Jury finds Hart family crash on Mendocino Coast was murder-suicide

WILLITS - A Mendocino County jury determined Thursday that the deaths of the eight-member Hart family from Washington state resulted from a deliberate act, concluding a rare coroner’s inquest with findings that indicate the moms Jennifer and Sarah Hart jointly decided to launch the family SUV over a steep coastal cliff a year ago with their six children inside.

The jury’s verdict followed two days of testimony that included explosive new evidence revealed for the first time Thursday about internet searches conducted on Sarah Hart’s cellphone during the final two days of her life. The queries on Google were about suicide, death by hypothermia, how much of the antihistamine Benadryl it might take to cause overdose or death, and how painful it would be to drown, according to court testimony.

The new evidence marked the first clear indication that Sarah Hart, who was a passenger in the car driven by her wife, Jennifer, was a knowing participant in the shocking murder of a family the pair had forged through adoptions from other broken homes, including two sets of three siblings from foster care in Texas.

Sarah Hart had “a toxic level” of the active ingredient in the Benadryl in her blood, and at least three of the kids had enough to put them to sleep or make them unconscious, a forensic pathologist said. Jennifer Hart - a nondrinker - had a blood-alcohol level of 0.10%, about what she’d have if she had just consumed five drinks, CHP investigator Jake Slates testified Thursday.

“For a person to be at that level of intoxication and to have that much alcohol in her system, it would be extremely difficult for that person to function,” Slates said. “It was investigators belief that she was drinking to build up her courage.”

The jury of eight women and six men deliberated barely an hour and was unanimous in its verdict, though only a majority vote was needed. The death certificates for the Hart mothers will now be marked “suicide,” and those of all six kids, ages 12 to 19, will now carry the ruling “homicide.”

“The Hart family is hopefully resting in peace. The tragedy of the six children murdered should never be forgotten,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

The jury’s decision was presented to hearing officer Matthew Guichard, a longtime Walnut Creek attorney who frequently oversees coroner’s inquests in Contra Costa County, one place where they are relatively common.

It came hours after a CHP investigator testified about the Google hits on Sarah Hart’s phone researching suicide. The phone was retrieved after it washed ashore on the Mendocino Coast, Slates told jurors.

Another astonishing revelation came in Slates’ testimony that the Hart family was not alone on the dark stretch of Highway 1 when they went over the cliff.

A Homer, Alaska, couple were sleeping in their camper in the same turnout near Westport where the Hart family spent its last few hours before plunging to their deaths.

The man told Slates he heard a vehicle come into the pullout around 11 p.m. March 25, and he looked outside just to make sure it didn’t signal any kind of trouble, but didn’t notice anything amiss.

Then, around 3 a.m. March 26, he was awakened by the sound of a revving engine, a vehicle accelerating across the gravel and “what he described as a vehicle bottoming out,” Slates said.

The man went out to see what had happened but could find no car, no lights, nothing amiss, Slates said, except what he later said might have been the sound of someone hollering for help, or maybe just a bird.

It was not until he heard news of the family’s deaths several days later that he called law enforcement to tell them what he knew.

His is the closest thing to a witness account of the eight lives lost, including six children: Markis, 19, and Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14, who were found in the water and on the rocks near the wreckage of their car; Ciera, 12, whose remains washed ashore 10 days later; Hannah, 16, whose foot was found a month after that; and Devonte, 15, whose remains have not been found. A Mendocino County judge declared both Hannah and Devonte dead two weeks ago.

Allman said he decided late last summer to hold the inquest, the first in the county in more than 50 years, in part to bring as much transparency as possible to a case that drew national attention and left a long list of unanswered questions.

He wanted, he said, to address those questions, and now “the known facts have been provided.”

Since last year, investigators spent months working the case, traveling across state lines and back through family history. In their past, the couple showed a pattern of pulling up stakes and moving - from Minnesota, and later from Portland, Oregon - each time school officials or social service agencies began to look into their children’s welfare. Things reached a breaking point in on March 23, 2018, when the family fled their latest home, in Woodland, Washington.

Testimony on Thursday focused on the puzzle pieces they left behind in their disappearance.

Three hours before they drove off in the Yukon SUV, around 5:30 pm., a child protective services worker came to their door, alarmed by a neighbor’s call in which she described interactions with two of the children, Devonte and Hannah, who had come pleading for help at different times.

No one answered the door, though phone records later revealed Jennifer Hart called her wife at work minutes after the CPS worker’s visit, according to Slates. Surveillance footage at the Kohl’s where Sarah Hart was a manager caught her talking on the phone as she left the store to head home.

By 8:30 p.m. , the family was on the road, headed ultimately to Mendocino County along a route investigators would map in detail once the 8-year-old dash-mounted GPS unit from the family’s car washed ashore months after the crash.

The GPS showed their nearly 24-hour trip down the Oregon Coast into Northern California and then to Fort Bragg, where they arrived at 7:19 p.m. March 24, at which time the GPS device shut off.

They stopped a few times along the way, including once at a Walmart before leaving Washington state. Law enforcement officers would later find containers of both liquid and pill-form Walmart-brand Benadryl-style drugs in the family car, Slates said.

The next day, the alarming searches about suicide on Sarah Hart’s cellphone began.

They included queries for no-kill animal shelters - perhaps an effort to find a solution for two family dogs that the family took with them wherever they went, Slates said.

While detectives in Clark County, Washington, found a cat, some chickens and baby chicks left behind at the Woodland house, the dogs have never been accounted for.

But Slates testified he didn’t think the couple knew what they were going to do when they left for Mendocino County, a place friends said they often talked about wanting to visit.

On March 25, after waiting outside the Fort Bragg Dollar Tree where she was caught on surveillance video, Jennifer Hart purchased a variety of personal care items, including two four-packs of toothbrushes, deodorant, socks, a sleeping mask and a hair brush.

Their purchases, Slates said, suggest, even then, the Hart moms were not yet committed to what they would later do.

At some point, driving around the coast and visiting Russian Gulch State Park - ignoring friends’ calls and text messages all the while - they apparently became resolved, he said.

After talking with many of their friends, Slates said he believes “they both decided that this was going to be the end … that if they can’t have these kids, that nobody was going to have these kids.”

During detailed testimony earlier Thursday, CHP Officer Timothy Roloff, a member of his agency’s Northern Division Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, said data from a computer module taken from inside the family’s SUV conveyed information about its travels up to eight seconds before the crash.

It indicated that the vehicle was at a stop, the brakes applied, in the seconds before the driver began accelerating from 6 mph to 20 mph over a period of three seconds, with the throttle 100 percent open on the third second and the vehicle likely going airborne by the fourth second.

The vehicle was about 50 feet from the cliff’s edge and would have had to traverse an 18-inch berm that’s about 12½-feet wide before plummeting toward the rocks, pitching over. All six of the children were thrown from the rear bench seats where they sat.

The Hart moms were found in the vehicle, though Jennifer Hart’s body slid out as the car was being winched up the side of the 60-foot cliff.

The MAIT team determined that none of the family members was wearing a safety belt, even though Jennifer Hart was a known “seatbelt Nazi,” Slates said. A pathologist who conducted autopsies on five of the family members testified Wednesday that Jennifer Hart had external abrasions consistent with a shoulder belt.

Slates said that the Hart moms were known to use antihistamines like Benadryl, with an active ingredient called diphenhydramine, to help their children sleep in the car when they traveled. Investigators found the drugs, in both liquid and pill form, purchased from Walmart in the car.

But levels found in the bloodstream of the bodies in the wreckage were extreme enough to have required multiple dosages, Slates said. Markis Hart would have had to have taken 19.2 dosage units; Abigail Hart, 14 doses; Jeremiah Hart, 8.8 doses; and Sarah Hart, 42 doses, he said.

“The children were more than likely unconscious or asleep,” Slates said.

Sarah Hart “would have been extremely intoxicated at that point.”

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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