Inside the Case of the Hart Family, Whose Car Was Found at Bottom of California Cliff in 2018
On March 26, 2018, a gold Yukon SUV was found at the bottom of a cliff in California. After the one-year anniversary of the mysterious crash, which claimed the lives of the 8-member Hart family, California authorities presented the results of their investigation to a jury in an inquest. Here's how the tragic case unfolded.
The Tragic Discovery
On March 26, 2018, in Northern California, a motorist on the Pacific Coast Highway spotted a horrific sight amidst the otherwise resplendent scenery: the twisted remains of an SUV that took a deadly, 100-foot plunge off a cliff to the craggy shoreline below, landing upside down.
In the wreckage, authorities would recover the bodies of two women and three children, later identified as married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, and three of their children: 19-year-old Markis and Abigail and Jeremiah, both 14.
One Child Still Missing
According to police, the Harts had six adopted children: Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; Ciera, 12; and Devonte, 15. Police have said they believe all six children were inside the vehicle when it went over the cliff. In the following weeks and months, the body of Ciera Hart and the foot of 16-year-old Hannah Hart were recovered and positively identified with DNA.
Because the three kids recovered immediately from the vehicle were not wearing seat belts, investigators believe the other three Hart children — Ciera, Hannah and the still-missing Devonte— were likely ejected from the SUV.
Sheriff: Crash Was 'a Crime,' Not an Accident
The sheriff investigating the crash said it was no accident.
"I'm to the point where I no longer am calling this an accident; I'm calling it a crime," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said on HLN's Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield.
Investigators recovered evidence from the SUV's software that suggests Jennifer, who was driving, purposefully accelerated off the cliff. Capt. Greg Baarts with the California Highway Patrol's Northern Division told reporters at a press conference shortly after the crash that the Harts' SUV was stopped at a flat, dirt pull-off area before it sped off the steep rocky face and plunged toward the water.
Lack of Skid Marks Indicates SUV Didn't Attempt to Brake
Capt. Baarts also cited the lack of skid marks near the cliff's edge — indicating that the car did not attempt to brake — as evidence that the crash may have been intentional.
Police never recovered a suicide note.
Prior Abuse Conviction
As the investigation continued, a previous admission of abuse came to light. In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to an abuse charge, admitting to taking daughter Abigail into the bathroom, bending her over the edge of the bathtub and hitting her on the backside. (Abigail had stated that it was Jen who hit her, however.)
Sarah was originally charged with domestic assault and malicious punishment, according to court records. She agreed to plead guilty to the domestic assault charge, and the malicious punishment charge was dropped.
She was sentenced to 90 days in jail — which was stayed — and one year of supervised probation, according to court documents.
New Allegations Days Before Crash
Three days before the crash was reported, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services received a call alleging the Hart children appeared to be "potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect," Norah West, the department's spokeswoman, said to PEOPLE.
The state's DSHS tried unsuccessfully to contact the family on three occasions, the first time on March 23. They tried again March 26 and March 27, not knowing the family had perished in the crash.
Devonte Hart Was Featured in Viral Photo
In 2014, Devonte Hart was featured in a viral photograph, showing him tearfully hugging a white police officer during a rally in Portland, Oregon, calling for police reform in 2014.
Devonte had carried a sign that read "free hugs," which prompted a Portland police officer to ask him if he could "get one of those," according to ABC News.
Friend 'Cannot Believe' It May Have Been Intentional
Zippy Lomax, a friend of the Harts who spoke with PEOPLE after police announced the crash may have been intentional, says, "I still cannot believe for a second that this was an intentional thing."
She adds, "I think one of the things a lot of us were grieving about was because they were this incredible, inspiring pack," who seemed to have "this joyful, very charmed life."
Store Surveillance Camera Shows Parent Day Before Crash
Police revealed that cellphone records and newly discovered surveillance footage indicate the family stopped in the city of Fort Bragg, California, the day before the deadly crash.
Investigators believe the Harts arrived in town around 8 p.m. on March 24 and may have spent the night there, as footage from a convenience store shows Jennifer Hart buying bananas the next morning.
According to authorities, a Fort Bragg man also believes he saw the Harts the day before they died, but said he could not be positive it was them or that all six children were present.
On Day Vehicle Was Found, Child Welfare Worker Called 911
Washington officials released a 911 call made by a child welfare worker who was attempting to reach the Hart family on the day their SUV was found.
The employee told 911 dispatchers she had tried to contact the family multiple times but had been unsuccessful, so she was calling 911 to request a welfare check, TV station KOIN reported.
"I've been to the home Monday and Friday and knocked on the door just this morning, and I can get no response," the worker says. "Different cars have been moving in and out, I noticed, so I feel like someone is there."
When asked why she was checking on the children, the worker says the department received "concerns that the children aren't being fed," CBS News reported.
Jennifer Hart Was Drunk When Their SUV Went Over Cliff
On April 13, California Highway Patrol Capt. Bruce Carpenter said toxicology reports found Jennifer, who was behind the wheel at the time of the wreck, had a blood alcohol level of 0.102. (The legal limit is .08.)
The same day the SUV was discovered on March 26, family friend Cheryl Hart — no relation to the family — called emergency dispatchers to report that she had received worrisome texts two days earlier from Sarah Hart saying she was sick. Cheryl said she had since been unable to reach her.
Missing Hart Child Recovered From Ocean Weeks After Crash
On April 17, 2018, the Mendocino County Coroner Division announced that through DNA analysis, the remains of 12-year-old Ciera had been positively identified. Ciera's body had been found on April 7 in the ocean near the crash site.
Authorities continued to search for the two remaining Hart children — Devonte, 15, and 16-year-old Hannah — who were unaccounted for and feared dead.
Skeletal Remains Found
In May of 2018, the sheriff's office announced that what appeared to be the bones of a human foot had been found inside a shoe. This shoe was discovered entangled in the pant leg of a pair of girl's jeans. The jeans were size 10 regular, and the shoe was a 3.5 "big kid" size or 5.5 women's U.S. size.
This discovery was made about a mile from the crash site, according to the statement.
The foot belonged to 16-year-old Hannah Hart, authorities confirmed months later, through DNA analysis.
Devonte, 15, remains missing and has been declared legally dead.
Coroner's Inquest Announced
On March 18, 2019, the sheriff's office announced that the Coroner's Inquest would be presented to a jury over the course of two days on April 3 and April 4. The purpose of the inquest was for authorities to present the facts of the crash to a jury, which would decide the manner of death for each member of the Hart family. The inquest was livestreamed on the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.
Sarah's Disturbing Google Searches
California Highway Patrol Officer Jay Slates testified on April 4, 2019, that, during the drive down from Washington, Sarah Google searched multiple questions about death including "is death relatively painless"? and "how long does it take to die from hypothermia in water while drowning in a car?"
She also searched, "Can 500 mg of Benadryl kill a 120 lb woman?"
Sarah would continue to conduct these kinds of Google searches until 6:30 p.m. that night. Right after Googling, Sarah would delete each search from her phone.
At one point during the drive, the family made a pit stop at Walmart, where Sarah bought generic Benadryl. When she died, Sarah had toxic levels of Benadryl in her system.
Camper May Have Heard Someone Crying for Help
A man who was camping near the site of the Hart family crash told investigators he thought he heard someone crying for help the night they died.
"He felt like he heard someone hollering for help," California Highway Patrol Officer Jay Slates testified at the inquest on April 4, 2019. The man told investigators that, at 11 p.m. on March 25, 2018, he saw a vehicle similar to the Harts' SUV parked near his campsite.
Hours later, he awoke to the sound of a car engine revving and tires on gravel. He also thought he heard some sort of cry -- but he didn't realize that what he heard could be someone yelling for help until he saw news of the Hart crash the next day.
Jury Rules Crash a Murder-Suicide
On April 4, 2019, it took the 14-member inquest jury less than an hour to decide that the six Hart children had been intentionally killed by their adoptive mothers.
After the inquest, Tony Howard, one of the jurors, spoke out about the case, saying he was "kind of in pain" while sitting through the proceedings.
"I'm going to be really honest with you guys," Howard told reporters, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. "Coming up with the decision wasn't the hard part. Dealing with the whole tragedy was the hard part."