A spokesperson for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office clarified the circumstances surrounding the discovery of human remains found in May near the site of the Hart family crash and reinforced his department’s commitment to locating two missing Hart children, but some questions remain.
In late March, Jennifer and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children were found dead near the site of a cliffside SUV plunge authorities believe was intentional. Another of the six adopted children was found in the water weeks later, and two of the children are still missing. In May, authorities announced that human remains had been discovered inside of a shoe that was found with clothing appearing to belong to a female child, about a mile from the crash site.
Following weeks of attempts to contact the sheriff’s office for clarification of a local news report revealing that the shoe containing skeletal remains of a foot was given to a Hart family friend before it was handed over to authorities, CrimeOnline reached Mendocino County Sheriff Lt. Shannon Barney, who insisted that he was comfortable with how the remains were discovered and reported.
Lt. Barney confirmed that a local resident, an unidentified female, had discovered a shoe while walking her dog, and gave it to a man she knew had been in the area searching for items that could be connected to the fatal SUV plunge that killed six Hart family members on March 26. Correcting CrimeOnline‘s mistaken interpretation of an interview he gave local station KOIN in July, Lt. Barney clarified that only one friend of the Hart family was involved in the discovery of the remains, and that no one had traveled from Minnesota after the remains were found to identify them. He said that the person who was given the remains by the resident had been in the area for a while, and it remains unclear where this person originally resided. Lt. Barney would not confirm the identify of the person who was given the remains.
In Wednesday’s phone conversation, Lt. Barney referred only to the discovery of a shoe, which the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office had previously reported to have been found tangled inside a pair of pants. He explained that the local resident found the shoe and gave it to an unidentified male friend of the Harts, who Lt. Barney said has become well-known in the area due to his volunteer search efforts related to the apparent murder-suicide. Devonte Hart, 15, and his adopted sister Hannah Hart, 16, remain missing.
The woman who found the shoe reportedly gave it to the man because she thought it might be an object of interest in his search. According to Lt. Barney’s account, the woman was unaware that the shoe contained skeletal remains when she gave it to the Hart family friend, who later discovered the skeletal remains when he examined the shoe. Lt. Barney said the man reported the discovery to authorities within an acceptable time frame.
“There was no concern about a delay in reporting,” Lt. Barney said, adding that the individual in possession of the remains reported them to the California Highway Patrol. In a follow up email, Lt. Barney also confirmed that the shoe was indeed found entangled inside a pair of pants.
CrimeOnline reached a spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol earlier this week, who said he was not familiar with the circumstances of the discovery of the remains, and that he would forward our inquiry to a colleague who is currently out of the office.
Lt. Barney insisted that authorities are not presuming that all six children were in the car when Jennifer Hart is believed to have intentionally driven the vehicle over a cliff in Northern California.
“Make no assumption that we have conclusively ruled that all the children were in the car. I’m not sure where this may have come from but it is entirely inaccurate,” he said in an email.
“Most of the persons we spoke to told us they did not think [Jennifer and Sarah Hart] would have left [the children] in Washington. However, we do not know where the two remaining children are so we cannot rule out the possibility they could be in a different location, either deceased or alive.”
“We will follow up any leads that seem plausible in our missing persons investigation,” Lt. Barney said.
In April, an FBI spokesperson told CrimeOnline that federal investigators were involved in an active investigation, but declined to provide any specifics about the search.
Lt. Barney also confirmed to CrimeOnline that the Mendocino County Coroner did obtain DNA samples from the remains of the Hart children who were found deceased after the crash. But the forensic lab working to identify the remains found in May said “they are not comfortable with the samples we have for positive identification,” according to the sheriff’s spokesperson.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office is now working to locate biological relatives of the Hart children, who were adopted in two separate sibling groups from Texas. Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera Hart’s biological mother had previously been located, but biological relatives of Hannah, Markis, and Abigail have not yet been located. Lt. Barney said his department is seeking information from the Texas Department of State Health Services Vital Statistics Unit to help locate Hannah Hart’s biological family, and are hoping to unseal the Hart children’s adoption records. He declined to discuss to what degree Texas state agencies are cooperating with the sheriff’s investigation, though he did note that the private agency that handled Hannah, Markis and Abigail Hart’s adoption is no longer in operation.
Lt. Barney also acknowledged concerns raised by media outlets, including CrimeOnline, about the difficulty in obtaining current information about the investigation and said that he was personally committed to being more responsive to media inquiries moving forward.
[Feature image: Hart family home in Woodland, Washington/Don Ryan for AP]