A lesbian mother who drove her SUV off a cliff in California last year, killing herself, her wife, and their six children, did so as part of a murder-suicide.
That’s the ruling from a coroner’s jury, which found that Jennifer Hart was drunk at the wheel of the SUV when it plummeted 100 feet into the Pacific ocean in March.
But Hart didn’t act alone. Investigators also found that, prior to the crash, Hart’s wife, Sarah, was searching for ways to end their family’s lives on her phone.
“How easily can I overdose on over the counter medications?” Sarah Hart typed. “Can 500mg of Benadryl kill a 125lb woman? How long does it take to die from hypothermia while drowning in a car?”
The crash, which police called a “tragedy,” claimed the lives of both Harts, as well as their six adopted children: Markis, 19, Hannah, 16, Devonte, 15, Abigail and Jeremiah, both 14, and Sierra, 12.
Markis, Abigail, and Jeremiah were found at the scene of the crash. Ciera’s body was discovered two weeks later.
Hannah’s body has never been recovered, but a shoe containing a foot was found north of the crash site in May, with DNA identifying it as hers.
Devonte’s body has also never been recovered, though police believe he died alongside his siblings.
Jennifer Hart had consumed the equivalent of five shots of alcohol prior to the crash, The Oregonian reports.
Sarah and at least three of the children had diphenhydramine — a component of Benadryl — in their system.
Sarah’s levels were toxic, equivalent with at least 42 doses, according to the forensic pathologist’s report. The children’s blood contained extremely high levels of the drug.
According to a witness who was camping near the site of the crash, Jennifer Hart parked the car at the top of the cliff, overlooking the ocean, and sat for around four hours. Then he heard an engine revving, and tires churning against the gravel.
The crash came as part of a last minute road trip the family had taken — driving from their home in Woodland, Washington, to the site of the crash in Mendocino County, California.
It’s now believed that the Harts upped and left with their children after multiple incidents in their family home and allegations of child abuse.
On March 23, days before their deaths, the Harts’ children had been identified as “potential victims of abuse or neglect” by Child Protective Services.
CPS tried to make contact on multiple occasions between the referral and the family’s crash on March 28.
At the time of the crash, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, neighbors of the family, told KGW8 last year that they contacted CPS after one of the children told them his mothers were withholding food as punishment. It came after other accusations of abuse, including that the Harts had hit another child.
Dana DeKalb said that a CPS official came to the Harts’ door, but was unable to make contact with the family. The following day, the Harts left in their SUV.
“The next morning when we saw that the vehicle was gone, and then Sunday morning when it still wasn’t there, we figured something was off,” said Bruce DeKalb, adding, “We figured that they saw the business card and loaded up the kids as quick as they could and took off.”
Another neighbor, Bill Groener described the Harts’ children as “wonderful,” but told CNN he “thought it was strange that I didn’t see the kids a lot. The weird thing was that the kids kind of seemed repressed and not communicative.” It is understood that the children were being home-schooled.
Sarah Hart also pleaded guilty to domestic assault and malicious punishment of a child in 2011, after admitting that she had struck one of her daughters, leaving visible bruising. Hart claimed she was spanking the child and got carried away.
According to investigators, the Harts absconded without luggage or toothbrushes — even leaving the doors unlocked.
“In my opinion, Sarah and Jennifer succumbed to a lot of pressure,” said Lt. Shannon Barney of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. “They got to the point where they made a conscious decision to end their lives and take their children with them.”
Jake Slates, an investigator with the California Highway Patrol, said: “My feeling is based on talking to witnesses that they felt if they couldn’t have those kids, no one was going to have those kids.”
The family’s tragic deaths, and the horrific details surrounding it, have raised questions as to what more could have been done to intervene and help the Hart children.
Mendocino County Sheriff-Coroner Thomas Allman said that greater federal oversight is required, calling it an “enlightening moment” for lawmakers, noting that five states were involved in the adoptions of the Harts’ children, as well as the allegations of abuse against them.
“Where are the systematic failures that possibly could have prevented this?” Allman said. “We do not have a national database for child abuse allegations.”
Speaking to People magazine, family friend Riannah Weaver said that those who knew the couple still “can’t imagine” them opting to kill their children.
“Since the beginning of this, and when it first happened, there have been those of us who basically questioned our own sanity,” Weaver said. “We also questioned, like, how did we not see this if that’s what happened?”
Weaver said the possibility that the Harts made a decision to kill themselves and their children
She added: “A lot of us [who knew them] discussed that maybe we didn’t know them at all…. But I still can’t imagine them taking the kids on purpose.”