UPDATE (Friday, April 5, 8:44 a.m. PT) – The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office coroner's inquest into the Hart family's deaths finished Thursday with a unanimous verdict from the jury: Jen and Sarah Hart died by suicide, and their six adopted children died "at the hands of another."
The inquest began Wednesday and went to the 14-person jury Thursday afternoon at the Willits Justice Center. It was the first coroner’s inquest held in Mendocino County in 52 years.
The jury took less than an hour to decide the six adopted children — Markis, Jeremiah, Abigail, Devonte, Ciera and Hannah Hart — were killed by their adoptive parents.
One juror, Tony Howard of Mendocino County, said he was "kind of in pain" after sitting through the proceedings.
"I’m going to be really honest with you guys. Coming up with the decision wasn’t the hard part," Howard told reporters after the verdict. "Dealing with the whole tragedy was the hard part."
Howard said the jury reached a unanimous verdict quickly after hearing thorough testimony from investigators of the family's plunge off a California cliff.
“The tragedy of the six children murdered should never be forgotten,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, who told reporters he would accept the jury’s murder-suicide ruling.
One of the biggest bombshells of the inquest were Google searches recovered from Sarah Hart's cellphone.
Investigator Jake Slates with the California Highway Patrol testified that data on Sarah Hart's cellphone revealed a premeditated plan.
He said the searches were done “while the vehicle was in motion,” at some point in between leaving the Harts' Woodland, Washington, home and the family's subsequent deaths.
The Google searches consisted of questions such as:
“Can 500mg of Benadryl kill a 120-pound woman?”
“What over the counter medications can you take to overdose?”
“How can I easily overdose on over the counter medications?”
“Is death by drowning relatively painless?”
“How long does it take to die from hypothermia in water while drowning in a car?”
Sarah had also searched “no-kill shelters for dogs,” Slates said. The Harts were known to always travel with their two dogs, but investigators found no dogs at their home and no evidence they had stopped at a shelter.
At the closing of his testimony, Slates said while he didn’t believe Jennifer and Sarah had a plan in place when they left their home, at some point, things changed.
“Something happened on the Mendocino coast where they made a decision,” Slates said. “If they can’t have their kids, then nobody was going to have their kids.”
'A Very Unfortunate, Intentional Event'
Officer Timothy Roloff of the California Highway Patrol's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) confirmed the incident was intentional.
He said the MAIT unit analyzed data in the vehicle's "black box" and saw that the car's driver, Jennifer Hart, did not apply the brakes before the family's SUV went over the cliff. In fact, Roloff said, she had accelerated the vehicle to about 20 miles per hour at 100% throttle or "with pedal to the metal."
"There are times, maybe if you're merging on the freeway that you hit 100% throttle, but if you're at a cliff edge and you're with your family, how often do you apply 100% throttle?" Roloff said. "Ultimately, it seemed like a very unfortunate, intentional event."
Contrary to what a pathologist testified Wednesday, Roloff said his team found that none of the seat belts in the vehicle appeared to have been used.
The pathologist had said Jennifer Hart may have been wearing a seat belt due to her injuries. But Roloff said he believed Jennifer may have sustained those injuries when her body fell out of the vehicle when the car was towed up from the cliffside.
He also noted that if she had been belted, her body would have likely remained in the car as it was towed. Roloff also confirmed the MAIT unit did not find any mechanical defects in the vehicle.
The lack of seat belts was notable since friends, who were later interviewed by investigators, described Jennifer as a “seat belt Nazi” who refused to drive the car unless everyone was buckled in.
A Photo And Its Impact
CHP Investigator Slates arrived at the witness stand armed with three large binders filled with evidence and reports. Hearing examiner Matthew Guichard noted to the room that the binders “gives you a sense of the comprehensive nature” of the investigation.
Slates called the investigation extremely comprehensive and worked with 11 agencies nationwide and 10 departments within the California Highway Patrol, including some with computer crime labs to analyze electronic evidence.
Slates began researching the family soon after the vehicle was spotted. The research led him to an Oregonian article with a photo of Devonte Hart crying while hugging a Portland police officer at a police brutality demonstration.
His team talked with the Clark County Sheriff's Office and others to build a background on the Harts, including reviewing prior child protective services reports. He spoke with multiple friends and family members who knew the Harts well. They said after the photo of Devonte went viral, the family received hateful emails and even death threats. Evidence not only confirms these emails were sent, but also that there were many emails expressing love and support for the family.
Friends told investigators the family’s fears and concerns mounted, especially after the 2016 presidential election, and likely prompted the move to Woodland, Washington. Slates' investigation also offered more clarity into the family in the moments leading up to the crash. He spoke on the amounts of Benadryl that were in the systems of Sarah, Markis, Abigail and Jeremiah.
"Sarah would have had to have taken 42 single dosage units (of Benadryl)," Slates said. Markis would have taken 19.2, Abigail would have taken 14 and Jeremiah would have taken 8.8 single dosage units, he said.
"The children were more than likely asleep at that point," Slates said. "Sarah would have been extremely intoxicated." Some witnesses told Slates that Sarah and Jennifer would give the children Benadryl during long car rides. "That tells me that they know the effects of Benadryl and what it does to the children," Slates said.
Slates also spoke more on Jennifer’s blood alcohol level.
He said it was at 0.104%. "That’s the level of “approximately five beers,” he said. He also said witnesses close to Jennifer Hart said she never drank. Others said she rarely drank, maybe having a glass of wine but never finishing the whole thing.
It is investigators’ beliefs that she was drinking to try and build up her courage to “end everybody’s lives,” Slates said.
GPS Offers Insight
A key piece of evidence is the family’s GPS device, which washed up on shore and was found by family friends and given to authorities weeks after the crash. At a crime lab in Sacramento, new techniques were used to download an “astonishing” amount of data, Slates said. The family’s GPS had been collecting driving information since 2010.
The GPS device was turned off for the first time as the Harts left Fort Bragg, just hours before they would drive off a cliff. It showed the Harts left their southwest Washington home at 8:30 p.m. on March 23, the same day Washington Child Protective Services officials knocked on the family’s door and nobody answered.
GPS showed the family traveled north on Interstate 5 toward Longview, then west toward the coast, making a stop at Walmart for 18 minutes. Investigators say the stop is key because the brand of Benadryl medication found in the car was a generic brand from Walmart. Slates said the Harts stopped at a river by the mouth of the Columbia River for nearly two hours.
GPS showed the family continued down Oregon coastline, making stops in Tillamook and at a Fred Meyer in Newport, where security camera footage shows Jennifer Hart running in quickly.
The Harts continued driving and cross into California, stopping at various beaches and gas stations along the way, before reaching Fort Bragg at 7:15 p.m. That's when the GPS turned off. Slates testified that a couple camping out in the Juan Creek turnout — where the Harts drove off the cliff — may have seen or heard the Hart family.
Slates said the man heard a vehicle pull in to the turnout around 11 p.m. "He sees what he describes as a vehicle similar to the Harts' vehicle ... parked near their location," Slates said. Later that night, the man was awakened by "an engine revving and tires accelerating through the gravel," Slates said.
The man looked out and didn't see any lights or vehicles at that point and looked over the cliff but could not see anything in the dark. "He stated to me that he felt like he heard somebody hollering for help," Slates said. "But he wrote it off on possibly a wildlife animal — a sea otter or possibly a seal and didn't think anything of it."
The man heard about the Hart family incident a few days later and contacted law enforcement.
On The Run Again
Investigators say the visit from a social services worker on March 23 prompted the Hart’s to make a hasty exit later that night.
A neighbor in Woodland, Washington had filed a complaint after one of the children, Devonte, had asked for food and said his parents withheld meals as punishment.
Disturbing allegations of long-term child abuse and neglected emerged after the crash.
The Harts had adopted two sets of three black siblings from Texas through a private adoption agency in Minnesota, where they lived for several years. They later moved to West Linn, Oregon, and eventually bought a home in Woodland, Washington, in 2017.
Welfare reports reveal multiple complaints of child abuse and allegations, including an incident in Minnesota when a school teacher noticed extensive bruising on Abigail. Abigail later told investigators she was beaten by Jennifer for stealing a penny. Sarah took the blame and was charged with domestic assault in 2011.
In Oregon, a report was made by a family friend, who said the children seemed "malnourished." An investigation with the Oregon Department of Human Services was opened in 2013. The children were medically reviewed by a doctor, who noted all six children fell below their growth charts. Child welfare records show the agency was unable to conclusively determine that abuse or neglect had taken place and closed the case without taking action.
A few years later, the Harts moved to southwest Washington.
“Wherever these ladies would go, there were always allegations of abuse from the community toward the ladies and the children,” Slates testified on Thursday. “Based on the Harts' past history, patterns we see of child abuse, this was another case where they ran.”
Closure From The Inquest
Authorities hope the inquest can bring closure to the families and people that knew the Harts.
“Our hearts do go out to the Hart family,” Slates told reporters after the verdict. “We hope and pray they will soon be able to start the healing process over this.”
Sheriff Tom Allman added that for blood relatives of the Harts and for the children’s biological parents, “the proceedings may have not been pleasant, may have been painful. But our investigators have done everything possible to obtain the truth of the matter, as unpleasant as some of the facts were.”
When asked about systemic failures, Allman implored federal lawmakers to review the lack of federal oversight on child abuse. He says this was a case that touched five states, and those deaths may have been preventable if a national registry that tracked child abuse allegations existed.
“We have a national database for criminal histories. We have a national database for gun registration,” Allman said. “We do not have a national database for child abuse allegations.”