To millions of viewers, the “Fantastic Adventures” YouTube channel portrayed the perfect—albeit chaotic—suburban Phoenix lifestyle of seven adopted kids.
Dozens of videos, which racked up a quarter of a billion views, featured cute cookie capers or superhero kids taking part in backyard light-saber battles. What the viewers didn’t see was an alleged reign of terror taking place off-camera.
The YouTube channel’s creator, and the family’s off-screen “momager,” was Machelle Hackney, 48, from Maricopa, Arizona. She is now in jail, accused of abusing her seven adopted children if they refused to perform or messed up their scripted lines.
Hackney stands accused of horrific physical abuse that included enforced ice baths, starvation, being locked up, and pepper-sprayed, according to the police complaint outlined by ABC Action News.
One of the children described pepper-spraying their genitals as being the method of abuse favored by Hackney, who covered her own face if she appeared online, according to excerpts from the police report.
“I either get beat with a hanger or belt, or a brush, or get pepper-sprayed from head to toe,” one of the children told police. Hackney also allegedly forced the children’s heads underwater and locked them in a closet she called the “green screen room” with no food or water or toilet for “days at a time.”
The channel, which has grown to almost 800,000 subscribers since the arrest, claimed to feature a perfect family getting into mischief. “We’re Fantastic Adventures, we’re a family that’s full of unique and special kids!” the channel description states. “We started making these videos for fun, but fell in love with making them and now do it every week for you guys!”
When police came to inspect the home after the report, they found one child in a closet wearing a pull-up style diaper. The door was not locked, according to press reports, but it could have been by the apparatus on the door handle. According to the police report quoted by ABC, Hackney “denied the pepper-spray, denied the ice baths, and stated the only forms of punishment she uses is having to stand in the corner, getting spankings, and being grounded.”
The “Fantastic Adventures” site is still up. YouTube says it won’t terminate it unless the creator is convicted. The channel has been demonetized so the family no longer gets a proportion of the ad revenue, which now goes direct to YouTube.
Hackney was reported by her adult daughter, who was made to appear on the channel as the “pretend mom” but who is not accused of abuse, according to local Arizona media reports. Hackney’s adult sons, Logan and Ryan, were regularly featured on the channel. They are also in jail, accused of failing to report the abuse.
The ages of the seven adopted children have not been released, but police say most were under the age of 10. During questioning, the children ravenously drank water supplied by police and one refused to eat potato chips for fear that Hackney would “smell them” on his breath, according to media reports.
For a time, the family collaborated with popular gaming site Extreme Toys TV, according to owners Tawny and Zeb Schnorr in an interview with the AZ Family TV.
The Schnorrs, who also feature their children on their popular channel, said that two of Hackney’s adopted kids came to their Scottsdale home just two weeks ago to shoot a video. “I’m literally sick to my stomach,” Tawny Schnoor told AZ Family TV. “I mean, it’s something you hear about but it doesn’t hit so close to home.”
The last video uploaded on “Fantastic Adventures” was called “Cookie Capture Adventure Mission,” and shows three children and an unnamed adult pretending to be their mother. The video description says “Elijah wakes up to the smell of cookies, but these aren’t just any cookies... They are Megan’s famous chocolate chip cookies!"
The YouTube channel has a disclaimer at the end of every video: “These videos are just pretend, so don’t try anything you see in them at home, just sit back and enjoy!”
The comments had been disabled as of Wednesday. The channel also pointed to Instagram and Facebook pages that were still active Wednesday.
“We take safety on YouTube very seriously,” a YouTube statement to The Daily Beast said. “We work closely with leading child-safety organizations and others in our industry to protect young people. When we’re made aware of serious allegations of this nature we take action, which may include suspending monetization, or, upon conclusion of an investigation, terminating channels.”
Hackney is in Pinal County Jail, charged with two counts of molestation, seven counts of child abuse, five counts of unlawful imprisonment, and five counts of child neglect, police said. Ryan and Logan Hackney are charged with seven counts each of failing to report abuse of a minor.