August 1999
By Elinor Burkett
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark

After the system failed to keep Mary Franks's granddaughter away from the man who molested her, she took matters into her own hands. But for delivering her biblical punishment, she, too, became a convicted sex offender.

The menacing emptiness of a downtown at the end of a workday pervades Columbus, Ohio, as Mary Franks alights from her car and hurries across Gay Street, her lavender slacks and flowered blouse leaving a blur of color against the aging office buildings. The bleak urban landscape is somewhat alien territory for Mary, who lives with her husband Rick and their two teenage children on a farm road in semirural central Ohio. The front walk of their modest home is adorned with a sign reading BUNNY CROSSING, and a giant concrete rabbit greets visitors on the front stoop. Inside, soft-sculpture bunnies with long floppy ears, carved wooden bunnies, bunny candles, and bunny blankets decorate a meticulously tidy living room regularly overflowing with the children’s friends.

Let God be the judge: Mary Franks and her all-girl posse violated her son-in-law with a cucumber.

Mary, who is forty-six, is a Rosie O’Donnell type –sensible, sturdy, irreverent. She spends her weekdays trading quips with customers at the Subway sandwich shop she manages, and the occasional Saturday night out on the town with her sister-in-law Vickie Coulter, the family partier. But come Sunday, at eleven o’clock, she's in a pew at the Church of God, raising her voice with the fevered passion of a true Pentecostal.

As Mary rushes through Columbus on this May evening, she is too worried about how the instructor of her class will react to her homework to dwell on the homeless man sprawled across the threshold of an adjoining building, or the bums hitting up stragglers for cigarettes. In March, her assignment had been to complete a questionnaire confessing her sexual offenses: Had she ever rubbed her genitals against an unsuspecting stranger in a crowd? Did she have a shoe fetish? Had she had intercourse with the deceased? The questions were humiliating but easy. No, no, and no, Mary checked as she read down the list.

This week's work, however, wasn't a multiple-choice test. Pretend you are an incest offender, her teacher asked, and write an essay about how you would plan a new offense: how you would select your victim, arrange the encounter, then cover up your actions. Unable to imagine having sex with her brother, a cousin, or a nephew, Mary protested the homework, unsuccessfully. After all, this wasn't high school, where she might blow off an assignment and live with a lower grade. This was rehab school for convicted sex offenders.

It was just after four o'clock on a steamy July afternoon in 1997 when Mary Franks turned her purple Chevy Blazer onto North Street in Delaware, Ohio, a small town just up the road from Columbus. With one eye on number thirty-seven, a frame house that needed paint even a decade ago, she pulled cautiously to the curb. "Ready?" she asked her all-girl posse, which included her then fifteen-year-old daughter Jessie, a neighbor, her sister-in-law Vickie, and her oldest child, twenty-seven-year-old Julie. Anxious and giddy, the women nodded their assent. "Then let's do it," Mary said.

The group stole up to the back of the house and peered through the window. Rodney Hosler, Julie's husband, was just as they had pictured him: slouched in a stained chair in the living room, knocking back a Ballantine and watching cartoons. They slipped in nervously, sure Rodney would sense something was awry. But when Julie flashed a half-smile and flung her 190 pounds onto his lap, practically drowning the slight young man in flesh, he leaned over to give her a coy nip on the neck. Julie planted herself on top of him, pinning him down, while Mary and Vickie began tying him up with speaker wire. As Rodney twisted and struggled, still unsure of the game, his sweat-coated limbs slithered out from the wire. Mary and her crew were ready; lashing his ankles and wrists together with silver duct tape.

They then proceeded with the punishment they had scripted as their own take on Old Testament justice. Vickie, one of those women who styles all her friends' hair, pulled her best cutting shears from her purse, snipped off Rodney's sweatpants and jockey shorts, then turned to the long locks that were his vanity. Mary clipped off his pubic hair, with Rodney begging for mercy. "Stop whining," Mary snapped. Vickie turned on her electric shears and carved a random pattern into the stubble left on his head, while Mary ripped open a packet of Icy Hot she'd been using to relieve a bad back and squeezed it onto his genitals.

"Pervert," the women screamed above Rodney's wails. Then, months of pent-up fury and frustration suddenly found their outlet as Mary greased a cucumber and, with Julie's help, shoved it repeatedly into Rodney's anus, yelling, like a mantra, "This is for Leah. This is for Leah."

Two hours later, Mary and Julie were driving along Interstate 75, headed for home. After dropping Vickie at a bar in Delaware, they'd taken Rodney, naked and trussed, seventy miles across the Ohio countryside to his mother's hometown of McComb in Hancock County. There, they'd dumped him in an alley, swaddled in a Minnie Mouse blanket, CHILD MOLESTER scrawled across his chest and legs.

Suddenly, a police car pulled up behind them, lights flashing. Calm down, Mary told herself, you knew this might happen. "I was prepared to pay the penalty if what I did would keep Leah safe," she says, though she was expecting a fine or a few weeks in jail. Instead, at the Hancock County Sheriff's Office, a grimfaced guard informed her that she was being charged with two counts of kidnapping and one count of rape. (Her younger daughter and neighbor left during the cucumber incident and were not charged with any crime.) Even in her shock, Mary couldn't help but notice the irony of her situation. Rodney had been jailed in this same building. He had molested her five-year-old granddaughter and spent sixteen months in prison. She was now facing decades behind bars.

Several nights after Mary's release from jail on $50,000 bond, her pastor and his wife came to dinner at the Frankses' home. Mary was unsure how her friends and neighbors, and especially her minister, would react to her crime. As she carried lasagna and a salad from the kitchen to an almost silent dining mom, her pastor stared impassively at the overflowing bowl of lettuce and tomatoes and deadpanned, "Have you given up cucumbers?"

His support was mild compared to the "Amen, Sisters" that greeted Mary in Delaware and beyond. "I couldn't help but wonder that, all things considered, the cucumber victim was lucky Grandma didn't do the job right and use the 'Bobbitt method' of justice," Sally Long wrote to The Columbus Dispatch. "I want you to know that you are my heroes," read a letter sent to Mary by Georgia Maddux-Jacobs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A local silk-screener printed up cucumber T-shirts, and a grocery store near Mary's house set out a platter of sliced cucumbers in her honor.

That the public rallied behind the "Cucumber Three" is hardly surprising; vigilantes provoked to violence by the abuses and injustices that nag at us all strike a deep chord in the American psyche. Children grow up treating Robin Hood as a folk hero, a defender of the poor rather than a thief. Audiences cheer and scream in delight when Charles Bronson, playing a mild-mannered architect in Death Wish, transmogrifies into a one-man army, gunning down every low-life who crosses his path, after his daughter is raped and his wife murdered by intruders. If anything, female vigilantes may elicit even more sympathy, reflecting the widespread acceptance of the "burning bed syndrome," which excuses violence by battered women perceived to have been otherwise helpless to defend themselves. When Lorena Bobbitt recounted the beastly treatment that allegedly drove her to cut off her husband's penis, she was received with compassion-even glory-although it's inconceivable that a battered man would have been similarly feted had he, say, severed his wife's breast.

Undoubtedly encouraging the popular embrace of Mary was the fact that she had gone after the man who sodomized her granddaughter. No group of people is despised with less guilt than child molesters, and no crime tests the limits of our social restraint more than child sexual abuse. Even law-abiding parents talk tough about murdering or castrating anyone who dares touch their kids-although when push comes to shove, few follow Mary Franks across the line into vigilantism.

That so many of his fellow citizens considered Mary's crime justifiable assault infuriated the Delaware County prosecutor to whom her case fell. Almost two years after her trial, W. Duncan Whitney remains livid that a woman who assaulted a man with a vegetable was elevated to mythic status as an avenging angel. "There's a vacuum of knowledge about child sexual abuse that allows the rednecks to think that the kind of thing Mary Franks did will control it," he says. "We needed to send a clear message vigilante justice won't be tolerated. If Mary Franks had a problem, she needed to turn to the system to deal with it."

From Mary's perspective, however, the system had already failed her grandchild. She says she wasn't simply seeking revenge when she attacked her son-in-law; she was making a last-ditch effort to protect Leah and her younger granddaughter, Tiffany.

0ne evening in August 1994, Julie had gone to bed early, leaving Rodney, then her boyfriend, alone in the living room with five-year-old Leah, the daughter she'd had with another man. Drinking for hours, Rodney had downed a dozen or more beers by the time he switched on a sexy movie and curled up on the couch with Leah.

As the scenes on the screen grew hotter, Rodney asked Leah to touch him, but she quickly withdrew her hands from his exposed penis, leaving Rodney more frustrated still. He tried masturbating in the bathroom but proved too drunk for it and instead returned to the couch, performed oral sex on Leah, then promptly fell asleep. He hadn't known what he was doing, Rodney insisted in a confession he penned to the police a month later. Excited by the movie and stupefied by alcohol, he said he'd confused the 35-pound child for his 190-pound girlfriend.

With such a damning confession in its hands, Mary believed the justice system would keep Rodney behind bars, or at least away from Leah. That didn't happen. He was indicted for rape and released on his own recognizance in mid-October; while awaiting trial, he begged Julie to let him come home, and she did-despite a court order barring Rodney from contact with Leah.

Mary was horrified but, sadly, not entirely surprised. Her eldest child had spent years drinking, brawling, and migrating from one disastrous relationship to another. "We always knew something wasn't quite right about Julie," says Rick Franks, who is Mary's second husband and not Julie's biological father. "She just never seemed to have any judgment." The contrast with Mary and Rick's children is stark: Jessie and Justin, who's now in college, are honor students and award-winning athletes.

When Julie took Rodney back, Mary, frightened for Leah, called the police. Not long after, a couple of cops appeared at Julie's door, but she lied, insisting Rodney was not around. Then, rather than leave her lover homeless or jeopardize his standing with the law, Julie took Leah and moved into a homeless shelter. That same dance continued, with Rodney moving back in and Mary calling the police, for nearly a year before Rodney was sentenced to twenty-four months in jail in September 1995, after pleading guilty to a lesser crime of gross sexual imposition. During that time, too, Julie, pregnant with Rodney's child, had married him, telling friends that theirs would be the ideal family-once, that is, her new husband served his time.

Mary again assumed that the state would intervene. "I never imagined they would allow a rapist to move in with his victim when he got out of jail," she says. But when Rodney was released from North Central Correctional Institution in January 1997, he set up housekeeping with Julie, Leah, and the new baby, Tiffany. State child-welfare officials say that in such cases they usually arrange to supervise incestuous fathers' or stepfathers' return to the home, but Rodney managed to slip off their radar: He was released without parole and moved to a new county, where authorities knew nothing of his history with Leah.

At this point, Mary followed the only course that still seemed open to her: She invited Rodney to attend church with her and led him up to the altar to be blessed by her pastor.

Julie and Rodney spent their days drinking and fighting, separating and reconciling, pulling the children along on their roller coaster. Mary spent her nights praying that Rodney had changed and beseeching God to protect her granddaughters. "But one day I stopped by the house and found Rodney, drunk, lying in the bed with Tiffany," Mary recalls. Then Jessie, a sophomore in high school at the time, told her Rodney had tried to force himself on one of her friends and was aggressively wooing the babysitter-charges Rodney, who could not be located for comment, denied in the punishment phase of Mary's trial. (He also testified that he hadn't been drunk when Mary found him "taking a nap" with Tiffany, only hung over.)

Julie's behavior wasn't exactly reassuring, either. After her battles with Rodney, she would move in with Mary for days at a time, leaving Tiffany alone with her father. Later, when the baby started having unexplained seizures, Julie refused to stay with her, saying she couldn't cope with the sight of the infant's contorted body. "Leah was so great, so grown up, she'd sit there and watch Tiffany for me," she says now, clearly proud of her daughter and just as clearly unaware of the poor judgment she showed in leaving a little girl in charge of a seizing baby.

Mary wasn't the only person worried about Leah. Her elementary school teachers called the Delaware County child welfare office two times to report their suspicion that the seven-year-old was being molested. Caseworkers interviewed Leah at school, but when she denied any problem, the agency dismissed the reports without putting the family under supervision, even though by that time they knew Rodney had molested Leah previously.

Then, during yet another fight, Julie locked herself in the bathroom, slit her wrists, and swallowed a handful of pills. Rodney tore up the house, smashing dishes and glasses, and stormed out to a bar. Tiffany, age two, was left playing with glass, and when she wound up at the hospital with sliced palms, the Delaware County child protection office was again contacted.

The next day, Lori Powers, an agency social worker, called Mary looking for Julie, and Mary exploded, "How can you let Tiffany and Leah live with Rodney after he raped Leah?" She then told Powers about a redness she'd noticed around Tiffany's vagina and her growing concerns that both children might have become Rodney's prey. Powers, who was new to the case, seemed stunned, Mary says. (The child welfare agency will not talk about pending matters, but Powers offered a similar account of that conversation in court; she also said she was overseeing ninety children at the time, about four times more than she should have been, according to government standards.)

The social worker ultimately offered Julie the type of deal many women married to sex abusers face: Get Rodney out of the house, and you can keep your kids. Julie said she couldn't face life without Rodney. "I just couldn't tell him to leave," Julie says. "I was a pathetic soul. I paralyzed myself with denial. I always do that." Her tone is, as usual, utterly flat and emotionless.

Powers got an emergency order granting Mary temporary custody of both kids but cautioned the grandmother that the situation was temporary. The agency was bound to the philosophy of family reunification, she said, witch meant reuniting Julie, at least, with her children, and Rodney as well if he would follow a counseling plan. Mary was frantic. "I knew they would be in danger living with Julie because even when she threw Rodney out, she always took him back. How could they even consider family reunification?"

Few questions are more hotly debated among child welfare professionals than the one Mary poses, and public policy in this area has swung back and forth for almost forty years, with one camp insisting that permanently severing a child's relationship to a mother or father can be as harmful as abuse, and the other arguing that victims of incest should virtually never live with the molesting parent, no matter the extenuating circumstances or the offender's commitment to change. "It's been difficult because people have strong beliefs about families and strong beliefs about abusers," says Gail Ryan, who directs the Perpetration Prevention Program at the Kempe Children's Center in Denver. "For a while, in most places, reunification was the mandate. That rigid position is being modified. People are beginning to admit that there are some families where that shouldn't be the goal."

But when Mary ran into the child abuse and neglect system in Ohio, the state was at the "far extreme" of trying to put families back together, according to W. Duncan Whitney, who wears two hats: one as a Delaware County prosecutor, the other as the attorney for the child welfare agency. And Powers testified in court that state law required her to make reunification her first priority (though legislation that went into effect in 1998 deemphasized that approach).

But she never got that far. The first night Leah and Tiffany were staying with their grandmother, Leah woke up howling from a night terror. The terrors continued, Mary says, until Leah haltingly told her Rodney had been tucking her in at night and demanding to stick his tongue in her mouth as a reward, then adjusting her curtains and expecting more slobbery kisses.

"I just lost it," says Mary, sitting at her dining room table, her round face framed by a girlish hairdo, her lively eyes turned to steel. When Powers visited the Frankses' home, Mary says she recounted her conversation with Leah, hoping it would turn the social worker against returning the girls to Julie. Powers testified in court that she has no record of that conversation, but Mary insists that it ended with the same firm message: Our goal remains to reunite Julie with her children.

After going to church to pray for guidance, Mary confronted Rodney and, when he accused Leah of lying, she went ballistic, slapping him around. Mary then honed in on Julie, who alone had the power to safeguard her kids. Julie was a bottomless pit of excuses: Rodney just got a new job, he doesn't have a driver's license, I love him. But Mary finally wore her down. A week after Mary had roughed up her son-in-law, Julie called her mother from work. "When I get off, I'm going to drive Rodney to his mother's," she promised.

Mary knew she'd been given her chance, and that she couldn't blow it. "Why don't I go with you?" she suggested, hoping to stiffen Julie's spine. "Maybe we need to teach Rodney a lesson." Her son-in-law was the first person with whom she'd ever gotten violent, Mary says, but she was convinced he had to be sent a strong message, so that no matter how weak Julie's resolve, he'd never get near her again.

In the months after Mary sent that message to Rodney, Whitney turned the tables, sending a message of his own to, and through, her: zero tolerance for vigilantism. "If every [crime] victim's family took retribution, my God, we would have anarchy," he told anyone who would listen. Ultimately, Julie and Vickie pled guilty to attempted rape and kidnapping in exchange for two-year prison sentences. Mary held firm, although she had become the main target of Whitney's wrath, which seemed a mixture of suspicion that she lacked sufficient remorse and outrage at the boldness of "redneck" women. Whitney's almost vindictive attitude toward Mary suggests another current running through this case: A group of women had had the audacity to use sex as punishment, which is more than an affront to the law, says Susan Brownmiller, author of the first feminist analysis of rape, Against Our Will. "It is a threat to male power. [Men] can't bear it when there's a role reversal." Practically, Whitney might have had another reason for being incensed at Mary: The child welfare agency, his employer, had been publicly embarrassed by Mary's revelations about its inaction in Leah's case.

Mary, meanwhile, believed that a jury of her peers-hearing the details of Rodney's continued inappropriate behavior with Leah, of Julie's seeming inability to stay away from him, and of her own dogged but futile attempts to get the child welfare agency's attention-would understand why she'd gone to such brutish lengths to keep her grandchildren from harm. But, at Whitney's request, Common Pleas Judge Everett H. Krueger barred as "irrelevant" and "prejudicial" any testimony about Rodney's behavior other than the molestation for which he was imprisoned. Mary's defense strategy vanished, and she agreed to plead guilty to attempted rape and kidnapping. She did manage to squeeze one concession out of the judge: the calling of an advisory jury to hear testimony in the case and make nonbinding sentencing recommendations, a minitrial that would allow her to tell her story in open court. On December 8, 1998, wearing a flowered dress with a lace collar, Mary took the stand and spoke for thirty-five minutes. "I didn't want my granddaughter around him because of what he had done," she said, weeping. "I knew that [the children] would be back with Julie and then back with Rodney, and he'd be messing with the kids again. I just wanted him to go away. I just felt like if I could humiliate him and, I guess, scare him…

Our intentions were never to hurt him. "I'd promised [Leah] that I would not let him hurt her anymore."

The jury deliberated for just over an hour and returned its recommendation: Mary should spend at least thirty but no more than ninety days in jail. "She didn't really deserve time, but if we didn't give some time, it might let some other people think it was all right to do that," said George Pollock, a grandfather who served on the jury. Juror Elaine Reiner said, "Had it been my granddaughter, the rage would be there, absolutely. She used a vigilante approach that was wrong... but child abuse is so horrible, we understood why she did it."

The judge was less understanding, at least in his sentencing remarks. "I see this as a vengeful act," he said. "I don't see this as a protective act whatsoever." He then sentenced Mary to 120 days in jail, three months of house arrest, three years' probation, a $5,000 fine, and 500 hours of community service.

At the time, that seemed to Mary like a happy ending, or at least as happy as any ending could be in this type of tale. But while Whitney, who derides the "mock trial" staged by a judge lofting his gavel in political winds, did not get what he wanted-a longer prison sentence for Mary-her punishment is not over. She still feels trapped by a system she believes is persecuting her for attempting to keep her granddaughter safe. When she finally decided to tell her story to Mirabella, she says her probation officer threatened her with jail for granting the interview. The probation officer declined to comment. Every Tuesday night, she drives into downtown Columbus for her counseling sessions-something Rodney never had to do because post-release rehabilitation for sex offenders wasn't required for anyone sentenced before 1996.

After interviewing Mary and subjecting her to a battery of tests, a forensic psychologist chosen by her attorney concluded that she should not be regarded as a sex offender because her crime lacked a sexual impetus. Though they don't have firsthand knowledge of the case, sexual abuse experts agree with that assessment. "You can't apply a cookbook formula," says Fred Berlin, M.D., founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University and perhaps the nation's leading authority on the subject. "This is clearly someone who wasn't acting out of any sexual motivation. The woman might need help learning how to manage her anger, but it makes no sense to throw her in with people with deep-seated sexual dysfunctions."

The social worker assigned to evaluate Mary for the probation office came to a different conclusion. After studying the grandmother's records and interviewing her for about an hour, she decided that Mary is at "moderate risk" of committing another sexual offense and needs at least two years of rehabilitation therapy, to take place in a group that the social worker herself runs. This mixing of the evaluation and treatment roles is common in the sex abuse community, though the practice has come under increasing fire due to the conflict of interest that arises when the same professional who treats a sex offender also judges whether her client still poses a threat to society. Moreover, experts question how exercises such as the creation of incest fantasies are helpful to someone like Mary-not to mention a true sexual predator. "We often use role playing to help offenders develop empathy for their victims and to overcome denial," Berlin says. "But the offender role-plays the victim. Role-playing the victimizer makes no sense."

While Mary is unnerved by the assignments that are part of her "rehabilitation," what's most difficult for her to accept is that she can see her granddaughters only during weekly visits supervised by child welfare workers. When she was arrested, Leah and Tiffany were placed in foster care, and there they remain. The county agency is trying to terminate Julie's parental rights and, although negotiations with a juvenile judge continue, officials seem equally dead set against letting Mary raise her grandchildren. Whitney says Julie is proof enough that Mary should not be anyone else's mother. "Why give grandparents custody when they screwed up the first one?" he cracks.

As Mary wades through the detritus of a life upended by realities she could not have fathomed five years ago, she ponders the question of remorse. Whitney pursued her on that issue. Social workers and probation officers return to it regularly. There is no doubt she is devastated by the consequences of her actions. She is separated from the grandchildren she adores. Between fines, legal fees, and lost wages, she and her husband have barely kept their heads above water. Vickie lost her cleaning business and her home. But is Mary sorry for what she did?

Seated in a car speeding through the Ohio night, she pauses alter listing the damage her crime has done to her and those she loves. "Rodney will never touch Leah again," she says. "Am I supposed to be remorseful about that?"