Two of the adopted children whose family members died in a dramatic cliff-plunge from the Pacific Coast Highway are still missing, though fears have grown that one of the missing children, Hannah Hart, may have died when her adoptive mother drove her family over a cliff — or perhaps, even before.
Late last week, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office announced that human remains had been found with clothing appearing to belong to a female child. The discovery was made about a mile from the site of the fatal SUV plunge in northern California on March 26, an apparent murder-suicide that claimed the lives of six members of the Hart family.
The Harts, an interracial adoptive family of eight, had been in the news four years ago when a photo of Devonte Hart in an emotional embrace with a white police officer went viral.
Police are still looking for 15-year-old Devonte Hart, who gained widespread attention in November 2014 when a photo of him hugging a police officer during a Ferguson-related protest in Portland went viral. https://t.co/e02BRq54wf
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) March 29, 2018
Jennifer Hart was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, and had a blood-alcohol level of .102, well over the legal limit. Authorities have said they believe she drove the vehicle over the cliff intentionally.
Jen and her wife Sarah Hart were found dead along with three of their adopted children — Markis, Abigail, and Jeremiah — at the crash site. A fourth adopted child, Sierra Hart, was found dead nearly two weeks later, her body sighted in the water by passing tourists. Devonte Hart, 15, and Hannah Hart, 16, are still missing.
The remains found last week were also discovered by a civilian; a local resident spotted clothes and what was later determined to be human remains on a beach near the mouth of Hardy Creek in California, north of Westport.
The skeletal remains have yet to be identified, and the disquieting circumstances that preceded the apparent murder-suicide — reports of neglect or abuse in three states, including one conviction — have led some who are closely following the case to question whether or not Hannah Hart, who appears to have been a more frequent target of abuse and neglect than some of her siblings, was alive at the time of the crash.
And some are still holding out hope that Hannah, along with her brother Devonte, may have somehow escaped before the rest of the family was killed.
It remains unclear how extensively authorities have been searching for the missing children. A spokesperson for the FBI told CrimeOnline last month that the agency was actively searching for them, though she would not say exactly where.
The adopted children do not appear to have had any close family ties beyond their immediate adoptive family, and the friends who knew the Harts have largely refused to entertain questions about the fate of Devonte and Hannah, both in interviews with CrimeOnline and other media outlets, and activity on social media. Several of those who claim to have been close to the Hart family appear more concerned with how Jennifer and Sarah are perceived in death than with the possibility two missing children may still be alive.
In the absence of family and friends searching for Devonte and Hannah, a small army of armchair detectives has organized via social media: A group of mostly women, with no known ties to the family, who have quickly become activists speaking on behalf of the Hart children, and sharing theories with each other in private Facebook groups about what may have happened to them.
Updated printable / shareable flyer to raise awareness for multi-state searches- still missing #HannahHart and #DevonteHart post, handout, share search. These kids are missing and deserve to be found. @nytimes @AP @seattletimes @KOINNews @washingtonpost @TheMendoVoice pic.twitter.com/HVtrlxBNzs
— sandra b go (@sandrabgo) May 4, 2018
Some have also reportedly contacted local authorities in Washington and along the route the Harts traveled after they fled their Woodland home, to determine if there are active searches for the children outside of the immediate crash site, and put pressure on local authorities to look for them.
There is no indication that any local law enforcement agency has been actively searching for the children near their home or in areas along the route outside of Mendocino County, the site of the crash, in recent weeks, though there were wider searches in the days immediately following the murder-suicide.
Witness accounts and social services records strongly indicate that the Hart children, who were adopted from foster care in Texas as two separate biological sibling groups in 2006 and 2009, were abused and underfed for years. Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic abuse in 2011, and the parents pulled their children out of public school immediately afterwards.
All six of the children were well below average size for their ages, and Devonte Hart had reportedly gone to a neighbor’s home in Woodland several times in the weeks leading up to the family’s abrupt departure, begging for food.
The neighbors eventually reported these visits to Washington state Child Protective Services, and a CPS worker who responded to the report was unable to make contact with the family before the apparent murder-suicide.
Several months prior, Hannah Hart had also gone to the same neighbor’s home in the middle of the night, reportedly claiming that her “racist” mothers were abusing her and asking that the neighbors help her run away to Seattle. Hannah’s parents quickly arrived to the neighbor’s home to retrieve Hannah, and reportedly later told the neighbors that Hannah was acting out as a result of being born to a drug-addicted bipolar mother.
The neighbors surmised that Hannah was seven years old; but she would have been about 15 years old at the time.
There are no verifiable reports that Hannah Hart was ever seen again, although the Harts were not known to have any close friends in Woodland, where they moved from Portland, Oregon, in 2017. The Hart children were homeschooled, and Jennifer Hart appears to have been largely out of contact with her friends in roughly the year-and-a-half preceding hear death. Only Sarah worked outside of the home, reportedly in retail management.
On the Saturday before the fatal crash, Sarah Hart texted a friend saying she was so sick she may need to go to the hospital, and that she would not be able to go to work. The friend called 911 two days later when Sarah did not respond to follow-up messages and calls. By then it was too late.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announcement about the remains discovered last week said that a pair of girl’s jeans were found with a shoe containing what appeared to be skeletal remains of a foot. The sheriff’s office has not responded to follow-up inquiries for additional information, and said in the release that the coroner’s division would be analyzing DNA in order to identify the remains.
WARNING: The following text includes graphic descriptions of body decomposition, in reference to remains that likely belong to a child.
CrimeOnline spoke to Joseph Scott Morgan, Distinguished Scholar of Applied Forensics at Jacksonville State University, about what could potentially be determined from the remains that were found, and the possibility that the remains belonged to someone who was in the Hart’s SUV when it plunged over a cliff on March 26.
“After six weeks [in water] a body should not be skeletonized,” Morgan said. “That’s a process that could take a long period of time.”
But Morgan added that he believed an appendage could have become skeletonized at a faster rate if aquatic life had eaten away at it.
“I’m curious how the lower extremity was disarticulated,” he said.
Morgan said that if a body had sustained traumatic injuries during a death event, this could potentially attract aquatic life and accelerate decomposition. And evidence of injuries could potentially help a medical examiner determine the cause of timing of death.
If an individual was alive at the time of a traumatic event, such as being thrown from a car in a rocky area, “that means that as a result of the trauma there will be open wounds at impact,” and blood would likely be evident in the clothing worn, Morgan said.
Asked if a medical examiner could determine if an individual had been starved, Morgan said that bones could be analyzed for mineral deficiency, but as in many aspects of postmortem analysis, the process is easier if there is soft tissue to analyze along with it. It is not known if any soft tissue was found along with the remains.
“This is a headache even for the best technicians that are out there,” Morgan said. “If I were them I would proceed very carefully.”
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has not released the autopsy reports performed on the deceased members of the Hart family, but did release the results of the toxicology reports, showing that Sarah and the children had high levels of the active drug in Benadryl, which is known to cause marked drowsiness, in their system.
A sheriff’s spokesperson confirmed last month that authorities have released the remains of the recovered Hart victims, after temporarily placing a hold on the remains. The remains were presumably released to relatives, but the spokesperson did not provide any specifics.