set of weights, the court documents showed.

Hildebrandt also admitted to binding the child’s wrists and ankles with handcuffs, and at times the boy was placed on his stomach and ropes used to tie the two sets of handcuffs together, so that his arms and lower legs were suspended off of the ground — abuse that caused both muscle and tissue damage. 

Franke also signed a statement in support of the guilty plea, wherein she admitted to kicking one of the children while wearing boots and holding the boy’s head underwater, as well as placing her hand over the child’s mouth and nose to restrict breathing.

The defendant’s actions also caused severe emotional harm to the younger child as well, who was subjected to the same treatment as her brother, including isolation and being forced to remain outside without any food or water.

The child was also told repeatedly that she was evil and possessed, and that the punishments were necessary for her to be obedient and to repent, actions “that were done in order to help.” 

Moreover, both children were forced to work outside in the heat, as well as being forced to run barefoot on dirt roads for an extended period of time. The latter left the younger child with repeated injuries to her feet that were still apparent when the youngster was examined at the hospital.

The two statements also said the abuse escalated in May, approximately three months prior to the arrests.

Hildebrandt’s plea

Jodi Hildebrandt, 54, appears for a hearing and pleads guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse in 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, Dec. 27, 2023 | Court pool photo, St. George News

During Wednesday’s hearing, the judge asked the defendant for her plea to each of the four charges, to which Hildebrandt uttered “guilty” four times.

In just over four minutes, the hearing was over and Hildebrandt returned to a holding cell awaiting transport back to the jail.

Outside of the courthouse, Hildebrandt’s defense attorney, Terry, said that his client agreed to cooperate with the state early on. He added that Hildebrandt has taken responsibility by pleading guilty to the charges because she did not want the children to have to testify.

“It is her main concern at this point that these children can heal both physically and emotionally,” Terry said on behalf of his client.

While the defense stated that Hildebrandt was the first one to admit to the charges, the prosecutor said he was not aware of that intent.

Clarke went on to say the decision to enter into the plea agreement was based on several factors, but the primary reason was to spare the victims any further trauma of testifying. He said the state agreed to drop two of the charges, since facing six charges would have removed any incentive for the defendant to avoid trial.

When asked if the child abuse laws in Utah should be strengthened — the maximum sentence for aggravated child abuse carries a 1-15 year sentence, Clarke said, “I hope so,” adding that he has been working with legislatures to increase the penalties for such crimes.

The prosecutor declined to speak further on this particular case until after both defendants have been sentenced.

The judge ordered a presentence investigation be completed, which Walton said would take place after Franke’s hearing on Feb. 20 in St. George’s 5th District Court.

Both defendants have been held without bail since their arrests and remain in custody at the Purgatory Correctional Facility facility located in Hurricane.

This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.