PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — After 2 days of testimony, it took a jury of 14 about an hour to determine that Sarah and Jennifer Hart took their own lives but their 6 adopted children “died at the hands of another.”
The jurors heard evidence in a coroner’s inquest in Mendocino County, California into the March 26, 2018 crash. Seven of the 8 family members were found dead after the car plunged into the Pacific Ocean in the area of Juan Creek and North Highway 1.
The jury got the case around 3:40 p.m. Thursday and about an hour later returned unanimous verdicts: Sarah and Jennifer Hart, the married 38-year-old couple, died by suicide. Their 6 children — Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Abigail, Ciera and Devonte — died “at the hands of another.”
The remains of 15-year-old Devonte have never been found.
The verdicts were unanimous, but a decision could have been reached by a simple majority — in this case 8 of the 14 jurors. The jury had 4 choices for each verdict: death by natural causes, accident, suicide or death at the hands of another.
Inquest Day Two
Accident reconstructionists and detectives took the stand in the second day of the coroner’s inquest into the 2018 deaths of the Hart family, providing a detailed analysis of the crash itself along with information about their travels and shopping habits on their final trip.
One of the California Highway Patrol investigators testified they asked people who knew the Harts well whether killing their own family could be something they could do. “Most of the witnesses stated yes,” he said.
On Thursday morning, the accident investigators testified their team found the SUV’s “black box” computer that recorded the crash data.
The data showed that 8 seconds before the crash, the car was in idle for 2 seconds, then the brake was disengaged. Within 3 seconds, the vehicle went from idle to 100% throttle, ultimately picking up speed to roughly 20 mph before it went airborne over the 60-foot cliff.
Investigators said this black box data suggests the Hart vehicle intentionally went over the cliff.
“I know that one of the analysts didn’t want to see what we saw in here. We didn’t know what we were going to see when we got this data,” said Timothy Roloff with the California Highway Patrol Multidisciplinary accident investigation team.
“Typically he sees data that shows someone trying to avoid a collision. In this case he saw data that suggested that a family 8 vehicle had intentionally headed towards that cliff and went over it.”
Roloff said the mechanic also looked for a mechanical reason the car went over the cliff. “I know he’s had a prior case where he figured out there was a mechanical issue that caused a collision. Really, he had hoped to find that in this case and he didn’t find that.”
Showing a graphic of the SUV’s final moments, Roloff described the second-by-second reconstruction: “One second is zero, 2 seconds (is) 16 miles per hour, 3 seconds (is) 20 miles per hour as it goes over the edge.”
Roloff said investigators said they “have the throttle going from 34% to 100% and no brakes.”
“Our analysis,” he said, “is this was an intentional act.”
The GPS and Benadryl
The CHP tracked the family’s travels from Woodland, Washington to the California coast through the GPS unit in their GMC Yukon. That GPS had recorded data since 2010 but inexplicably was turned off the day before the SUV plunged to the ocean.
That night a man in a camper heard an engine rev and tires peel out. He went to the cliff’s edge but didn’t see anything.
“But given his background where he lived in Alaska (he) thought he felt like he heard somebody hollering for help,” California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates told the jurors. But the man “wrote it off as a wildlife animal sound and went back to bed.”
Slates also said they learned the Harts “always used cash” on their trip down the Pacific coastline. “There was no evidence they used credit cards.”
During their trip, Slates said, there were Google searches on Sarah Hart’s phone about how much Benadryl it would take to kill a person and whether drowning is painless.
They stopped at a Walmart in Longview, Washington and bought the store-brand of Benadryl, he said.
Sarah Hart searched whether Benadryl can kill a person and whether drowning is painless from 12:30 a.m. on March 24, 2018 until 6:30 p.m. that night.
Their SUV drove off the cliff before midnight on March 25, investigators said.
Slates told inquest jurors the minimum number of Walmart-brand Benadryl pills Sarah Hart had in her system was “42 dosage units.”
On the first day of the inquest, it was noted Sarah Hart had a “toxic” level of Benadryl in her system when the car went over the cliff.
She was in the passenger seat. Three of their 6 children in the back also had high levels of Benadryl: at least 19, 18 and 14 doses each.
“The children were more than likely unconscious or asleep,” Slates said. “Sarah would have been extremely intoxicated at that point.”
Jennifer Hart was driving and was legally drunk.
The CHP said all the evidence shows she floored the gas pedal sending the SUV over the cliff without braking.
The initial crash investigation
Lt. Shannon Barney with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office initially got the call about a traffic collision with 5 fatalities late in the evening on March 26, 2018. Sarah Hart was identified through her driver’s license.
Then they Googled the family and found a lot more information.
A deputy called the Portland police sergeant seen in the picture with Devonte Hart to ask if he was still in touch with the family, but he said no.
The Mendocino County deputies called Clark County officials to do a welfare check for 3 missing Hart children. Barney said deputies entered the Hart home through an unlocked door.
Nothing appeared out of the ordinary and it didn’t appear the family intended to be gone long.
He also said Jennifer Hart’s maternal aunt helped to identify the bodies in the SUV through photographs and specific body features.
Lt. Barney testified he believes Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to life pressures and made a conscious decision to end their lives and take the 6 children with them.
‘We had to do a lot of vetting’
Investigators soon realized the Harts had been in trouble or scrutinized by Child Protective Services in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington. But separating the family’s true nature from the public perception of a loving home was difficult.
“One of our investigators found the picture of Devonte Hart hugging a police officer,” Slates said. “Due to the picture in The Oregonian, the Harts were well known. So we had to do a lot of vetting. There were a lot of people who said they knew the Harts but didn’t really.”
Slates said investigators asked people who knew the Harts well whether killing their own family could be something they could do.
“Most of the witnesses stated yes,” he said.
Inquest Day One
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.
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 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.
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.