Sometimes bad things happen for no reason. Earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes. All of these things are natural phenomenon that often happen without warning and which result in catastrophic damage or loss of life.
These cataclysms in our lives come at us when we least expect them and sometimes when everything else seems to be going just right. Ernest and Heather were about to enter a new chapter of their life together, when one such disaster struck…
It was around 1:15 am when Deputy Dustin Smietana heard the call come in that a fire had broken out at 457 County Road 8. Dustin and his partner had been out on patrol and were only about two minutes away, so they were first to arrive on the scene. Two people, a man and a woman, were standing in their pajamas outside the blazing home.
As soon as the deputy and his partner arrived on the scene, they turned their body cams on, just in case. Frankly though, the only thing they were going to capture were the helpless faces of a couple who were watching everything they owned go up in smoke. And that wasn’t even the worst of it…
35-year-old Ernest Franklin was standing in his yard watching the double-wide trailer that was once his home burn to the ground, when Deputy Smietana came over to him and asked him a very important question. “Is there anyone else in the house?” he asked frantically. Ernest could only nod: someone else was indeed inside the burning trailer.
Ernest’s wife, 33-year-old Heather Franklin, who herself was pregnant, was weeping beside him. The deputy would soon learn that the couple’s adopted son, 16-year-old Jeffrey Franklin, was still inside the house. By the time the firefighters arrived and put out the blaze, it was too late: Jeffrey’s dead body was found inside the ruin…
Ernest and Heather had been happily married for six years and had lived in the small town of Guilford, New York most of their lives. For years, the happy couple had tried and tried to have a child of their own, but to no avail. Then, a few years earlier, they’d decided their best chance of building a family was to adopt.
A New Family
Seven years before the fire that claimed his life, Jeffrey Franklin was adopted by the childless couple. Jeffrey, also known as JR, was nine years old when they took him in, rather older than the Franklin’s had expected their first child to be. But there was a special reason that they had chosen the him…
Jeffrey was a special case. He was developmentally disabled, was deaf, and because of both was completely unable to speak. Despite all this though, the Franklins had fallen in love with him from the start. They needed a child and Jeffrey plainly needed a home and someone to love him. It was as if fate had put them in each other’s path.
Life was good for the Franklins and then finally, after years of waiting, Heather finally got pregnant. She was so thrilled that their little family was expanding that she shared the ultrasound pictures on her Facebook page with the caption:“Here is a pic of our little boy!! He was hiding from the camera much like his father does!” Not two months later though, tragedy would strike…
That March, the fire utterly destroyed the Franklin’s trailer and with it, poor JR, who was found dead in the back bedroom. To the Franklin’s, who had for so long prayed for a child, it felt as if God was giving them a baby but taking one away as payment. Over the next few days, Heather took to Facebook.
Heather Franklin was 23 weeks pregnant and took to Facebook to thank their family and friends for all the support they showed in their time of loss. “I know i have received a lot of messages and phone calls and appreciate them very much,” Yet there was something wrong with her message, a postscript that seemed very out of character…
“However I have not checked them,” Heather continued. “I am not trying to ignore anyone at this point just having a very hard time coping and keeping down ‘triggers’ as much as possible for my mental state and for the safety of our unborn child.” This was unlike Heather, but of course, pregnant people do very strange things sometimes.
Celebration of Life
At the same time, a GoFundMe page was created by the Franklins to help them with living expenses after the fire. More than $11,000 was reportedly raised, which was an excellent restart for the penniless family. After holding a “celebration of life” for Jeffrey, the Franklin’s grieving friends and family were given some rather shocking news…
The police had finished an autopsy on little Jeffrey’s body. They had presumed that the cause of death would be smoke inhalation or even severe burns, but instead they found that the fire hadn’t caused Jeffrey’s death at all. JR was dead even before the fire started and though they didn’t know how, it didn’t seem like an accident.
Tampering with Evidence
With no other suspects, police took the Franklins into custody and charged them with the second-degree murder of their adopted son. They also accused them of purposely setting fire to their home in order to cover up the evidence of the crime. Arson, evidence tampering, and murder were not light charges for two people who were about to be parents again…
The Franklin’s neighbors and friends couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “We’re all just really stunned,” says friend and neighbor Dominick Gildersleeve. “It’s completely and utterly surreal to me that this I am watching this unfold. We’re living a Forensic Files episode.” As if this weren’t shocking enough, the district attorney in charge of the case had an unusual theory as to why they committed such a terrible crime.
Manchester by the Sea
The DA’s theory is that the couple watched a movie called “Manchester by the Sea” on the night of February 28, 2017, and that this movie was what inspired them to concoct this terrible crime. In the film, the main character accidentally sets fire to his home and causes the death of a child. Then he’s told that you can’t be prosecuted for accidentally killing your children. It’s certainly a theory that gels with what may have happened…
But did the Franklins use that movie as a guideline to execute their crime or was JR’s death an accident after all? “It is important that the public realize that the theory being advanced by the DA is just that, a theory. One meant to sway the public opinion on this case long before Mr. or Mrs. Franklin are provided a fair trial.” explains the couple’s lawyer.
Not Guilty, Your Honor
Both Ernest and Heather pleaded “not guilty” and were sent to the Chenango County Jail without bail. Eventually though, Heather was offered bail and was released. She was living with friends during the pregnancy but is still awaiting trial. Recently, she gave birth to the couple’s first biological child. The moment was understandably bittersweet…
All of the donated money gathered by the Franklin’s GoFundMe page has since been refunded. In a statement, GoFundMe said: “It’s important to remember that the platform is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means that in the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors will get their money back. In this case, due to recent information released, GoFundMe will honor refunds to all donors.”
Waiting for a Verdict
Meanwhile, Ernest Franklin sits in the Chenango County Jail, awaiting his and his wife’s day in court. It’s also possible that Heather will be joining him there shortly as soon as she’s well enough. The child will remain with family until a determination of guilt is made. The case has yet to make it to trial, but all evidence points to something fishy on the part of two desperate parents. Whatever that desperation entails, remains to be seen.