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The Hart Family Murders: Revisiting the Shocking Murder-Suicide Crash 6 Years Later

Jennifer and Sarah Hart died by suicide and murdered their six children

Facebook Jennifer and Sarah Hart with their children: Markis, Hannah, Devonte, Abigail, Jeremiah and Sierra.
Facebook Jennifer and Sarah Hart with their children: Markis, Hannah, Devonte, Abigail, Jeremiah and Sierra.

Jennifer Hart and wife Sarah Hart, along with their six children — Markis, 19, Hannah, 16, Devonte, 15, Abigail, 14, Jeremiah, 14, and Sierra, 12 — died on March 26, 2018, after Jennifer drove their vehicle over a cliff in Mendocino, California.

Sarah and Jennifer, both 38, presented a picture-perfect family image on social media, but the truth about their lives, as well as how it ended, was significantly darker than anything they portrayed online.

Jennifer was behind the wheel with Sarah in the passenger seat when she drove the family's 2003 GMC Yukon XL into the Pacific Ocean. Though initially believed to be a tragic accident, it was later revealed that the deadly crash appeared to be intentional and considered a crime, shocking not just those who knew the family but also the world.

Sarah and Jennifer's deaths were ruled to be by suicide, while their six children were determined to have died by homicide at the hands of their mothers.

Six years after the tragic case, revisit the harrowing true story of the Hart family murders, including the abuse allegations that followed Jennifer and Sarah Hart for years before their deaths.

A photo of Jennifer and Sarah's son Devonte went viral in 2014

Johnny Huu Nguyen/AP Devonte Hart hugging a police officer in 2014.
Johnny Huu Nguyen/AP Devonte Hart hugging a police officer in 2014.

In December 2014, Devonte was photographed hugging a White police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Oregon. The moment happened after a grand jury didn't bring charges against police officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot teenage boy Michael Brown, per The New York Times.

Afterward, the family attended the demonstration, where Devonte wore a fedora and leather jacket and held a "free hugs" sign.

According to reports, the police officer in the picture approached Devonte, who was crying, and apologized to him for the country's current state before they embraced.

Jennifer's coworkers said that after the viral moment, she said that the family received death threats, and she urged her friends and followers on social media not to post or share images of her children online out of fear for their safety.

"Understand that these kids come from incredibly fragile and challenging beginnings in life and we have done our very best to protect the past from seeping back into their lives," she wrote on Facebook, according to Glamour.

Sarah was charged with domestic assault after bruises were found on Abigail

Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian via AP Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart and their kids.
Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian via AP Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart and their kids.

Before the Harts lived in Oregon, they resided in Alexandria, Minnesota.

In 2008, a teacher saw bruises on their daughter Hannah's arm. Hannah, then 6 years old, told her teacher that they were from being hit with a belt, per Glamour. When police interviewed Sarah and Jennifer, they denied knowing how Hannah got the bruises but suggested they may have come from a tumble down some stairs a few days prior.

No charges were filed against the Harts at the time. Still, they withdrew their children from school and began homeschooling them after the incident. The children re-enrolled the next fall.

Three years later, in 2011, Sarah was criminally charged after admitting to hitting her daughter Abigail, then 6.

According to court records obtained by PEOPLE, in November 2010, Abigail told one of her teachers that she had "owies" on her back and stomach and that they were from when her mother hit her. (She didn't specify which mother did so.)

The teacher reported the incident, and Sarah told police during questioning that she and Jennifer "do not ordinarily use spanking as [a] disciplinary measure in their household. However, they have recently resorted to spanking to deal with Abigail's behavior," court records read.

Sarah was charged with domestic assault and malicious punishment and sentenced to 90 days in jail (though her term was stayed), community service and one year of unsupervised probation. Days before Sarah's conviction, she and Jennifer had pulled all six of their children from school permanently, Glamour reported.

A friend called CPS after a visit from the Hart family

The following year, the Harts moved to Oregon and didn't inform their school district that the children were being homeschooled.

Two individuals reported this to authorities in 2013, with one whistleblower alleging that the children seemed "scared to death of Jen" and would eat freely when Jennifer wasn't around but would deny eating if she asked.

The whistleblower said that Jennifer punished the children harshly and that the children acted like "trained robots," per Glamour.

According to the magazine, another former friend of the Harts reportedly called Child Protective Services (CPS) on Sarah and Jennifer after the family stayed at the friend's home, with the friend claiming that Jennifer addressed the children "like a regimented boot camp" and would get angry if they laughed too loudly.

Per Glamour, the Oregon CPS caseworker's report noted that all of the children were small compared to growth charts for their respective ages, but they didn't have any other medical records against which to compare them.

The official report closed the case, noting, "there are some indications of child abuse or neglect," but not enough proof. Oregon welfare services said in a statement in April 2018 that their case was made public "to prevent a similar incident from happening again in Oregon or any other state."

Jennifer and Sarah were suspected of mistreating their kids after Devonte and Hannah asked for help

Mendocino Sheriff/Facebook The Hart family.
Mendocino Sheriff/Facebook The Hart family.

According to The Oregonian, Jennifer and Sarah moved the family to Washington in May 2017. A few months after their move, the Harts' new neighbors, Dana and Bruce DeKalb, said that two of the children asked her and her husband for help before their deaths.

That same summer, Hannah fled to the DeKalbs' home at 1:30 a.m., they recalled to Glamour, begging for help to hide from her parents and saying that Sarah and Jennifer were abusive, racist and beat her with a belt.

Sarah and Jennifer arrived at their door shortly afterward with some more of the children, and Sarah and Jennifer entered their residence without permission to speak with and retrieve Hannah. The next morning, they had Hannah apologize to the DeKalbs and write a note saying she was sorry for "disturbing [their] peace" and lying to them.

Dana said that Jennifer was so convincing that she initially declined to call CPS but Dana told her father, Steve Frkovich, about the incident, and he placed a call two months later. The agency called the DeKalbs and asked what they'd observed, and Dana told them that she never saw the kids outside. She said she was told, "It's not illegal to keep kids inside."

The Clark County Sheriff's Office later said, per Glamour, that the lapse in time between Hannah's plea for help and the call, as well as the DeKalbs not witnessing anything else since, had left their hands tied legally.

The DeKalbs noticed that Hannah, who Sarah and Jennifer told them was 12 years old at the time, was small for her age and missing her front teeth. Sarah and Jennifer said Hannah lost them in a fight and didn't want them replaced.

The DeKalbs only learned after the children's deaths that Hannah was actually 16.

Dana said that in other incidents, Devonte would beg her and Bruce to hide food near the fence separating their properties so that Sarah and Jennifer wouldn't see it.

She claimed that Devonte told her that Sarah and Jennifer would withhold food from the children for days and that everything Hannah told the DeKalbs about the abuse they suffered was true. Dana also told Glamour that she took notes about everything on her phone, including that Devonte's head seemed disproportionately large for his extremely small and thin frame.

Though Devonte begged her not to call authorities out of fear he and his siblings would be separated. She eventually called on March 23, 2018, after Devonte's 10th visit to her home.

An agent visited the Harts' home after seeing Jennifer's Yukon pull into the driveway, but nobody came to the door, so they left a contact card. The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services told Glamour that they made subsequent attempts to contact the Harts on March 26 and 27, 2018, but couldn't reach them.

The Harts had been on the road for about 54 hours before their deaths, ending up in Northern California.

"When the Harts left their home, I don't think they knew what they were going to do at that point," California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates later said. "I do think that they knew CPS was there."

Jennifer was driving under the influence on the night of the crash

Jen Hart/Facebook Jennifer and Sarah Hart.
Jen Hart/Facebook Jennifer and Sarah Hart.

Toxicology results revealed that Jennifer was drunk when she drove the family vehicle over the cliff and that the rest of the family may have been drugged.

In a press conference, California Highway Patrol Captain Bruce Carpenter said that Jennifer had a blood alcohol level of 0.102. The legal limit is .08. Sarah and at least two of the couple's children had toxically high levels of diphenhydramine, an ingredient found in Benadryl, in their systems. The pair stopped to buy generic Benadryl at Walmart shortly after departing from their Woodland, Washington, home.

CNN reported that Jennifer rarely drank and had consumed about five beers before the murders, with investigator Slates speculating that Jennifer may have drank before the crash to keep her commitment to the murder-suicide.

Sarah appeared to know what was going on: She reportedly had Google searches about death by drowning, overdosing on over-the-counter medications, how much Benadryl it would take to kill a woman of her size and how long it would take to "die from hypothermia while drowning in a car" during what would be the last drive of their lives.

After each search, Carpenter says, Sarah cleared her phone's history.

The Hart family deaths caused conflicting emotions

Samantha Sinclair/Facebook The Hart family.
Samantha Sinclair/Facebook The Hart family.

Zippy Lomax, a friend of the Hart family, couldn't believe that Jennifer and Sarah would take their children's lives on purpose.

“Am I saying they’re perfect? Am I saying they didn’t have problems? Not by a long shot. They were human,” Lomax told PEOPLE in April 2018. “I’m sure they needed help just like so many of us do and I think that was the tragedy, and I still cannot believe for a second that this was an intentional thing.”

Other friends said they, too, were shocked and devastated by the crash and the loss of the family.

“Since the beginning of this, and when it first happened, there have been those of us who basically questioned our own sanity,” Riannah Weaver told PEOPLE in April 2019. "Maybe we didn’t know them at all."

Lomax said she and other Hart family friends struggled to process what had happened because Sarah and Jennifer's lives seemed "charmed" and "joyful" to outsiders.

Lomax shared that the group had discussed the tragedy and tried to piece it together. At the time, they were waiting for more definitive information before drawing any conclusions about the family.

More details emerged a year after the crash

<p>Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat/AP</p> California Highway Patrol officers and deputy sheriffs from Mendocino and Alameda counties gather after a search for three missing children at the site where the bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children were recovered.

Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat/AP

California Highway Patrol officers and deputy sheriffs from Mendocino and Alameda counties gather after a search for three missing children at the site where the bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children were recovered.

Jennifer was the only person in the vehicle wearing a seatbelt, an inquest revealed a year after the crash. Her and Sarah's faces were severely disfigured in the crash, and the latter was identified by her Minnesota driver's license, which was found near the scene.

A forensic pathologist claimed that the family likely died of spinal injuries almost immediately after impact. Sierra's body was so decomposed by the time it was recovered that it wasn't possible for investigators to determine her cause of death.

Devonte's remains were never found, but he was declared legally dead after the crash.

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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