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[UPDATED] Hart Family murder-suicide: Missing Hannah Hart may have no biological family DNA to compare to remains found near crash site

UPDATE, July 12:

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s office confirmed in an email to CrimeOnline Thursday that the DNA analysis of remains found in May near the site of the Hart family crash is still pending.

“The DNA work is still pending as we are in search of a better comparison sample for identification purposes,” Captain Gregory L. Van Patten wrote.

He did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether DNA samples from the deceased members of the Hart family were preserved before the remains were sent to relatives.

The skeletal remains of a foot were found inside a shoe appearing to belong to a female child in May, along with girl’s clothing.

Hannah Hart and Devonte Hart are still missing.

ORIGINAL STORY:

More than six weeks ago, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announced that human remains had been found near the site of the fatal Hart family crash in late March. And there is still no word on whether those skeletal remains may belong to one of the missing Hart children.

Six members of the Hart family — parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and adopted children Markis, Abigail, Jeremiah, and Ciera Hart — have been confirmed deceased. Devonte Hart, 15, and Hannah Hart, 16, remain missing.

On May 10, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announced that clothes appearing to belong to a juvenile female, along with skeletal remains of a foot, inside of a shoe, had been found about a mile from the site where Jennifer Hart is believed to have intentionally driven her family’s SUV off a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway on March 26.

Since that time, authorities have not released any further information about the apparent murder-suicide to the public, and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office has not responded to repeated inquiries from CrimeOnline about the status of the investigation or the identification of the remains. The sheriff’s department said in the May 10 press release that the “California Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services Richmond DNA Laboratory is being asked to identify the remains through DNA analysis.”

A response to a request for information sent to the Richmond DNA laboratory, redirected to the Attorney General’s office, confirmed that the Richmond DNA laboratory has received the remains, and directed further inquiries to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.

In the absence of information from investigating agencies, CrimeOnline has contacted forensic experts with questions about the DNA analysis of the found remains. Our leading question has been how DNA analysis could positively identify the remains as belonging to Hannah Hart, given that she was adopted and that her biological lineage is unclear.

The six Hart children were adopted in two separate sibling groups from foster care in Texas: Abigail, Markis, and Hannah were adopted in 2006; and Devonte, Ciera, and Jeremiah were adopted in 2009. The adoptive parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, were living in Minnesota at the time of both adoptions. The biological mother of the siblings who were adopted in 2009 has been located and gave an interview to the Oregonian in April. According to all available information, the biological parents of Markis, Abigail, and Hannah have not been identified or located.

George Schiro, forensic scientist and founder of the Scales Biological Laboratory in Brandon, Mississippi, said that the time it takes to identify human remains via DNA analysis can vary tremendously based on a number of factors. While acknowledging that his own lab can often perform DNA analysis of remains in as little as two days to a week, Schiro said it is possible for identification to take several weeks or longer.

Both Schiro and Joseph Scott Morgan, Distinguished Scholar of Applied Forensics at Jacksonville State University, said it could be difficult to identify or rule out the remains as belonging to Hannah Hart without any samples from her biological parents.

“Unless the biological parents are in a database … it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Morgan said.

The experts agreed that if samples from Hannah’s biological siblings — Markis and Abigail — have been preserved, their DNA could be used as a reference point to aid in the identification process.

As CrimeOnline previously reported, toxicology analysis was performed on the bodies recovered from the crash site. A friend of Jennifer Hart said in a Facebook post in April that the bodies had been cremated, and that the remains were being sent to relatives in South Dakota, where Jennifer Hart and Sarah Hart both grew up.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office confirmed in an email to CrimeOnline in late April that, after a brief hold, the department had “released the remains of the found members of the Hart family after it was determine[d] there was no longer a need to have a hold place on their remains.”

CrimeOnline has not been able to confirm with the sheriff’s office, which also serves as the county coroner, that the remains have been cremated, or exactly where the remains were sent.

“It is one of the most verboten things for a medical examiner to cremate remains that are in their possession,” Morgan said. 

“Trying to get DNA from cremated remains is exponentially more difficult.”

Both Morgan and Schiro said it is possible that a DNA sample was taken from the victims before the remains were cremated, if they in fact were cremated.

“They may have already generated profiles, taken samples,” Schiro said.

“That would normally happen at the autopsy. That’s when samples would be taken for toxicology, DNA analysis,” he continued, adding that “once the remains are cremated there’s no going back for more.”

Schiro also said that investigators could be seeking additional sources of DNA to compare to the remains found on May 10.

“There may be things back at the house that can be used to identify the remains,” like a toothbrush, or clothing items, Schiro said.

It is not known if investigators have been to the Woodland, Washington, home where the Harts lived since the remains were discovered.

The Oregonian reports that a “Celebration of Life” service for the Hart family is scheduled for Saturday, June 30, in Huron, South Dakota; Jennifer Hart’s hometown.

 

[Feature image: Alameda County Sheriff’s Office via AP]