With its soaring cliffs and expansive horizons, the Pacific coastline of Mendocino, Calif., is exactly the type of place Jen Hart might have chosen for a photo op.
But, on March 26, 2018, the image-conscious mom didn’t line up her half-dozen kids for a trademark artistic shot — she drove the family SUV over the edge, killing the children, herself and her wife, Sarah.
“Having six people die like that made it the largest mass murder in our county in modern times,” said retired Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman of the shocking crime, adding that the adult deaths were classed as suicides.
Now a new documentary, “Broken Harts” (premiering Tuesday on Discovery+), has decoded Jen’s carefully curated Facebook posts and exposed the executioner as an abusive narcissist who hid behind a “woke” facade.
In November 2014, a picture of one of the children, then 12-year-old Devonte Hart, went viral as an iconic symbol of racial harmony. Devonte was the weeping black boy shown hugging a white cop in a seemingly spontaneous gesture at a protest against police brutality in Portland, Ore. Commenting on live TV shortly after the image was taken, NBC news anchor Brian Williams gushed: “What the world needs now might just be what we see in this photo.”
But, as investigative journalist Zaron Burnett III, told The Post: “Those mothers used Devonte and his siblings as performing monkeys for traffic potential.
“They were accessories to a lifestyle Jen and Sarah wanted to portray on social media and the likes were dopamine.”
The pair started their family in 2006, opening their Alexandria, Minn., home to adoptive children Markis, Hannah and Abigail. In 2009, Devonte and his siblings, Jeremiah and Sierra, joined the household. All children of color, the six kids came from Harris County, Texas, after being removed from their biological parents; Devonte’s mother had used crack cocaine.
Jen took to the Internet to describe every aspect of her sons’ and daughters’ lives — past and present — in a crusade that Burnett called “white saviorhood.”
“If not us — WHO?” asked one dramatic Facebook post.
According to clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Joni Johnston, Jen’s virtue-signaling didn’t “seem right.” Featured on “Broken Harts,” the expert says: “On the surface, it looks like, ‘Oh, it’s all about my kid.’ But, beneath the lines, there is just this constant theme that, ‘If it wasn’t for us, this kid would’ve ended up who knows where.’ ”
Jen’s friend, Niema Lightseed, was charmed by the fairy-tale story. She told the documentary: “In hindsight, it definitely looks like they were painting themselves as heroes and these children as very sad victims that needed to be rescued.”
In truth, the children needed rescuing from their adoptive moms. Despite repeated complaints to Child Protective Services about suspected abuse, the pair retained custody. Concerned parties in the states of Minnesota, Oregon and Washington (the family was somewhat nomadic) reported domestic violence, a culture of reward and punishment and the withholding of food. But little was done.
In 2010, the outwardly mild-mannered Sarah was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault against Abigail, then 6. Sarah’s punishment was a year of community service and probation. Merely a slap on the wrist, the unwelcome attention nevertheless spooked the moms and caused them to homeschool their kids. What better way to avoid the prying eyes of teachers? But Sarah’s former co-worker, Diane Dyrstad, who also appears in the 90-minute film, is convinced her colleague took the blame for the assault to protect the real perpetrator: Jen.
“[Sarah] told me she had spanked Abigail too hard, and there were bruises and the police were involved,” Dyrstad recalls on camera. “I was surprised, disappointed. There was something, I guess, that I felt just seemed a little bit off and my gut instinct, right away, was that she was covering for Jen.”
Such alarming red flags never made it onto YouTube or Facebook. The couple’s adoring followers could instead delight in the undersized kids offering their ubiquitous “free hugs” at hippie music festivals or a political rally for Bernie Sanders.
The Harts’ fame peaked with the release of the AP photograph of Devonte and the police officer; it attracted millions of views online.
“Her children knew they had to go along with this stuff,” said Burnett, a writer with Mel magazine. “The fact we can see smiling photos of them is easy to fake. Like any circus animal, they had to perform while the crowds were there, so they could [later] be allowed to eat, sleep and have all the basics any other child could expect.”
All the time, Sarah, who was described in a CPS report as being “cold” towards the kids, seemed complicit. However, Cheryl Hart (no relation), who worked with Sarah at a Kohl’s store at the time of her death, told the documentary that her colleague once confided in her about Jen’s demanding, obsessive behaviors. She said: “I think Sarah was the buffer between the kids and Jen. Like a battered spouse would.”
Meanwhile, the net closed in on ringmaster Jen after she took her traveling show to a new home in Woodland, Wash., in 2017. Within months, the increasingly desperate kids, led by Devonte, begged for food and disclosed the abuse to the people next door.
The horrified neighbors alerted CPS. But attempts by social workers to investigate were thwarted by the parents. Apparently terrified of the ensuing scandal, they packed up the family for its final road trip in the early hours of March 26, 2018.
“In my heart, I believe their mission was death,” Sheriff Allman says in the documentary. “This was a one-way journey as soon as they left.”
The bodies of Jen and Sarah, both 38, along with those of Markis, 19, Abigail, 14, Jeremiah, 14, and Sierra, 12, were all found in or near their vehicle after the 100-foot plunge. The remains of Hannah, 16, washed ashore weeks later, but Devonte was never located.
“It’s one of my biggest regrets as a sheriff that Devonte’s body could not be recovered for his blood relatives,” concludes Allman. “The best theory we have is that he was just taken directly out into the ocean.”
As a consequence, the photogenic youngster — whose crying face was so eagerly co-opted by the Internet as a beacon of hope — can no longer be commoditized by his killer. Far away from Facebook, the long arms of the sea will forever hold Devonte in its embrace.