Did Jennifer Hart plan to kill her family? A look back at allegations that followed mothers found dead with adopted children in fatal SUV plunge

Jennifer and Sarah Hart cultivated an image of an idyllic family life with their adopted black children. Was it all a lie?

It’s been close to three weeks since a passerby spotted the Hart family’s 2003 GMC Yukon overturned at the bottom of a cliff in Mendocino County, about 100 yards below the Pacific Cost Highway.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, were confirmed dead along with three of their adopted children: Markis, 19; Jeremiah; 14, and Abigail, 14. Three other children are still missing. Last Saturday, tourists spotted the body of an African-American female in the water near the crash site. It may be weeks before authorities can determine if she is one of the missing Hart girls; Sierra or Hannah. Also missing is Devonte Hart; recognizable to many from a photo of the boy, then 12, in a tearful embrace with a white police officer at a demonstration in Portland to support the 2014 Ferguson anti-police brutality protests.

Johnny Huu Nguyen via AP, File

Devonte’s tears would become a focal point of deeply conflicted impressions about Jennifer and Sarah’s intentions and the children’s well-being. Supporters insist the adoptive mothers gave the Hart children — two sets of three biological siblings adopted in 2006 and 2009 from Texas — a far better life than they would have had in foster care. Others believe the children’s adoptive mothers used and abused them, forcing them to perform for the camera in a narrative that cast the white mothers as saviors of the disadvantaged black children.

Early on, authorities suspected the fatal plunge was intentional. There were no skid or brake marks found at the spot where the SUV went over the edge of a turnout on the coastal highway. None of the family members were wearing seat belts. Jennifer Hart was behind the wheel.

“I’m calling it a crime,” Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said in a television appearance last week.

And on Friday, the sheriff’s department released the results of toxicology tests done on four of the five recovered victims. Jennifer Hart had a blood alcohol level of .102, well over the legal limit of .08. Sarah and two of the children tested positive for diphenhydramine, an active ingredient in Benadryl, a hypnotic antihistamine used to treat allergies that can cause marked drowsiness. The toxicology results for the third child recovered from the wreck are still pending.

In an interview with The Oregonian on Friday, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Shannon Barney said that authorities won’t be able to use dental records to confirm if the body found last weekend is one of the Hart girls. According to Lt. Barney, investigators have not been able to locate any dentists who treated the Hart children, casting serious doubt on a claim Jennifer Hart made about her daughter Hannah’s missing front teeth.

In a Facebook post from 2012 that has been screen-captured and shared in discussion groups about the tragedy, Jennifer Hart said that Hannah Hart had fallen while running in the house and knocked out her two front teeth. Jennifer shared a photo of a tooth that appeared as though it had come out at the root, and said that Hannah went to the dentist for a procedure to treat her injury, claiming that the girl couldn’t get permanent replacements until she turned 17. She would have to wear a retainer until then, Jennifer said in her post. Years later, a neighbor said, Hannah’s mothers explained her missing teeth by saying she lost them in a fall and chose not to have them replaced.

In the weeks since the tragedy, news outlets including CrimeOnline have uncovered records showing that social services received reports about the family in the three states they lived since the adoptions: Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington. Their neighbors in Woodland, Washington, called Child Protective Services on the Friday before the SUV plunge to report that Devonte Hart had been to their home a dozen times asking for food. When a CPS worker knocked on the Hart’s door that same day, no one answered. By the next morning, the family was in Newport, Oregon. They continued to travel south until they reached Westport, California, where the SUV went over.

Police have not yet revealed details about any telephone correspondences the Harts had in the days before the fatal plunge, and investigators have confirmed that no suicide notes were found at the home. According to emergency dispatch records obtained by The Oregonian, Sarah Hart texted a friend at three in the morning on Saturday, March 24, telling them she was very sick and might need to go to a hospital. The friend never heard from Sarah again despite repeated attempts to reach her, and called 911 for a welfare check on March 26, the same day the family members were found dead.

The last three days of Jennifer and Sarah Hart’s lives remain a mystery, but the years since they adopted two sets of three siblings were well-documented on social media, where they appear to have conducted many of their personal relationships. Jennifer Hart had the more active presence of the two parents, and maintained a YouTube channel as well as a Facebook page where she would post updates about her family. There, she reportedly talked of the difficulties the Harts faced after Devonte’s photo hugging the police officer went viral, claiming that the family was getting death threats. But the Harts never reported any of those alleged threats to police.

Since their deaths, Sarah and Jennifer’s friends have posted tribute after fawning tribute on Facebook, sometimes sharing professional-looking photos of the family, the children looking small for their ages but almost always looking happy. In public posts made by members of the community that Hart family belonged to — a ‘tribe’ connected by an affinity for the same musical artists and festivals — there is little talk of their violent end, the still-missing children, or the reports of abuse that may have prompted the Harts to move twice in the years since Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault, while the family was still in Alexandria, Minnesota.

In 2010, Abigail Hart reportedly showed a teacher bruises on her stomach, which she said her mother gave her. She also said her mother hit her with a closed fist and held her head underwater as punishment. It was the second time in roughly two years the mothers were accused of hurting a daughter; the first claim, made in 2008, did not result in any charges. During the investigation into Abigail’s case, the girl said that Jennifer had abused her, but the parents insisted it was Sarah — who said she had briefly lost control of her temper — and that Abigail was confused. Sarah pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault in 2011.

The Harts pulled the children out of public school immediately after the guilty plea, and homeschooled them from that point forward. The mothers reportedly failed to properly register for homeschooling in Oregon and Washington. In Woodland, Washington, where the Harts lived at the time of the crash, the parents told neighbors they had pulled Devonte out of school in Oregon because he was being bullied over the viral photo with the police officer. But none of the children had been enrolled in school there.

Five years before the Child Protective Services visit that may have prompted the Harts to leave Woodland days before the fatal crash, a former friend of the Harts who knew them when they lived in Oregon called child welfare services to report what she described to The Oregonian as emotional abuse and cruel punishment. She claimed that the Hart mothers were depriving their children of food, an accusation that would come up again. Investigators did not find enough evidence to press charges.

Another claim that Jennifer and Sarah Hart weren’t feeding their children prompted the final CPS call about the family; this time, the accuser was Devonte. Neighbors Bruce and Dana DeKalb have said in media interviews that Devonte came to their home a dozen times in March asking for food, claiming that his mothers were withholding food as punishment. According to a police report obtained by The Oregonian, one of those neighbors told police that they asked Devonte if his parents were abusing him, and he said “sometimes.”

Seven months earlier, the DeKalbs said Hannah Hart came running to their home in the middle of the night, claiming her parents were abusing her and asking the couple to drive her to Seattle so she could escape them. The Harts quickly realized Hannah was gone and came to retrieve her; later that day they reportedly came over to the DeKalbs with an apology letter from Hannah, and an explanation that the girl was a “drug baby,” born to a bipolar mother.

Because of Hannah’s size and her missing front teeth, the DeKalbs believed she was about seven years old, they said. Her mothers reportedly told them she was 12, but authorities have since determined that she was 15 or 16 at the time. After the fatal SUV plunge that left three of the Hart siblings dead and three missing, authorities mistakenly reported Sierra Hart’s age to be 12 years old, but later corrected it to 15. It is not known what information police used to calculate the children’s ages or why Sierra’s age was initially misreported.

The Harts reportedly told friends and neighbors that their children struggled with food insecurity and behavioral issues, blaming the problems on the children’s troubled past. During the investigation into Abigail Hart’s abuse claims, the mothers told police that Abigail was stealing food at school and eating out of the garbage. Several years prior, when Jennifer and Sarah Hart were in their early twenties and fostering a teenage girl, they reportedly told co-workers that she, too, was eating food out of the garbage.

But in an interview with the Seattle Times, the foster daughter, now in her twenties herself, said that never happened — and that she wasn’t deprived of food. She also said Jennifer and Sarah never physically hurt her. Still, the story didn’t have a happy ending: Though the girl believed she was going to stay with the Harts after they adopted the first three children, and was looking forward to becoming a big sister to them, the mothers apparently had a change of heart. The young woman told the Seattle Times that the women dropped her off at a therapist’s appointment one afternoon and never came back. The therapist broke the news to her that she would be going to live with another family. Jennifer and Sarah had reportedly brought the girl’s belongings to the therapist’s office, but never said goodbye.

“I was devastated,” the young woman said.

Newly uncovered records of custody proceedings corroborate some of the children’s backstory their mothers reportedly shared with friends. Devonte, Jeremiah, and Sierra’s biological mother was a drug addict, as the adoptive mothers had said, and Jeremiah had tested positive for cocaine at birth. Additional children were removed from her care before she lost custody of the three children who would later be adopted by the Harts.

A biological aunt petitioned to adopt the children, who then had the surname Davis, but after about five months in her care a judge denied her custody. The reason: The children’s mother had visited them at the aunt’s home for 45 minutes when the aunt, Priscilla Celestine, was not home. Celestine reportedly claimed that her own daughter had allowed the mother inside, which was against a condition of the temporary custody. Celestine fought the decision to remove the children from her custody, and an appeals court opinion obtained by The Oregonian mentions additional questions about the aunt’s to care for the three children, but does not include specifics. A subsequent petition to adopt the children out of foster care was reportedly still in appeals when the Hart’s adoption of the three children was finalized.

Shonda Jones, a Houston family law attorney who represented Celestine, said in an interview with The Oregonian that she felt the court acted too hastily in denying Celestine’s adoption petition, but agreed that the children should not have stayed with their biological mother.

“They have an aunt who I truly believe in my soul and in my heart would have made a difference in those children’s lives,” Jones told the newspaper.

Little is known about the adoption or the biological family background of the three other Hart siblings, as Texas adoption records are sealed.

On Friday, Devonte, Sierra, and Jeremiah’s biological mother Sherry Davis spoke out for the first time, in an interview with The Oregonian. Davis, 48, is an in-home health care worker, and said she has been clean for eight years. She told the newspaper that she was devastated when her children were adopted by the Harts, who she now calls “monsters.”

“They’re so quick to snatch [children] from people like us, but once they’re adopted, they don’t even check on them?” Davis said to The Oregonian, insisting that despite her struggles with addiction, her children were well fed and weren’t neglected.

She hadn’t before this week seen the photo of Devonte and the police officer that went viral in 2014.

“That should’ve been a happy moment,” she said. “I believe he wanted to speak to the officer but was probably too scared.”

 

[Feature image: Thomas Boyd for The Oregonian via Associated Press]