The young girl awoke scared and hungry on a cold, hardwood floor. After being torn away from the only parents she had ever known, she now found herself alone and chained to an old metal radiator.
It was only the beginning. Six-year-old Carolyn would be trapped and forced to sustain abuse for three years at the hands of a supposedly brutal woman.
Credit: Carolyn Huebner Rankin
In many ways, Carolyn Huebner Rankin's story of personal anguish, incarceration and redemption started when she was a child in that cold, dingy room. Her personal recollections, codified in her book "Falling Through Ice," reads like riveting fiction -- but she says her story is very real.
The nearly unbelievable life of a child who faced insurmountable challenges started with what she says was a childhood filled with abuse, desperation and long-lasting scars, and has led to true redemption rooted in genuine faith.
Rankin's journey is characterized by highs and lows. First, there's a traumatic childhood filled with an unquenched thirst for love. Then, there’s a young adulthood marked by fame and prestige — both of which she inevitably lost.
Where It All Began
Rankin's heartache began early on. During the first years of her life, her paternal grandparents, George and Betty Shaw, raised her. But when she was 6, they lost custody of Rankin to a woman named Rose.
Rose was Rankin's birth mother, but she allegedly hadn't paid her daughter much attention up to that point, until for some reason she suddenly took an interest in taking her back. The three abuse-ridden years that followed were truly scarring.
In an interview with TheBlaze, Rankin described Rose as "a very evil, vindictive person." It was Rose who chained her in that awful room, treating her more like a pet than a human being -- let alone her own daughter.
"It was terrible and as a child, I didn't know who she was. All I know is I woke up and this horrible person had me (chained up)," she told TheBlaze.
After years of abuse, Rose eventually returned Rankin without reason to her grandparents. But during the three years she'd been gone from the Pennsylvania town where she once lived, she didn't see or interact with the grandparents she had known and loved. And when she returned home to them, life there just wasn't the same.
She had escaped the horrors she experienced living with her mother, but additional trauma and tragedy were in store.
Back home with her grandparents, Rankin said she quickly realized that Betty Shaw had grown increasingly cold. The love that was once so very present from her grandmother had dramatically dissipated. Before long, Rankin was being sent to live with other relatives for various lengths of time.
At one point, she stayed with her birth father, Art, but his sexual abuse of her only compounded the trauma, adding layers of pain and suffering that would haunt her well into her adult life.
Her Next Struggles
Flash forward a decade to her 20s, when Rankin had married Larry Huebner -- a decision she said was made "for all the wrong reasons." During that time of her life, too, she faced a litany of challenges. The two had a daughter, Audra, and experienced some joy, only to be followed by a great deal more of tragedy.
"It's very unfortunate. I married him for all the wrong reasons. And I make that clear in the book," she told TheBlaze. "And the night before we were to get married, I told him I couldn't go through with it. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday."
But go through with it she did, leading to some unpalatable consequences.
Despite her personal problems, Rankin launched a successful career. Touched and impacted by what she went through as a child, she created her own nonprofit, Texas Child Search Inc., an organization to track down missing children.
Rankin gained notoriety in Texas, where she was living at the time: she recovered 59 children alive through her work.
Carolyn Rankin and her daughter, Audra (Credit: Carolyn Huebner Rankin)
"I was good at what I did ... to do that in five years with little funds and to do it with and without police assistance was really incredible," she said. "But why I was successful was the fact that I knew what these children were possibly suffering and this is why I never gave up. I could never stop. I would follow every rat down every hole. I didn't care where it led me."
She was so revered for her work that she was inevitably nominated "Woman of the Year" by the San Antonio Light newspaper in February 1987. But something happened that same year that permanently derailed her success and caused a public fall from grace so monumental that it landed her in tabloids across the nation.
How She Ended Up in Prison
While Rankin had become a media darling known for finding kids in need, little did she know that the pains of her own childhood were preparing to collide with her professional and personal life. An incident with her husband, Larry, changed her marriage and set the stage for the series of events that eventually landed her in prison.
One night, Rankin said, she discovered her husband masturbating while the couple's young child lay on the bed next to him. Rankin panicked and had flashbacks of her own sexual abuse come rushing back. An intense rift grew between her and Larry as the walls of trust came tumbling down.
While the alleged incident didn't involve molestation and Larry chalked it up to poor judgement, Rankin's anger over what she observed never subsided. It was the perfect storm.
Rankin, who said she was so angry by her life experiences at the time, said she "wanted every man on the face of the earth dead," and did the unthinkable: She contacted a hitman and made arrangements to have her husband, in her mind a child predator, murdered.
"I was not well. I was in the deep trenches of a burnout, breakdown," Rankin told TheBlaze. "And I think where you get to the place where you're dealing with your own demons and then you're in a position where you have to deal with other people -- and the evil you have done and you feel you're on the right side ... you get up against the wall."
To set her plan in motion, Rankin set up an elaborate trip for Larry and herself in New Orleans. While she told her husband it was a romantic getaway, it was really a ploy to meet the hitman whom she had arranged to pay $10,000 in exchange for taking Larry's life.
But when they arrived at their hotel, Rankin was met by authorities and taken into custody. The arrest of the well-known child advocate accused of trying to have her husband killed became big news.
Looking back, Rankin says her actions were the result of not being well at the time, but she has also maintained that her plan was never truly a serious one.
Rankin said she did not take the money needed to pay for the hit, nor did she have a photograph of the intended target -- both of which were requested by the hitman upon her arrival in New Orleans.
"I wasn't serious and I think that's the one thing that the people who really knew me, including my husband, knew then," she said. "If I wanted someone dead I would just do it myself and leave no witnesses."
To this day, despite admitting her culpability, Rankin believes there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the entire affair. At the time of her arrest, she was working for District Attorney Fred Rodriguez in San Antonio, Texas, and had recently attempted to blow the whistle on a potential bribe she claims to have observed (we have reached out to Rodriguez to learn more about his perspective, but have not yet heard back).
Plus, there's her claim that the hitman originally reached out to her. One year before Rankin set up the murder-for-hire, she said a man who later turned out to be an FBI informant randomly called her and "planted the seed," offering his services for anyone she might be seeking to kill.
While she brushed him off at the time, she followed up with him the next year in her confused and desperate state and took him up on the offer.
"(His initial call) wasn't unusual, because I had ... the KKK call me with hit services too," she said. "I was very public. I was finding children. People would get upset and make calls."
Today, Rankin wonders whether that initial call was an intentional move to put the idea in her head -- one that she eventually acted on. Regardless of how serious she was or how impeded her mental state at the time, Rankin pleaded guilty, having refused to testify against others who were involved, and landed in federal prison.
"Prison was the bottom of the pit for sure and how I got there, you know, was both political and the fact that I did break the law," she told TheBlaze. "The law that I broke was interstate commerce -- using a long-distance telephone call to say I wanted somebody dead."
How She Healed
It was behind bars that Rankin said her healing truly took form. While she was raised going to church with George and Betty Shaw, and "always knew of Jesus," she said she did not fully embrace her faith until after her arrest in 1987. With time to reflect behind bars, Rankin realized she had to forgive those who had wronged her -- Rose, Art, Betty and Larry.
"The wounds that happened to me in my soul could only be healed by the creator of my soul," she said. "Really, for me, I had to give it to the Lord. I had to put it all down at the foot of the cross."
Following her arrest, Rankin served three years behind bars and was released in 1990. Her husband, Larry, stood by her side during the legal drama and her incarceration. Upon her release, they continued their lives together until he died in 1994.
Today, Rankin is a strong Christian who believes God has transformed her heart and life.
Carolyn, her husband Jim and her daughter Audra (Credit: Carolyn Huebner Rankin)
After losing Larry, she married Jim Rankin, a man whom she had known during her early years living with her grandparents in Pennsylvania. Jim told TheBlaze his wife is an amazing woman. Both Carolyn and her husband praised their intensely close marriage.
As for the demons that once haunted Carolyn, they are gone, and her work with Texas Child Search Inc. is also in the distant past. While she's proud of her accomplishments, she has moved on with her life and is a certified art and antiques appraiser.
Carolyn also regularly shares her story with those willing to listen -- a journey from darkness to light that she hopes will inspire others who face similar struggles rise above it all.
"The real purpose -- the main purpose -- for sharing all the bloody details was that I wanted people to know that you can come out of it no matter how deep the sewer. You can come out of it," she said.
Editor's Note: The details and claims in this story have not been independently verified.