No Safe Place: The Kidnapping of Opal Jo Jennings

When I was a child living in a small, rural Texas town, the rule was be home by dark. Summers were long and hot. We ran around with the other children in the area, fishing in the creek and playing in yards up until the fireflies came out. They were our cue to hightail it home and eat dinner. I remember the kidnapping of Etan Patz. In 1979, six-year-old Etan vanished while walking the short distance to his school bus stop. The news was shocking, but after all, he was in Manhattan, a world away from our tiny town. Still, parents watched us as we waited for the school bus in the mornings.

October 1, 1993, we were rocked again by the kidnapping of Polly Klaas, taken from her own home during a slumber party. I was a law student at the time and followed the case closely. It was a parent’s worst nightmare, but that was California for you and we all knew nothing like that could happen here. But we did start locking our doors.

Amber Hagerman was much closer to home. She was snatched off her bike in Arlington, Texas in 1996. By that time I was a prosecutor toying with the idea of parenthood. Amber may have been in Texas, but she was in Arlington which was turning into a large city and she was riding through a grocery store parking lot. Parents kept their kids closer to home after that. No more riding bikes away from the house.

March 26, 1999, six-year-old Opal Jo Jennings was playing next to her grandparents’ house with her two-year-old cousin Austin and a four year old friend, Spencer. She was wearing her pink Barbie shoes. Pictures show a child with sparkling blue eyes, thick, dark hair, freckles, and a ready grin. As the children played outside, a man drove up in what Spencer would remember as a “purpledy-black” car. The man had a pony tail, facial blemishes, and wore a red baseball cap. He said “hi” and got out of the car. Without warning, he grabbed up Opal, punched her hard in the chest, threw her in the car and drove off. Spencer ran inside and immediately told the family. An Amber alert was issued.

Opal was originally from Arkansas, but she and her mother had been living with her grandparents in Saginaw at the time. Saginaw is a small North Texas community, around 10 miles north of Fort Worth, best known for its Train and Grain Festival. Three railroads converged in the agricultural community. At the time of Opal’s disappearance, there were around 10,000 residents. Saginaw wasn’t anything like the big city. This sort of thing didn’t just happen in Saginaw. If there was a crime, well, it was surely just the proximity to Fort Worth. Saginaw was a safe place.

saginaw

16 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the search. Information flooded so the authorities began the daunting task of sorting through more than 2,500 tips. Volunteers were assembled to search the fields, but for months, there was nothing. Opal remained missing.

One of those many tips came from a Wise County probation officer. It was the break investigators had been praying for.

Richard “Ricky” Lee Franks was convicted in 1991 for molesting his brother’s 8-year-old daughter and had admitted sexually abusing another young female relative. Franks struggled with completing his seven year probation and it had to be extended. As part of the probation, he was evaluated for mental health. He was found to have a low IQ. The report by psychologist Darrell Horton classified Franks as “a pedophile with mild mental retardation.” He also wrote that Franks reported having sex with little girls on multiple occasions, but that sometimes he fantasized about his urges instead of acting on them.

Franks

On April 1, Franks’ probation officer noticed a change in him. This was Franks’ first meeting after the Opal Jo Jennings kidnapping. Franks showed up for the meeting with his ponytail cut off. His hair was now short. He was clean shaven. The probation officer remembered Franks previously wearing a red ball cap all the time. He never saw him with it again. He also knew that Franks drove a car similar to what was being described in the media. He called in a tip to the police line.

Weeks later, police got to that tip. When they arrived to meet with Franks, they noticed he drove a black Cougar, a glossy car that might be considered “purpledy-black” by a young child. They also learned that Franks’ brother had lived on the same street as Opal’s grandparents. Franks was familiar with the neighborhood. He had visited his brother not a hundred feet from the place Opal was taken. His brother moved in December 1998. It’s possible Franks had seen Opal and other children playing at the location.

A promising lead to be sure, but police didn’t have enough yet for an arrest warrant; However, Franks had a traffic warrant. Police picked him for that on August 17, 1999 around 8:30 pm. Instead of being taken to the police station, he was taken to the special crimes section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office where he was met by Danny McCormick, an investigator with TCCDA who told him he would like to talk about the disappearance of Opal Jo Jennings. Franks agreed with everything they asked. He agreed to his car being searched and he agreed to a polygraph. He also waived his 5th amendment rights and agreed to talk with the investigators.

McCormick waited for the polygraph examiner, Eric Holden to arrive. This wasn’t wasted time. Although he didn’t question Franks during this time, McCormick was building a report with him. Holden arrived around 10:30 pm and it was show time. Before administering a polygraph, the examiner must first determine if the subject is voluntarily agreeing and if they are capable of taking the polygraph. They cannot be medicated or intoxicated. They can’t be suffering under a severe mental defect. The polygraph examiner needs to set a base line by asking questions with known answers. They need to be briefed about the case so they can formulate a few simple questions. The phrasing of these questions is key. Polygraphs are subjective and can be fooled if the subject is a sociopath who is skilled at deception, but also if the question is poorly worded.

By 2:00 am, Holden was ready to start the test. Half an hour later, it was concluded. The tested indicated deception by Franks. Holden and McCormick informed Franks of this and asked him to explain his story in more detail. Franks started talking. He talked for two and a half hours until he said he was tired. At that time, not all interrogations were recorded. Holden showed Franks five pages of notes he had taken and Franks wrote on the pages that this was correct. McCormick then typed up Franks’ statement. He was read it aloud and then read it to himself. They went over the confession step by step. Once satisfied, Franks signed it.

Franks was taken before a judge. On the way, he began having second thoughts and told officials that “words were put in his mouth and he hadn’t done the things contained in the statement.” McCormick asked Franks if the things Franks had told him to put in the statement were true and Franks then admitted that they were. While waiting outside the magistrate’s room, Franks again began recanting his confession, then he recanted the recantation.

I’m going to include the entire confession and let you read it for yourself. Warning: It is graphic and disturbing.

On March 26, 1999, I went to Saginaw Texas to see my brother, [Danny], when I saw Opel [sic] Jennings and two other kids (a boy and a girl) playing in a field beside a house. This was about 4:00PM in the afternoon or a little later. I was driving a Ford Cougar, and was by myself. I went by Danny’s house, saw the girls and a boy outside playing in the field.   I stopped to talk to them and Opel [sic] said, “where are you going?” I was in the car and Opel [sic] was talking to me through the fence, she asked where I was going, and I told her that I was going to see if my brother was home so I could go visit with him. I told Opel [sic], “If he’s not there, I’m going home.” She said, “they might be at work,” and I then asked her how she was doing and she said she was doing good in school. She said that she was getting good grades. She came up to the car on the driver’s side, the driver’s door was open, she came up to the door, gave me a hug, and shook my hand. I asked her if she was passing and she said “I hope so.” I then told her that if she was doing good in school, then she would. I said, “I hope you pass.” The other kids wanted her to hurry up so she could play with them. I said, “you need to get back and finish playing what you‘all are playing.” They were playing some kind of ball.

She reached in the car, I thought she was going to try and grab me, I didn’t know what she was going to try to do, so I pushed her back and said, “what are you trying to do, I’m not the one to be doing it with.” I didn’t want to do nothing that would get me in trouble, she was just a kid.   I don’t see myself doing nothing like that. I was afraid she was going to make a pass at me or get me to take her somewhere. She was wanting me to take her to the store, she went around the front of the car to get in the passenger side. I was afraid she wanted me to take her to have sex with her or something. I took her to the store, she got in the passenger side, the other two kids were outside playing. I told her I was going to bring her back so she could finish playing with the other two kids. I took her to the convenience store a block from the house, I sat in the car, and she got something to drink.

She bought a coke, then she came back to the car, she said “thank you for bringing me up here,” but I said, “I won’t do it again.” Opel [sic] tried to move over toward me, I didn’t know what she tried to do. She tried to grab me between the legs, she grabbed my dick.   She wanted me to fuck her, I told her no. She said “fuck me.” She tried to take her pants off, I told her “no.” She asked me why and I said “because I don’t do that.” She asked me why and I said, “because you’re too young and I could get in trouble for it.”

“She unzipped my pants, took my dick out, she had it in her hand, she went down like she was going to go down on it.” I pushed her back, I put my dick back in my pants. She was sitting beside me, when she went to bend over I pushed her back. I said “I’m not going to have sex with someone younger than I am.” I told her that she needed to get out of the car, this happened on the way back from the store. I took her to her house, and left her off the same place where I talked to her at. I don’t know if she went in the house or not.   I just wanted to get away from her. When I dropped her off, she gave me a hug, and I left, the other two kids were in the field playing.

Clearly this confession is problematic in many ways that makes me believe this is indeed Franks version of events and not one someone told him to say. The conversation he recounts between himself and the six-year-old child, talking over her worries about passing classes is ridiculous. The language and sexual activities he ascribes to her are likewise ridiculous. They are the fantasies that could only be imagined by someone who considers children sexually available. In my career, I’ve ready many statements and listened to many recorded confessions of child predators and this statement is sadly typical. Pedophiles describe children in adult terms. They talk about how the child wanted it, how the child was the initiator and how they, the adult, are simply a victim of this child who preyed upon their desires. The confessions frequently aren’t so much a confession—notice Franks doesn’t actually admit doing anything wrong—as they are a justification for the perpetrator’s action. He feels the need to account for Opal being seen with him, for her being in his car, without admitting to doing bad.

Because Opal’s body hadn’t been found, Franks was charged with her kidnapping. Frank’s brother, Rodney, went to see Opal’s grandmother and apologize for his brother. As he tearfully told the newspapers, “If my brother done this, I wanted to come and be with this family.”

At trial, Franks’ attorneys pointed to the lack of forensic evidence. Their stumbling block was that explicit and ridiculous ‘confession.’ They argued it was false and made much of Franks’ low IQ. Prosecutors brought numerous witnesses to rebut this. They showed Franks had graduated high school, married, and successfully held several jobs. They called Franks’ previous employer to the stand to talk about how he worked at the fried chicken joint taking orders and making change without needing a calculator. At the time of the offense, he was working as a motorcycle mechanic. Prosecutors also called Holden, the polygrapher to the stand. Holden described how he offered Franks a false scenario to see if he would agree to anything. Holden said Franks angrily disputed that scenario, objecting that he hadn’t done those things at all and again describing what he said he had done.

In jail while awaiting trial, Franks apparently liked to talk. Two different jailers and an inmate all testified about conversations with Franks here he told them his story about taking Opal to the store and dropping her off.

Another prisoner testified that Franks told him that he drove past the crime scene with his wife after the abduction—just to see how close the house was—and he thought that was why police had targeted him. This same inmate also testified that Franks later said he had stalked Opal for a year and went over “to get satisfied” by which the inmate assumed Franks meant to have sex with the child. Franks said he had to “take care of her” when the child wouldn’t stop screaming. This last inmate received a plea deal in exchange for his testimony and I find his story not particularly credible. It doesn’t match the story he told everyone else.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Franks and sentenced him to life in prison.

December 30, 2003, horseback riders found a skull just 10 miles from where Opal was abducted. DNA testing confirmed it belonged to Opal Jo Jennings. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head. A new search was launched. Searchers found more bone fragments and the remains Opal’s pink Barbie sneakers. For family members it was both painful and a relief. They could finally lay her their child to rest.

opal_grave

I was a young mother when Opal was taken. By that time, we finally understood that there are monsters in the world, walking with us, driving down our streets. These monsters can look like our neighbors, like police officers, like doctors, like anyone really. We could lock our doors, keep our children close, teach them about strangers, but there was no such thing as a place they couldn’t be touched. My children were raised knowing there was no safe place in the world. I mourn the loss of those innocent lives that taught us this hard lesson.

Opal_park

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