A coroner’s jury unanimously ruled on Thursday that Jennifer and Sarah Hart intended for their six adopted children to die along with them when the former drove the entire family off a California cliff in March 2018.
According to CNN, over the two days of the inquest, multiple law enforcement officials, a search-and-rescue leader, and a forensic pathologist testified about their involvement in the investigation of the crash and deaths.
In the end, a 14-person jury had to rule on the official manner of the family’s death, selecting one of four options: “Accident,’ “Suicide,” “Natural Causes,” or “At the hands of another person, other than by accident.”
Announcing the jury’s ruling, Mendocino County Sheriff-Coroner Thomas Allman told reporters, “The death certificates for Jennifer and Sarah Hart will be listed as suicide. The six children who perished on that day, their deaths, certainly as a jury ruled, was determined to be at the hands of another, other than by accident, and their death certificates will list homicide as the manner of death.”
It brings an end to a case that first baffled and then horrified both law enforcement and the local community, and brought into question the responsibility of Child Protective and Adoption Services who had opportunities to remove the children from the Harts’ care.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38 and of Oregon, adopted two sets of siblings: 15-year-old Devonte Hart, his 14-year-old brother Jeremiah, and 12-year-old sister Ciera; and 16-year-old Hannah Hart, her 14-year-old sister Abigail, and 19-year-old brother Markis.
On the outside, they seemed like the perfect ‘hippie’ family — they homeschooled the children, fed them organic food, often took them on spontaneous road trips to camp and hike, and traveled to festivals and other events, promoting hugs and unity.
In fact, one of the children, Devonte, became a social media sensation when he was snapped hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
But behind the facade they put out for the rest of the world, both were abusive. It was alleged that they denied their children food and forced them to lie on the floor for hours at a time. They reportedly also punished them for something as silly as laughing while at the dinner table.
Records available at the Oregon Department of Human Services indicate that authorities were aware of the abuse as well. In 2011, Sarah Hart had pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over a vicious spanking she had given Abigail that left the child with bruises all over her lower torso. Jennifer was also accused of putting her hands on her neck and sticking her head underwater but escaped the rap.
Abigail also claimed that, just eleven days before the spanking incident, Jennifer had banged her head against the wall after school officials reported to her parents that she had been digging through garbage and taking other childrens’ food.
Oregon child welfare officials once again investigated the couple in 2013, with officials finding “some indications of child abuse or neglect” but unable to determine if the accusations were legitimate despite the presence of telltale signs.
Then, a few weeks before the fatal March 2018 crash, Devonte began asking neighbor Bruce DeKalb for food. It began as a once-a-day event but escalated to a point where he was stopping at DeKalb’s home thrice a day. It prompted DeKalb to call Child Protective Services on Jennifer and Sarah on March 23, and even though officials arrived just after the couple got home from work, they were not allowed inside.
The next day, their vehicle was gone.
They first made their way to Newport, Oregon, before driving on to Mendocino County, some 400 miles away. On March 26, the family’s SUV was found at the bottom of the cliff off US Highway 101. It is thought that Jennifer got a 70-foot start and accelerated off the cliff without braking.
Jennifer’s blood-alcohol content was over the legal limit to drive — she had a blood alcohol level of .10%, which is over California’s limit of .08% — while Sarah and some of the children were found to have tested positive for diphenhydramine, an active ingredient in Benadryl.
During the inquest, California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates revealed how Sarah had used her phone look for information about drowning and hypothermia, with search phrases including, “Can 500 mgs of Benadryl kill a 120-pound woman?” “Is death by drowning relatively painless?” and “How long does it take to die from hypothermia while drowning in a car?”
He also told the jury, “They both decided that this was going to be the end. That if they can’t have their kids that nobody was going to have those kids.”
The family often traveled and took their two dogs with them, according to Slate, and he said one of their searches also read, “No-kill shelters for dogs.”
Neither of the dogs have been found.