March 26, 2018
Near Westport, California
Sarah and Jennifer Hart (both 38) drive their SUV containing their 6 adopted children off a cliff

Sarah and Jennifer had adopted two sets of siblings. Biological siblings Markis, Hannah, and Abigail, who were 7, 4, and 2 respectively at the time of their 2006 adoption, and Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera (sometimes spelled as Sierra in news reports) who were 5, 4, and 3 at the time of their adoption in 2008.

The Hart family in 2016
via NBC News

The Hart parents had a documented history of allegations of abuse and neglect toward their children, dating at least as far back as September 2008. One allegation came from Hannah who informed a teacher the bruises to her arm had been the result of being struck with a belt. Another was from Abigail who told a welfare investigator Jennifer had held her head under cold water and punched her. According to Abigail, the abuse occurred after she found a penny which Jennifer had accused her of stealing. Sarah accepted responsibility for the abuse against Abigail and pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge.

The family moved from Minnesota to Oregon in 2013, and authorities began to receive complaints about the behavior of the children. One such complaint stated the children “pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.” Another tip mentioned the children behaved like “trained robots” and appeared “scared to death of Jen.” A friend, whom the family stayed with in California, said, “true kindness, love, and respect for the kids was largely absent.”

12-year-old Devonte Hart hugs police Sgt. Bret Barnum during a 2014 rally in Portland, Oregon, following the police shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The photo went viral but the Hart parents declined any invitations for Devonte to appear on television, stating they wished to protect his privacy.

Oregon state child welfare officials investigated the Harts and, while the children “showed little emotion or animation” during interviews, the case was closed without action.

The family moved again, this time to Woodland, Washington, and soon Washington state authorities opened an investigation into allegations of neglect and abuse, as well. A neighbor had filed a complaint stating the children were being deprived of food as a form of punishment, and had alleged to the neighbor their parents were abusive and racist.

On March 26, a Child Protective Services investigator called 911 to request law enforcement check on the family after multiple failed attempts to contact them. “I’ve been to the home Monday and Friday and knocked on the door just this morning,” the investigator told the dispatcher, “and I can get no response. Different cars have been moving in and out, I noticed, so I feel like someone is there.”

Five hours later, Jennifer drove her family vehicle off a cliff.

As Jennifer drove the family from their Washington home to the Westport, California cliff some 550 miles (885 km) away, Sarah searched online for terms including suicide, drowning, Benadryl dosages, overdose methods, and if death by drowning is painful. Jennifer pulled onto a “dirt pullout,” stopped about 70 feet (21 meters) from the cliff edge, and accelerated over the cliff. Their upturned SUV was found at the bottom of the 100-foot (30-meter) cliff. Sarah and Jennifer’s bodies were inside the vehicle, while the bodies of Markis (19), Jeremiah (14), and Abigail (14) were found near the car. Ciera’s (12) body was pulled from the Pacific Ocean weeks later. In May of 2018, part of a human foot inside a shoe washed ashore and was later identified by DNA as belonging to 16-year-old Hannah. Devonte’s (15) body was never recovered.

The “dirt pullout” and cliff
via NBC News

Autopsies on the family revealed Jennifer had a blood alcohol content of 0.102, 25% higher than the state’s legal limit for driving. A person identified as a close friend of the Harts told The Oregonian that Jennifer did not drink, though Sarah did occasionally, which led California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates to believe Jennifer had been “drinking to build up her courage.”

In addition to Jennifer’s elevated blood alcohol content, Sarah had 42 doses of a generic brand of Benadryl (an allergy medication known for its sleep-inducing properties) in her system, and each of the children had high amounts of the same medication as well.

Authorities suspected the murder-suicide was in response to debt and a fear of the Harts losing their children. “It is my belief that both Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to a lot of pressure,” Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney stated. “Just a lot of stuff going on in their lives, to the point where they made this conscious decision to end their lives and take their children’s lives.”

Slates offered a similar sentiment. “They both decided that this was going to be the end. That if they can’t have their kids that nobody was going to have those kids.”

Sources:
Asgarian, Roxanna. “His siblings were killed when the Hart family’s van went off a cliff. He had been left in foster care.” The Seattle Times. December 11, 2019. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/his-siblings-were-killed-when-the-hart-familys-van-went-off-a-cliff-he-had-been-left-in-foster-care/
Bailey, Everton Jr. and Young, Molly. “Inside the Hart family home, police search reveals debts, contradictions.” Oregon Live. August 26, 2019. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.oregonlive.com/news/erry-2018/09/457f99a9ef7947/inside-the-hart-family-home-po.html
Holcombe, Madeline. “Jennifer Hart drove her six children to their deaths as her wife looked up how much they would suffer, a jury says.” CNN. April 6, 2019. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/06/us/hart-family-crash-inquest-searches/index.html
“Hart family of 8 died by murder-suicide in cliff crash, jury finds.” NBC News. April 5, 2019. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hart-family-8-died-murder-suicide-cliff-crash-jury-finds-n991331
Gilligan, Matt. “Edge Of The Cliff: How An American Dream Turned Into A Nightmare For A Model Family.” Investigation Discovery. December 28, 2019. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.investigationdiscovery.com/crimefeed/murder/hart-family-jennifer-hart-sarah-hart-devonte-hart-suv-crash
Fortsch, Tristan. “Mother was driving drunk when Hart family SUV plunged into ocean, police say.” NBC News. April 13, 2018. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/mother-was-driving-drunk-when-hart-family-suv-plunged-ocean-n865921
Ortiz, Erik. “Child welfare came to Hart family home just hours before deadly cliff plunge, 911 call reveals.” NBC News. April 11, 2018. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/child-welfare-came-hart-family-home-just-hours-deadly-cliff-n864921
Ortiz, Erik. “Boy in viral hug photo missing after family’s SUV plunges off California cliff.” NBC News. March 29, 2018. Accessed: March 26, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/boy-viral-hug-photo-missing-after-family-s-suv-plunges-n861126

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