4 Years After Wash. Mom Drove Wife and Kids Off Cliff, the 'Hart Family Murders' Remain Chilling

On March 26, 2018, the nation was in shock when the Hart family’s GMC Yukon was found upside-down on jagged rocks at the bottom of a cliff on the Pacific Coast

Hart Family Crash.

The Harts looked like one big happy family.

But on March 26, 2018, the dark truth about the "Hart tribe" emerged when Jennifer Hart drove her family's SUV off a 100-foot cliff in California, killing all eight members of the family.

"Everyone's hearts are broken," family friend Zippy Lomax told PEOPLE after the tragedy in 2018.

Four years later, the case remains one of the most shocking murder-suicides in U.S. history.

The crash occurred on a Monday, just after 3 a.m. A revving car engine, tires crunching on gravel and plaintive cries for help could be heard in the dark of night, a camper near the crash site recalled. They were the sounds of the family's GMC Yukon — with Jennifer; her partner, Sarah; and their six helpless children inside — speeding off the cliff and plunging into the rocky Pacific coast.

Investigators looking into the crash noted that there were no brake marks atop the cliff, causing authorities to grow suspicious of Jennifer and Sarah's final moments.

Initially calling it "a very confusing scene," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman later said, "This was more than a crime. This was an out-and-out conspiracy to kill six kids."

Jennifer, it turned out, was driving drunk, and Sarah had high levels of Benadryl in her system when they died.

The children were likely "unconscious or asleep" after being given many doses of Benadryl when the car careened off the cliff, authorities said.

Jennifer Hart and Sarah Hart
The Hart Family. Facebook

But before that day, Jennifer and Sarah, both 38, and their six adopted children — Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15; Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14; and Sierra, 12 — of Woodland, Wash., lived what seemed like a full life.

In a Facebook post marking the ninth anniversary of three of the adoptions, Jennifer reportedly wrote: "I am a better human in every possible way for knowing these children. They have been my greatest teachers. Contrary to the common notion that we can't choose our family, we absolutely can. We choose by loving — and that's worth celebrating every damn day."

Often seen in Facebook pictures smiling with their arms around each other, the Harts traveled cross-country to music festivals to hear their favorite bands play, took frequent hikes and even attended political rallies, like one for Bernie Sanders in Vancouver, Wash., in 2016, when they showed up in matching T-shirts bearing the senator's likeness.

Mendocino Sheriff/Facebook.

"These kids lived more than most people ever will in the adventures they would have and the things they would see," Lomax told PEOPLE. "These kids were completely unafraid to be the first ones up there and be engaged."

Devonte Hart, for one, catapulted the family into the national spotlight and stole Americans' hearts when a photograph of him hugging a white police officer at a 2014 protest in Portland, Ore., went viral.

Devonte was photographed embracing the officer a day after a grand jury decided not to charge Ferguson, Mo., officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a controversial decision that had emotions riding high.

Devonte Hart.

"Jen and Sarah really were the kind of parents that I think the world desperately needs," Lomax told local TV station KOIN.

"They were that really bright kind of presence," Lomax said.

The Darkest of Intentions

Those who knew the family were initially shocked to learn that Jennifer had driven her vehicle off a cliff, saying it had to be an accident.

One thing was certain, though. "Death was obvious for all of them," Mendocino County Sheriff Deputy Robert Julian testified during a 2019 coroner's inquest.

Jennifer, Sarah and three of their children, Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail, were found in the car, authorities said.

Sierra's remains were found later. All that was found of Hannah were the skeletal remains of her foot, still in a shoe, that washed up on a California beach.

Devonte's remains have yet to be recovered, though he has been declared legally dead, Allman told PEOPLE.

Hart crash site. AP/Shutterstock

Upon learning the news, their friends were beside themselves with grief.

"I love you with all of my heart and soul Hart Tribe. I am still in shock of your sudden, tragic departure," Kristina Pescatore, who appears to have known the family, wrote on Facebook. "Your smiles and immense loving presence radiates in my heart."

Another friend, Max Ribner, reportedly said, "They really found the goodness in everybody and I hope they we can all really learn a beautiful lesson from that and carry that legacy on."

Lomax told the Oregonian: "There were no clues anywhere that something was wrong."

Others, however, later said Jennifer and Sarah had shown signs of being abusive parents.

The Hart family's neighbors, Dana and Bruce DeKalb, said red flags were raised in the summer of 2017 when Hannah leaped from a second-story window at her house and raced over to them "begging for help," according to an incident report from the Clark County Sheriff's Office.

"She wanted us to take her to Seattle because they weren't treating her right," Bruce said.

"'Don't make me go back,'" she told Bruce, he recalled. She appeared to be missing two front teeth and looked much younger than she actually was, according to the DeKalbs.

Records obtained by PEOPLE also show that while the Harts lived in Alexandria, Sarah was charged with hitting one of her daughters after a teacher found bruises on the child's body.

In 2011, Abigail told a teacher that she had "owies" on her "tummy" and back, court records state. When the teacher asked Abigail how she got the bruises, she said, "Mom hit me."

During police questioning, Sarah admitted to letting her "anger get out of control" and spanking her daughter the day before, according to the criminal complaint against her. But according to the Oregonian, it was Jennifer whom Abigail said had hit her.

Sarah admitted to taking her daughter into the bathroom, bending her over the edge of the bathtub and hitting her on the backside.

She 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.

In April 2011, Sarah was sentenced to 90 days in jail — which was stayed — and one year of supervised probation, according to court documents.

When Abigail's body was found after the 2018 crash, she was covered with bruises indicating past abuse, according to police.

Jennifer Hart and Sarah Hart
The Hart Family. Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian via AP

In March 2018, Devonte began asking his neighbors for food, saying that his moms withheld food as punishment.

On March 23, 2018, Dana called Child Protective Services, who sent a caseworker to the Hart's split-level home, leaving a business card in the door.

The next day, CPS returned to the home they found no sign of the business card in the door, or the family, who'd already left, never to return.

Dana blamed herself for what happened, saying, "Because I reported [them to CPS], they took off and killed these kids," according to The New York Times.

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In 2019, almost a year after the accident, a jury convened by the Mendocino County coroner found Jennifer and Sarah guilty of murdering their children.

Oversights in the system, and Jennifer and Sarah, are to blame for the tragic deaths, Sheriff Allman said after the inquest.

He would like to see a national database of child abuse and neglect reports to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

"There could have been an opportunity to determine that these six kids were not in a safe family," he said.

After the family's deaths, Lomax got together with other friends of the Harts to remember the good times and how loving the children were.

"It was a gathering of people and of course a lot of tears just remembering how much joy they exuded and brought to everyone," she says.

As for Jennifer and Sarah, she said, "Were they perfect? No. Do we all know their whole story? No. None of us do and we never will."

If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to www.childhelp.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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