On the day Donnie Hart nearly died, he crawled from the wreckage of a single-car accident and inched along for hours with a broken jaw and shattered leg to get help.
“He doesn’t have the word “quit” in his vocabulary,” Hart’s football coach said after the crash in 2005.
In many ways, that wreckage haunted Hart for years to come. An opioid prescription for the pain devolved into an addiction and when his beloved brother, Jimmy, died unexpectedly in 2014, the former semipro wrestler known as “Reckless” Donnie Hart turned to crime — robbing pharmacies — for even more pills.
On Friday morning, almost seven years after robbing a Haddonfield CVS and carjacking a retired priest. Hart, 34, walked into the Camden County courthouse to finally report to prison. He was a different man, facing a drastically different sentence.
“I just want to thank the court for showing me mercy,” Hart told Superior Court Judge Kurt Kramer.
Attorney Richard Klineburger said Hart could have faced decades in prison if convicted on all counts at a trial.
“He was basically going to prison for life,” he said.
Instead, after a lengthy negotiation with the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, Hart was sentenced to eight years in state prison, a term that could be reduced to as little as four months with time served and possible acceptance into an intensive supervision program.
“Thank you so much,” Hart’s tearful father, Jim, said to Klineburger after the sentencing.
Last week, Hart told The Inquirer he’d already put himself on his own, makeshift supervision since his arrest July 28, 2015. Hart hasn’t been arrested since and is sober. He works full-time for a friend’s solar power company but is most proud of his weekly podcast and nonprofit, Hungry4Hope, a show that aims to “give hope to the hopeless” with uplifting stories about topics like fighting illnesses and addiction.
“I’m the most grateful guy ever and I’m putting my foot on the gas pedal, you know, because I was given a second chance here,” Hart said at the podcast studio before recording last month.
Every Wednesday, Hart and his co-host, Angela Melchiorre, would sit down at Toxic Radio in Gloucester Township, Camden County, and bring on guests from all over the country. Hart co-founded the Hungry4Hope podcast just before the pandemic unfolded, and found sharing his story therapeutic. On this Wednesday night, Hart was recording episode 93. One guest, Jim Raffone, raises money to research treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy; Raffone’s son suffers from the disease. Another guest, Richard Jensen, returned to the sport of wrestling and became a champion after battling addictions, prison time, and living in shelters for over a decade.
“We all need a little shred of inspiration and hope,” Jensen said.
“If that’s not the understatement of the decade,” Melchiorre replied.
Melchiorre is fighting stage four lung cancer and recently underwent her eighth round of chemotherapy.
While pro wrestling training has a bit of theatrics, Hart’s a natural on the mic. He laughed, checked in often with Melchiorre, and didn’t interrupt the guests.
“You can take your worst days and use them to find your best days,” Hart told Raffone before the podcast was over.
Everyone shed a tear during the recordings.
Hart, who stands 6-foot-3, with a frame north of 250 pounds, once dreamed of playing football in the NFL. On Dec. 19, 2005, he fell asleep driving home from a friend’s home and crashed into a creek. It took him two hours to crawl to help. Hart said the doctor he saw, Alan Summers, overprescribed him opioids and he developed an addiction. Summers is now in federal prison for drug distribution, health-care fraud, and money laundering.
In 2014, Hart’s older brother, James, died, on a backpacking trip in Cambodia. After the loss of his brother, he said, the painkiller use spiraled into something he couldn’t manage.
On June 16, 2015, Hart, a Mantua, Gloucester County native, robbed a Haddonfield Rite Aid at gunpoint and carjacked a retired priest. He was arrested a month later at a convenience store in Cherry Hill and charged with robbery, aggravated assault, and weapons offenses. The first plea agreement prosecutors offered him was 40 years.
“Either way, there was a good chance I would die in prison,” he said.
When this reporter visited Hart at the Camden County jail after the arrest in 2015, he was still sporting the mohawk he wore as “Reckless Donnie Hart” in the wrestling ring. He was jittery and nervous that day and brought up his brother’s death often. He also proclaimed his innocence — though given Hart’s size, it would be hard to confuse him with the average person.
“It was a dark year for me,” he says now. “I was self-destructive. I wanted to destroy everything.”
Hart served just under two years in the Camden County jail and the Montgomery County jail, under additional charges. As court hearings crawled along and were eventually delayed altogether by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hart made real changes on his own. Prosecutors took notice.
“I think people thought that ‘hey, if he’s been out this long and hasn’t gotten in any trouble, what’s the point of putting him away for 40 years,’ “ said Joe Enright, Hart’s close friend and boss at the solar power company.
Hart said he began seeking mental-health treatment after he was out of jail and leaned on a network of friends, like Enright.
Susan Pastore used to write letters to Hart while he was incarcerated. He was friends with her son, Jon, and she wanted him to know he wasn’t alone.
“Everyone has worth and value and I needed him to know that,” Pastore said.
In the future, Hart hopes to become a public speaker and feels his message might resonate with teens and children, particularly boys, who might see his size, the tattoos snaking up and down his arms, and realize anyone can suffer.
“You know, I’m this big, brawny football player and wrestler and I have mental anguish, too,” he said. “I think if they hear from someone like me, someone putting all their own garbage on the table, it could mean a lot.”
Hart will be missing from the podcast while he’s in prison but he already planned on temporary guest hosts. Then he’ll return to the microphone, to keep sharing his story.
He said only part of him will be in that prison cell, because, finally, he feels free.