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.