Mendocino County coroner's inquest reveals new details in fatal Hart family crash

WILLITS - The two mothers killed on the northern Mendocino Coast last year in a car crash that also took the lives of their six children both were intoxicated - the driver legally drunk and her wife in the passenger seat with an excessive level of an antihistamine in her system, a doctor who performed their autopsies told a jury Wednesday.

Jennifer Hart, the driver of the GMC Yukon that careened over the side of a 100-foot cliff near Westport a year ago, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.10%, said Dr. Greg. B. Pizarro, a forensic pathologist.

Sarah Hart, the passenger, had in her blood stream “a toxic level” of diphenhydramine - the active ingredient in the antihistamine Benadryl - which also acts as a sedative and is sometimes used to induce sleep, Pizarro testified.

The same was true of at least three of their children - Markis, 19, and Abigail and Jeremiah, both 14 - whose bodies were recovered with the wreckage. Though they had far less antihistamine in their systems than their mother, it was still well above the therapeutic level in all cases, Pizarro said.

He said their head injuries from the crash were severe and would have killed them within seconds.

The doctor’s testimony came during the first day of a coroner’s inquest into the March 2018 incident that stunned the North Coast and the nation - the disappearance of an entire family from southern Washington state, their mysterious end discovered days later in a gruesome car wreck that Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman quickly ruled out as an accident.

“I’m calling it a crime,” he said a year ago this week.

Sheriff’s investigators could find no evidence of skid marks on the cliff where the SUV went over.

Allman convened the rare coroner’s inquest - the first since 1967 in the county - to determine, if possible, whether the deaths of the two women and their children, ages 12 to 19, were accidental or a murder-suicide.

Allman said he felt compelled to try to put some kind of closure on what happened to the Hart family, and especially to the children, all African American and adopted from Texas.

Their time with the Jennifer and Sarah Hart included a series of abrupt moves amid suspicion from school officials and formal investigation by child welfare authorities. At their last home in rural Woodland, Washington, they left in the SUV a day after a child protective services representative showed up at their doorstep, responding to a concerned report from next-door neighbors.

“This happened in Texas and Minnesota and Oregon and Washington and here,” Allman said in an interview Wednesday. “Nobody was going to find how this happened, why this happened. If we don’t do it, who would?”

Investigative findings expected to be detailed in court on Thursday show, according to the Sheriff’s Office, that the vehicle was at a dead stop before Jennifer Hart began accelerating toward the edge of the highway pullout.

But Allman has arranged for jurors to provide the final word on whether she deliberately drove her family off the cliff and, if so, whether she did it with the agreement of her wife or whether neither intended to die that day.

The hearing, which drew about a dozen people, all but two reporters, was expected to last two days. It will cost about $40,000 in public funds, but Allman said it provides an avenue for making all the facts public. It is intended to bring closure, he said, and perhaps, a sense of accountability to a profoundly tragic event that triggered grief throughout the country and left lingering questions.

The remains of two children - Ciera, 12, and Hannah, 16 - found about 10 days after the crash and a month later, respectively, were not in a condition that would allow them to be tested for toxicology, Pizarro testified. A brother, Devonte, 15, is presumed dead but has never been found.

One CHP officer testified Wednesday about his puzzlement over the absence of tire or skid marks at the site of the crash.

Officer Michael Covington, who patrols the coastline, said he had seen a fair number of crashes, and “it was very unusual to have no evidence of any kind to indicate why it went down the cliff.”

He and others law enforcement officers on the scene described hours of work in the fading light of March 26 to recover the smashed Yukon and the two people inside - Sarah Hart, who was squeezed between the roof and the passenger area, and Jennifer Hart, whose body slid out of the vehicle and onto the rocks below as the SUV was pulled up the side of the cliff around midnight, more than eight hours after it was first seen by a German tourist.

Pizarro said Jennifer Hart was the only one whose injuries suggested she had been wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash.

Much of what was touched on in court has already been disclosed by authorities, part of the larger and widely reported saga of two moms who adopted two sets of black siblings out of foster care in Texas in 2006 and 2009 and moved them to rural Alexandria, Minnesota. After a few years they found themselves being questioned about their disciplinary techniques after two of the girls told school officials about bruising and corporal punishment and after one, Abigail, showed up to first grade with bruises on her abdomen and back.

Abigail identified Jennifer Hart as responsible, but Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic abuse and soon after, the kids were withdrawn from school and the family later moved to the Portland, Oregon area, where by 2013 they were under investigation by child protective services there.

By 2017, they had moved to Woodland, where within a few months, neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, received a troubling visit in the middle of the night from Hannah Hart, who begged them to hide her and protect her from her parents, the DeKalbs said in interviews last year.

Next it was her brother, Devonte, who sought help, asking for food, first for himself and then for his siblings, with increasing frequency over a couple of days in the weeks before the tragedy, the DeKalbs said.

On March 23, they called child protective services, who sent a representative that day. The official arrived at the Hart house minutes after Jennifer Hart’s gold Yukon drove up the driveway, a Clark County, Washington, sheriff’s detective testified Wednesday.

But when the CPS worker knocked on the Harts’ door, no one answered, so she left a card stuck in the doorway, Detective Adam Beck said.

By the next day, the Yukon was gone, a dozen cinderblocks from the end of a wall at the edge of their driveway apparently knocked free in their hasty departure and scattered behind them, he said.

Earlier that morning, Sarah Hart, a Kohl’s department store manager, had texted a co-worker to say she was too ill to come to work.

The day after that, authorities would later learn, Jennifer Hart walked into a Fort Bragg Safeway on her own, made a few small purchases and left.

The next day, following another failed attempt by child protective services to reach the family at their home, a deputy was called twice to check the residence. A co-worker of Sarah Hart’s had asked for the welfare check given how unusual it was for her store manager to be out of touch, according to Beck.

Inside the house, authorities found milk in the refrigerator that been recently purchased, luggage left in the garage and toothbrushes in their regular spots. Several pets, including ducks and possibly a cat, remained at the home.

A short time later that day, the German tourist visiting the Mendocino Coast looked over the steep cliff to the family’s crumpled SUV below.

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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