Sheriff: Jennifer Hart intoxicated and passengers had sedative in systems at time of Mendocino Coast crash
Mendocino County sheriff's officials said Friday that Jennifer Hart was legally intoxicated last month when she intentionally drove her Washington family off a 100-foot Mendocino Coast cliff, a crash that killed Hart, her wife, Sarah, and at least three of their children, with three others still missing or unidentified.
Of the four passengers whose bodies have been found, three - Sarah Hart and two of the children - had consumed a sedative before the crash, sheriff's officials said. The department is investigating the crash as a crime.
Preliminary toxicology results show Jennifer Hart's blood alcohol content was at least 0.102, above the 0.08 legal limit, when the SUV she was driving plunged from a Highway 1 turnout onto the rocky shore near Westport, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.
In a phone interview, Allman called the finding “very significant.”
Hart's blood-alcohol level could have been much higher at the time of the actual crash.
Post-mortem blood alcohol levels are difficult to analyze, especially when skull trauma renders someone unconscious prior to death, allowing for the liver to continue metabolizing alcohol at a normal rate, according to research published in the journal Forensic Science International.
Blood alcohol levels can also be difficult to analyze in bodies recovered from water “owing to possible dilution of body fluids, decomposition, and enhanced risk of microbial synthesis of ethanol,” a pair of Stockholm-based researchers wrote in the journal article.
The active ingredient in Benadryl, diphenhydramine, was discovered in the bodies of Sarah Hart, and two of the couple's three children found dead near the crash site.
The third child's toxicology results were not yet completed, Allman said.
Diphenhydramine, an antihistamine used to treat allergies, also is a sedative and can be used to treat nausea.
The sheriff's office would not identify which two of the three children were found to have diphenhydramine in their systems.
Jen and Sarah Hart, both 38, and their children Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14, were found dead at the base of the cliff north of Fort Bragg on March 26 after their SUV's wreckage was spotted by a motorist.
Three of their other children, Devonte Hart, 15, Hannah Hart, 16, and Cierra Hart, 12, remain missing, though authorities believe they were in the family's SUV when it went over the edge of the Mendocino Coast cliff.
The body of an African-American female was found near the crash April 7. A DNA analysis could prove it to be one of the missing Hart sisters, said Mendocino County Sheriff's Lt. Shannon Barney, though the results of that analysis are likely weeks away.
For nearly 10 years, allegations of domestic violence allegations followed the Hart family as they moved from Minnesota to Oregon and finally to Washington.
The latest claim came just days before their bodies were found, when one of their Woodland, Washington, neighbors reported concerns about the family to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
A social worker attempted to make contact with the family on March 23. A neighbor believed at least some of them were home at the time of the visit, but by the next morning, they were gone.
You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeaWarren.
Editor's note: The Sheriff's Office had initially identified the missing person from Woodland, Washington as 15-year-old Sierra Hart. The correct spelling is Cierra Hart, age 12. This article has been corrected to reflect this change.