A coroner’s inquest revealed new details about the fatal crash that killed the Hart family in a murder-suicide perpetrated by the mothers of six adopted children. One of the six children, Devonte Hart, has remained missing since the March 2018 crash, but is now presumed dead by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
The proceedings began Wednesday at the Willits Justice Center in Northern California, which Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman told CrimeOnline last week was about an hour-and-half drive from the crash site. A jury decided unanimously that Sarah Hart and Jennifer Hart died by suicide, and that their six adopted children — Markis, Abigail, Ciera, Devonte, Hannah and Jeremiah — died by homicide.
Multiple witnesses who responded to and investigated the crash testified at the inquest, including California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Covington; pathologist Dr. Greg Pizarro, who performed autopsies on some of the family members; and CHP Officer Jake Slates, who was reportedly the lead investigator on the case.
Slates testified about the likely dosages of diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, that led to high levels of the drug found in the bodies of Sarah Hart, Abigail Hart, Markis Hart, and Jeremiah Hart, who, along with Jennifer Hart, were recovered from the scene of the crash the day after Jennifer Hart intentionally drove the family’s SUV over a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway near Westport, California, on March 25. The vehicle was discovered on March 26, but a witness who was camping near the turnout where the SUV went over told investigators that he heard the sound of accelerating tires and a car bottoming out the night before.
Slates said at the inquest that Sarah Hart would have consumed a minimum of 43 does of diphenhydramine, while the three children each would have had several times the normal dosage — in Markis’s case, the equivalent of 19. Earlier in the inquest, Dr. Pizarro said he was unable to determine the likely dosage but noted that the four decedents all had higher than therapeutic levels of the drug in their system, and that Jennifer Hart was legally drunk.
The officer testified that investigators recovered Sarah Hart’s phone in the debris from the crash site and were able to view her Google search history in the days leading up to the fatal crash. Slates said that on Saturday, March 24, Sarah performed Google searches on her phone that strongly indicated she was preparing for death. Among the search queries were the phrases: “Can 500 mg of Benadryl kill a 120 pound woman?;” “Is death by drowning relatively painless?;” and “How long does it take to die from hypothermia?”
Sarah also reportedly searched for nearby no-kill shelters for dogs, but Slates said that there was no indication that family left dogs at shelters along the route from their home in Washington state to Mendocino County. The Harts are believed to have owned two dogs who were not among the pets left behind at their home, and were never found. The officer also said that the Harts stopped at a Walmart in Oregon early in the trip and purchased large quantities of generic Benadryl in multiple forms.
Still, Mendocino County Sheriff Lt. Shannon Barney said in his testimony that Jennifer and Sarah Hart likely did not know precisely what they were going to do when they left their Woodland, Washington, home on the night of March 23, but came to the conclusion during the trip.
“It is my belief that both Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to a lot of pressure,” he said, “to the point that they made the conscious decision to end their lives this way and take their children with them.”
The testimony presented at the inquest demonstrates for the first time in the year since the crash that Sarah Hart was very likely an active participant in the murder-suicide and decided along her wife, who was behind the wheel of the SUV, to take their own and their children’s lives. There remains no indication whether any of the children were aware of their parents’ plan.
[Feature image: California Highway Patrol via AP, File]