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The shocking murder-suicide of a woman who drove her family of eight, including six children, off a California cliff still reverberates years later.
It’s been four years since Jennifer Hart, with her wife Sarah, sped off a 100-foot cliff in their SUV, killing their six adopted children in a tragedy that made headlines across the U.S. A special coroner’s jury would find the couple, both 38, deliberately took their own lives, and the lives of their children, following child abuse claims by neighbors in Washington.
Just after 3:00 a.m. on March 26, 2018, Jennifer Hart stopped her SUV on a flat, dirt area before gunning the accelerator to reach speeds of 90 miles per hour off the Pacific Coast Highway in Mendocino County, as previously reported by Oxygen.com. There were no skid marks or signs of braking before the point at which the vehicle careened off a cliff and plummeted into the Pacific Ocean.
It was later determined Jennifer was intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.102, while Sarah and the children had large amounts of diphenhydramine – the generic form of Benadryl – in their system.
Siblings Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14, and Markis, 19, were found dead in the crushed SUV the same day. Ciera, 12, was found weeks later at sea, while Hannah, 16, was identified after her foot, still in its shoe, washed up on a beach, according to The Oregonian.
Devonte Hart, 15, a Black teen whose image went viral when he embraced a white police officer in 2014 at a protest in Portland, Oregon, has never been found.
“There were no clues anywhere that something was wrong,” family friend Zippy Lomax told The Oregonian in 2018.
The heartfelt image of Devonte’s tear-streaked face, coupled with a white, same-sex couple’s willingness to adopt six Black children, seemed to symbolize a modern and progressive family who enjoyed outings and family vacations.
“They were always together, and very wonderful and very approachable,” family friend Riannah Weaver told People in 2019. “They were just magical.”
Devonte Hart’s tragic death would even become the loose inspiration for the season three premiere of FX’s “Atlanta,” which depicts the trials of a Black child fostered by an abusive lesbian couple. (Though in the show, the character survives a similar mass suicide attempt.)
The murder-suicide shattered the image of a perfect family, shedding light on two parents who had fallen under the scrutiny of child welfare authorities. One year after the tragedy, it was widely reported that Washington authorities opened an investigation when a neighbor alleged Jennifer and Sarah deprived the children of food as a form of punishment.
Neighbors said Hannah Hart jumped from the second-story window of her home, “begging for help,” according to an incident report cited by People.
It was discovered that in 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a domestic assault in Minnesota, as previously reported, admitting to spanking one of her children. She received a 90-day stayed sentence, according to People. Another investigation was opened in Washington in 2013, but it was determined to be unfounded and no action was taken.
In March 2018, Devonte began asking neighbors for food, explaining his parents deprived the children as a form of punishment, according to People.
Social workers visited the home to follow up on the latest allegations on March 23, but no one was home.
Three days later, they were all dead. According to People, when Abigail’s body was found, she was covered in bruises that indicated past instances of child abuse.
“It’s my belief that both Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to a lot of pressure,” said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney. “Just a lot of stuff going on in their lives, to the point where they made this conscious decision to end their lives this way and take their children’s lives.”
A special inquest by the coroner would have a jury decide whether the crash was intentional or accidental. In 2019, jurors unanimously found both Jennifer and Sarah deliberately killed the family. During the inquest, it was revealed that Sarah Hart searched suicide, drowning, Benadryl, and overdose methods.
Sarah had 42 doses of the drug in her system when her partner drove to their deaths.
“They both decided that this was going to be the end,” said investigator Jake Slates of the California Highway Patrol. “[That] if they can’t have their kids that nobody was going to have those kids.”
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