Coroner’s inquest: Grisly details in Hart family deaths

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — More than a year after the Hart family SUV plunged into the Pacific Ocean from a California cliff, officials shared the grisly details of their deaths in the opening day of a coroner’s inquest.

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart and 5 of their children — Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Abigail, Ciera —  were found dead after the car plunged into the Pacific Ocean in the area of Juan Creek and North Highway 1 in Mendocino County, California. 

The remains of their 6th child, 15-year-old Devonte, has not yet been found. He is presumed to be dead.

At the coroner’s inquest — where 14 jurors are expected to hear 2-3 days of testimony to decide the manner of their deaths — multiple law enforcement officers, a search-and-rescue leader and a forensic pathologist testified about their findings.

The majority of Wednesday’s hearing was spent with pathologist Dr. Greg Pizarro, who detailed the causes of death for each family member recovered. 

Pizarro said based on his toxicology report, Jennifer Hart — who was driving the SUV — had an alcohol level above the legal limit. He also confirmed several other family members had unusually high amounts of Benadryl in their system, and said Sara Hart (Jennifer’s wife) had a toxic level of Benadryl.

Officers detailed the crash scene, including the gruesome details of the recovery of their bodies.

“The vehicle got brought straight up and flipped onto its roof so unfortunately it got more damaged,” Mendocino County Sheriff Deputy Robert Julian testified. “And then I saw one of the decedents that was in the driver’s seat fall from the vehicle, along with a bag.”

Officers also detailed how the cliffside was an odd scene for this type of crash. There were no signs of the vehicle trying to stop before going over the edge. One officer said he’d never seen anything like it.

There was later testimony on accusations of child abuse that dogged the Harts from 2011 in Minnesota, 2013 in Oregon and 2017 in Clark County, Washington. 

Testimony for the day wrapped shortly after 3 p.m.

When the inquest is over, the jury will decide between 4 modes of death: natural causes, an accident, suicide or death at the hands of another.

KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this inquest.

Watch: Coroner’s inquest into Hart family

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart and 5 of their children — Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Abigail, Ciera —  were found dead after the car plunged into the Pacific Ocean in the area of Juan Creek and North Highway 1 in Mendocino County, California. 

The remains of their 6th child, 15-year-old Devonte, has not yet been found. He is presumed to be dead.

What is a coroner’s inquest

A coroner’s inquest is a public hearing, generally with a court reporter and 6 jurors. It is to determine the cause of death, not the why — just who died, how, when and where. A verdict is dependent on many factors, including the autopsy.

The case

The Hart family took off from their Woodland home and headed south in late March 2018. At first the crash seemed to be a horrific accident that took the lives of the 8 people inside.

Things quickly began not adding up to that scenario.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and their 6 adopted children, disappeared from their Woodland home in late March 2018 – shortly after a Washington Child Protective Services caseworker tried to contact the women at home. Neighbors had called CPS, concerned that the children were being abused and neglected.  

Within weeks, authorities said Jennifer Hart — who was driving — was legally drunk at the time of the crash. Toxicology tests also found that her wife Sarah Hart and two of their adopted children had “a significant amount” of an ingredient commonly found in the allergy drug Benadryl, which can make people sleepy.

Photos: The Harts and the California cliff crash

As the investigation continued, details of previous family abuse allegations surfaced. New documents released in April 2018 showed Oregon Child Protective Services knew that the Hart family had been investigated for child abuse in Minnesota. 

Despite this knowledge, DHS’s investigation into Jennifer and Sarah Hart – whose family car was found crashed off a northern California cliff in late March – was closed with investigators concluding that they were “unable to determine” whether there was abuse in the home, despite some indications of abuse or neglect. 

By August, Clark County investigators said the entire case and investigation was “very frustrating.” Clark County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Brent Waddell said that investigators in his agency weren’t able to locate a suicide note, a message, or even any journal entries that spell out a clear intention.

In November, Clark County investigators released documents, including emails between Jennifer and Sarah, indicating marital trouble.

This coroner’s inquest in April will provide another piece to the ongoing puzzle of the Hart family crash.

Photos: Inside the Hart Family home in Woodland, Washington

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