PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The refrigerator had been recently stocked. Toothbrushes were in the upstairs bathroom. And suitcases were stacked in the garage.
These are the clues Clark County Sheriff’s Office Det. Joe Swenson found at the Hart family’s house in Woodland, Wash. three days after the family’s SUV was discovered crashed off a northern California cliff.
Investigators were searching at the time for information that could help determine whether three of the family’s missing children had been in the vehicle at the time of wreck.
What Swenson found, however, were few signs of children having ever been in the Woodland home at all.
“After walking through the house, I did not get the indication that children lived in the house,” Swenson wrote in a report.
A mysterious disappearance
Incident reports released to KOIN 6 News from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office reveal new information about the Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into the Hart family days after their disappearance.
Those reports include text messages sent from Sarah Hart early in the morning on March 24 to two of her co-workers at the Hazel Dell Kohl’s store.
“I am so sorry. I thought I would be able to go to work but I’m too sick to come in,” Sarah texted at 2:53 in the morning. “I may actually need to go into the doctor.”
“I won’t be able to open the store,” she texted again.
Sarah, however, wasn’t headed to the doctor.
The day before she texted, Child Protective Services had come calling at the Harts’ home. It was not the first time the family had been investigated by child welfare agencies.
(KOIN 6 News has reported extensively on the history of child abuse concerns discovered after the family’s disappearance.)
CPS wanted to check on the family after a neighbor, Dana DeKalb, called with concerns that the children were being beaten and starved.
Months earlier, Hannah Hart rang the DeKalbs’ doorbell in the middle of the night, claiming that her mothers whipped her with a belt and withheld food for punishment. Then, in the week before DeKalb called CPS, Devonte started visiting his neighbor’s home, begging for food.
By the time Child Protective Services visited the Harts’ home on the morning of March 24, the Harts’ gold SUV was already gone. The business card the agency’s employee had left in the front door jamb the previous day had been removed.
Jennifer, Sarah, and at least five of the family’s children had already started their drive south to California.
‘Wish someone told her it was okay not to have a big family’
Clark County Sheriff’s Office investigators interviewed at least six employees of the Hazel Dell Kohl’s employees regarding Sarah and the family’s disappearance.
The store manager described Sarah as a “reputable and friendly employee who he had no concerns to report” to Det. Lindsay Schultz.
However, another coworker, who was subordinate to Sarah, said, “[S]he saw through Sarah’s presentation of who she was … described that she was more like a sliver [sic] tongue devil who was fooling people.”
None of the coworkers described meeting Jennifer or the couple’s kids.
Their accounts, however, seem to indicate signs of a stressful home life with the six adopted children.
One colleague said Sarah had told her that the kids “caused emotional stress on Jennifer.”
“She said Jennifer was at home with them ‘24/7’ and Jen would often call about the kids making her crazy and arguing with them,” the detective wrote, describing the colleague’s account.
The employee who said she thought Sarah was “fooling people” remembered an incident in which Sarah explained that Jennifer would sometimes stay in bed and cry all the time. Sarah had described Jennifer as depressed and anxious.
Sarah also referred to the children as struggling with their mental health.
A third co-worker recalled Sarah saying the children had food issues and “would eat out of the garbage after being provided dinner.”
Still another employee echoed issues involving the children and food.
That employee “recalled Sarah telling her the children (never by name) were not allowed in the kitchen because of prior food issues from being adopted.”
She added, “They had a library in their home where the kids would have to check out books and also check them back in.”
In a conversation about kids, Sarah reportedly told her, “[S]he wish [sic] someone told her it was okay not to have a big family. Then she and Jennifer would not have adopted the children.”
The Friday that CPS visited the Hart house – March 23 – Sarah told a co-worker she was going to be finishing employee reviews over the weekend and working on projects at home.
The text messages Sarah sent early Saturday morning were the last ones received by her colleagues. She didn’t respond to questions about whether she’d be in on Sunday. By that afternoon, they were concerned.
“Are you ok?!” one texted. “Please let someone know…we are all freaking out here.”
What investigators found – and didn’t find – in the Hart home
On March 29, Clark County Sheriff’s Office Det. Craig Marler received approval on a search warrant for the Hart family home in Woodland. Sarah, Jennifer, and three of the family’s children had been found dead at the site of the crash days earlier, but Sierra, Devonte, and Hannah remained missing.
Down in California, law enforcement officers were seeing signs that Jennifer did not try to brake before driving off the cliff.
“They were beginning to think the crash may have not been an accident,” according to one incident report completed by Clark County Sheriff’s Office Det. Adam Beck.
Inside the Hart home, investigators were searching for signs pointing to whether Sierra, Devonte, and Hannah had been in the family SUV at the time of the wreck, or whether they were located elsewhere.
Signs, however, proved hard to come by.
“Upon entering the house, it was found to be extremely clean and organized, giving a perception of being very sterile,” Swenson wrote in his report.
He explained further why he “did not get the indication” that there had been children in the home.
“The house was so orderly and nothing seemed out of place regarding any belongings, toys or entertainment items the children may have owned,” he wrote. “There was very little to show the children had access to any toys or items of entertainment, save for some board games found in the downstairs family room.”
Another detective wrote in an incident report that it was difficult to distinguish which rooms belonged to the children.
“None of the rooms were personalized for the children or showed the supporting elements that children lived in the residence,” Det. Lindsay Schultz explained.
Swenson added in his report that while there were new picture frames hanging on the walls of the home, but with no pictures in them.
His account suggested he did not believe the family’s trip to California had been planned. He found several suitcases stacked on top of each other in the garage, noting that if they had been planning a trip, they likely would have packed some bags.
“It did not appear that any toiletries were taken by the family as a toothbrush is usually a primary item to take,” Swenson wrote.
He also noted that there was a lot of food that seemed to have been recently purchased – a new gallon of milk, fruits and vegetables in plastic bags, and two bowls of fresh fruit on the counter. Three cats and a rabbit were found alive inside the home.
“Looking throughout the interior of the house, I did not see any sign that a disturbance occurred or that there was a fight or assault,” he added.
A later report shows that a search using human-remains detection dogs was conducted two weeks after the initial search at the home, on April 12. No indication of human remains were found on the Harts’ two-acre property.
The investigation continues
A body later identified as Sierra Hart was found in the Pacific Ocean on April 7. Devonte and Hannah Hart, however, remain officially missing.
Investigators in California are searching for biological relatives of Hannah to help identify human remains discovered on a beach near the crash site in May. Those remains were found in a girl’s shoe, tangled up in a pair of jeans.
Initial forensic tests conducted at the California Department of Justice’s DNA laboratory in Richmond were inconclusive.
In the spring, investigators revealed that Jennifer Hart was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash. Two of the children found at the crash site had a drug in their system that causes sleepiness.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office is leading the investigation from California; that investigation is ongoing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and California Highway Patrol have also been involved in this case.