The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office began a coroner’s inquest Wednesday into the deaths of the Southwest Washington family who plunged off of a California cliff last year.
Jennifer Hart drove her family’s SUV off of a Mendocino County coastline, killing herself, her wife and their six adopted black children in March 2018.
The jury is tasked with determining a cause of death for each of the Harts. There are four possible modes of death the jury could decide on: natural causes, accident, suicide or at the hands of another — other than by accident.
The 14-person jury will make that decision based on witness testimony.
As of Wednesday afternoon, five witnesses testified about the Hart family incident including responding highway patrol officers and the pathologist who conducted autopsies of the recovered bodies.
California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Covington was the first witness to speak during the inquest.
He was one of the initial responders to the incident.
One of the biggest things that stood out to Covington was that after searching the scene extensively, he did not locate any tire tracks or skid marks.
“I’ve responded to quite a few collisions on the coast area and vehicles down the cliffs and it was very unusual to have no evidence of any kind to indicate why it went down the cliff,” Covington said. “It was definitely out of the ordinary.”
Deputy Sheriff Robert Julian arrived on the scene shortly after Covington. He testified that he performed coroner’s duties. At the time, five bodies were recovered — the driver, Jennifer, her wife and the car’s passenger, Sarah and three of the six children: Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail.
“Death was obvious for all of them,” Julian said. “They were cold, rigor mortis.”
As for the remaining children, Ciera’s body was found north of the crash site, Hannah’s remains were later recovered and 15-year-old Devonte is still missing but presumed dead.
Jared Chaney, coordinator of Mendocino County’s search and rescue, said the search took multiple days until Ciera’s body was found. The search team had up to 85 people at one time, Chaney said.
Almost a month later, in May, Chaney said, Hannah’s remains were found.
Dr. Greg Pizarro is the forensic pathologist who conducted autopsies on the recovered bodies.
Pizarro’s most significant findings were that Jennifer Hart had been intoxicated, with a blood alcohol level of 0.102%, over the 0.08% legal limit to drive. She had injuries consistent with wearing a seatbelt.
Her wife Sarah and children Markis, Abigail and Jeremiah all had Benadryl in their systems. Ciera was too decomposed to show any positive toxicology results.
Pizarro said although a lethal dose is anywhere from 5 to 39 mg per liter, the toxic level is from 1 to 5 mg per liter. Sarah was in the toxic range with more than 2 mg per liter of Benadryl in her system.
Pizarro said the upper level of the therapeutic dosage of Benadryl is 0.26 mg per liter.
Markis, Abigail and Jeremiah’s toxicology reports all showed lesser amounts than Sarah, but still more than the recommended therapeutic dosage.
According to their injuries, Sarah, Markis and Abigail were not wearing seatbelts, Pizarro said. He didn’t comment on whether Jeremiah or Ciera were.
The coroner’s inquest will continue until at least Friday.