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.