Just over a year ago, Jennifer Hart drove her family's SUV off of a cliff in Mendocino County, California — killing herself, her wife and their six adopted children.
The story became national news as the public learned Jen and Sarah Hart — a pair of progressive white women living in Southwest Washington — had likely been abusive toward their black children.
This week, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office is holding an inquest into the deaths as a final step in determining what happened in the days and hours leading up to the tragedy.
Investigators will present evidence to 14 jurors and they will be asked to decide the cause of death for each of the Hart family members.
What Have Police Been Investigating For The Past Year?
On March 26, 2018, a German tourist spotted a vehicle crashed at the bottom of a scenic California Highway 1 turnout north of Westport. California Highway Patrol officers found the body of Jennifer Hart behind the wheel, along with her wife, Sarah, and four of their six adopted children: Markis, Jeremiah, Abigail, and Ciera. All of them had died. Officials later found the remains of Hannah. Fifteen-year-old Devonte’s body is still missing but officers say he is presumed to be dead.
Police officials have spent the last 12 months conducting interviews, reviewing hundreds of pages of investigative documents to try and answer why Jennifer Hart drove her family off a coastal California cliff to their deaths.
Soon after looking at the evidence, authorities said they believed the fatal crash may have been intentional.
The vehicle left no skid marks at the turnout and there was no indication that the brakes had been applied. And according to toxicology reports, Jennifer Hart had been intoxicated, with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.102%, above the legal limit to drive. Her wife, Sarah, and two of the children also had a significant amount of an antihistamine drug, like Benadryl, in their bodies, which can cause drowsiness.
The deadly crash occurred just days after Washington Child Protective Services paid a visit to the family’s home in Woodland, Washington, to investigate reports of child abuse after a call from a concerned neighbor.
Court and child welfare records revealed six prior allegations of abuse and neglect dating back to 2008 when the family lived in Minnesota. When they moved to Oregon, there were more reports after friends told authorities the children seemed malnourished.
What Is A Coroner’s Inquest?
A coroner’s inquest is an inquiry into a sudden, violent or unusual death that’s conducted in a public hearing. A pool of jurors is selected from the county’s regular jury pool and, based on the evidence presented to them, make a determination on the manner of death: death by natural causes, suicide, an accident, or at the hands of another.
An attorney acts as a moderator or hearing examiner to instruct the jury, lead the questioning of witnesses and oversees the inquest.
Why Did Law Enforcement Decide To Undergo This Public Process?
In most California counties, the coroner is also the elected sheriff and can make the decision to hold a public inquest. That’s the case in Mendocino County, although the rural, coastal county hasn’t conducted a coroner’s inquest in more than half a century.
The story has captured national attention and authorities see this as an opportunity for transparency to lay bare all the evidence on the family’s history and what events led to their deaths.
By allowing this to be a public process, through a Facebook live stream and a hearing that's open to anyone, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman hopes it will bring closure to everyone who's been following the crash investigation, from family members and friends of the Harts to people in online forums commenting on this story.
What Happens Now?
Mendocino County has hired civil litigation and trial attorney Matthew Guichard to oversee the inquest and question investigators.
Guichard has led more than 100 inquests in Contra Costa County and regularly oversees about two a month.
On Tuesday, Guichard selected 14 jurors, eight women and six men, at the county courthouse in Ukiah, California. Most of the jurors said they had heard about the case before or read articles on the deaths.
Investigators, pathologists and emergency responders will testify over the next two days to present a comprehensive investigation on the Harts.
“It is a compelling story,” said Guichard. “This is what an inquest is designed to do, to put out into the open what happened.”
Officials say by the end of the week, jurors will make a determination on the manner of death for each family member which will be added to the death certificates.