Hart family murders

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The Hart family murders were a March 2018 murder–suicide by Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who murdered their six adopted children by driving the family's sport utility vehicle off a cliff in Mendocino County, California.[1][2]

Hart family murders
Hart-family.png
Ciara, Sarah, Hannah, Markis, Abigail, Devonte, Jennifer, and Jeremiah Hart
LocationMendocino County, California
DateMarch 26, 2018; 2 years ago (2018-03-26)
Attack type
Familicide, murder–suicide
Deaths8
Victims6 adopted children
PerpetratorsJennifer Hart, Sarah Hart

BackgroundEdit

Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart (née Gengler) were both from South Dakota; Jennifer originated from Huron, Sarah from Big Stone City.[3][4] Jennifer Hart attended Huron High School.[3] Sarah attended high school in Minnesota.[5] Some sources described Ortonville, Minnesota, adjacent to Big Stone City, as Sarah Hart's hometown.[6] The two women attended Northern State University;[7] Sarah initially attended University of Minnesota for one semester before transferring and Jennifer had transferred from Augustana University.[3] Both women majored in elementary education,[5] with the latter focusing on special education. The former did not graduate, while the latter did.[7] The two women were no longer university students after 2002.[5]

The women began their relationship at the university. On Facebook, Jennifer stated that the women were initially closeted and faced ostracism once they publicly outed themselves, prompting their moves.[7] They moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, in 2004,[8] were subsequently residents of West Linn, Oregon,[9] and an unincorporated area in Clark County, Washington (outside of the city limits of Woodland);[10] and had six adopted children during their lives.[9] The couple was living in Woodland at the time of the crash.[9] In 2005 Sarah asked the local court to have her family name altered to match her partner's.[11] They went to Connecticut to be married in 2009; at the time same sex marriage was not yet legal in every state.[12] Jennifer worked miscellaneous jobs until she became a stay-at-home mom in 2006, while Sarah worked as a manager at a Herberger's shop in Alexandria,[8] and later at a Kohl's in Hazel Dell, Washington.[13] The Harts received funds from the state of Texas, covering their children.[14] Almost 50% of the family income was made up of Texas funding.[13]

AdoptionEdit

Prior to adopting their six children, Jennifer and Sarah Hart were foster parents to a 15-year-old girl.[15] A week prior to when the other children were due to arrive, the Harts dropped the 15-year-old girl off at a therapist appointment and the therapist informed her that the Harts would not be coming back to get her, saying the Harts were just not a good fit.[15]

Abigail (born 2003), Hannah Jean (born 2002),[16] and Markis Hart (born 1998) were adopted from Colorado County, Texas;[17] the placement came on March 4, 2006.[12] The children's biological parents had their parental rights canceled by a court in Harris County, Texas, in August, and the formal adoption came in September.[11] In June 2008 they adopted three additional children, Ciera Maija,[18] Devonte Jordan,[19] and Jeremiah Hart.[12] Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera were born in 2002, 2004, and 2005, respectively, and originated from Houston. Their biological mother lost custody as she had substance abuse problems with crack cocaine.[20] Each of the children had a different biological father. They were given to an aunt under the condition that they have no contact with their biological mother. However, the aunt allowed the biological mother to babysit the children, which a case worker observed. As a result, the aunt lost custody.[21] She attempted to obtain permanent custody of the children, but the courts prevented her from doing so.[11]

Prior to the murders, Devonte Hart was 12 years old when he came into the national spotlight when he was photographed crying as he embraced a police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland resulting from the Ferguson unrest.[22] The image became known as the "hug felt 'round the world."[23] Jennifer Hart was very active on social media and used Facebook to portray an image of a loving, happy family while also sharing her thoughts on race, politics, and trips the family went on. This helped mask some of the problems in the family. One allegation of child abuse in 2013 touched upon Jennifer Hart's use of Facebook, saying that, "... the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless."[24]

AbuseEdit

MinnesotaEdit

In 2008, while the family was living in Minnesota, Hannah Hart was seen with bruises on her left arm, and when a teacher had asked about it, she said she had been hit by Jennifer with a belt. Within months, all six children had been pulled out of the public school system for a year.[24]

In 2010, Abigail Hart said that she had "owies" on her back and stomach. The incident was supposedly over a penny. Abigail said she had found it, but Sarah and Jennifer did not believe her. According to Abigail, Jennifer held Abigail's head under cold water and hit her. When the authorities got involved, all children claimed that they had been spanked constantly and deprived of food. Sarah, however, took responsibility for the abuse, pled guilty to assault, and was sentenced to community service for a year.[24] Abigail at the time, along with some siblings, was enrolled in Woodland Elementary School, with the remainder enrolled in other schools of Alexandria Public Schools.[20]

One year later, Hannah reportedly told a school nurse that she had not eaten all day. Sarah claimed that Hannah was merely “playing the food card” and recommended that Hannah just be given water. Around this time, all six children were taken out of public schools and were homeschooled from then on.[25]

OregonEdit

In 2013, authorities in Oregon had begun their own investigation into the Hart family, after being notified of the allegations in Minnesota. This investigation included separate interviews of everyone in the family, as well as interviews of people who knew the family. Two family friends said that the children were forced to raise their hands before speaking, could not wish each other a happy birthday, and could not laugh at the dinner table. There were other reports that the children were poorly fed and looked small for their ages. One family friend reported that Jen had ordered a pizza for the children, but each was only allowed to have a small slice. When Jen discovered that the pizza was gone, she punished the children by not feeding them breakfast and forcing them to lie on their bed for five hours.[25] Friends of the family stated that children acted "scared to death of Jen" and like "trained robots".[25][24]

However, the interviews of the children themselves revealed no new incidents of abuse, nor did they mention anything that had happened in Minnesota. When Jen herself was interviewed, she claimed that any family problems were the results of others not being tolerant to two lesbian mothers with six African-American children. In the end, the investigation could not conclude whether the Harts were guilty of anything or whether there was a "safety threat".[25]

WashingtonEdit

The Hart family moved to Woodland in 2017. In August of that year, Hannah Hart jumped out of her bedroom window at around 1:30 a.m. to try and contact her next door neighbors, the DeKalbs, pleading with them, "Don't make me go back! They're racists and they abuse us!"[24] Soon afterwards, Jen and Sarah found Hannah and brought her back home. Jen later attempted to explain this by saying that Hannah was lying, that the children occasionally acted out because they were "drug babies," and that Hannah's biological mother was bipolar. The DeKalb family still reported this incident to the authorities.[24]

After this incident, the DeKalbs were also in contact with Devonte Hart, who was constantly begging for food and asking the DeKalbs not to tell Jen about these requests. In later conversations with Devonte, he told them that his mothers withheld food as punishment and that the children were sometimes abused. This, combined with the earlier incident with Hannah, made the DeKalbs report the Harts to Child Protective Services. CPS workers tried to reach the Harts twice: once on March 23, 2018—three days before the crash—and once on the day of the crash.[24][25]

According to an incident report following the crash, it was reported that Sarah Hart told a co-worker "[that] she wish[ed] someone told her it was okay not to have a big family. Then she and Jennifer would not have adopted the children."[26]

DeathsEdit

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart murdered all six of their children when Jennifer Hart drove an SUV over a 100-foot (30 m) cliff on California State Route 1, in Mendocino County, California, near Westport.[27][12] The bodies of five of the children (Hannah, 16; Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12) were found in or nearby the vehicle, which landed upside down on a Pacific Ocean beach. The body of Devonte, 15, has not been found.[12][28] A superior court judge ruled that Devonte was in the vehicle at the time of the crash, and a death certificate was signed on April 3, 2019.[29]

Authorities found that the SUV had been intentionally driven off the edge of the cliff.[12] The car had a black box that recorded parameters of the drive and fall.[30] A 14-member coroner's jury unanimously ruled the case a murder–suicide.[28][27][31] The inquest was called to determine cause of death, but not any responsibility in the civil or criminal fields.[32] The California Highway Patrol emailed Glamour magazine, stating that criminal prosecution was not possible due to the deaths of any responsible parties.[33]

Toxicology results showed that at the time of the crash, Jennifer Hart was over the alcohol legal limit.[12][28] The toxicology tests also found that Sarah Hart and two of their children had diphenhydramine in their systems.[28] Before the crash Sarah Hart made Google searches inquiring about Benadryl, no kill shelters, and the nature of drowning.[27] Andrew Theen of The Oregonian stated that previous child abuse allegations were a common element with familicide.[34]

Jennifer Hart's family planned a memorial service in Huron, but a relative stated that the event did not occur.[35]

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Levenson, Eric (April 5, 2018). "Authorities now believe all 6 Hart children were in the SUV at the time of the fatal cliffside crash". CNN.
  2. ^ "Hart family crash: Investigators reveal details from search of home after family SUV plunged off cliff". CBS. August 25, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Young, Molly (April 2018). "Devonte Hart's mother: tracing her life from the Midwest to her drive off the California cliff". The Oregonian. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  4. ^ Callahan, Mary; J. D.Morris (March 29, 2018). "Ex-neighbor describes 'surreal' contact with family feared dead in Mendocino Coast crash". Press Democrat. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
  5. ^ a b c Bush, Evan; Nina Shapiro (April 8, 2018). "Who were the Harts, really? Mystery surrounds family that plunged off California cliff". Seattle Times. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  6. ^ Walsh, Paul (April 25, 2018). "Years of abuse allegations gathered on Oregon parents who drove over ocean cliff with kids". Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved December 30, 2019. [...]and Sarah Gengler, from Ortonville, Minn.
  7. ^ a b c Smiley, Lauren (September 6, 2018). "Two White Moms. Six Black Kids. One Unthinkable Tragedy. A Look Inside the 'Perfect' Hart Family". Glamour.
  8. ^ a b Heim, Joe; Julie Tate (July 12, 2018). "Abuse, neglect and a system that failed: The tragic lives of the Hart children". Washington Post. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  9. ^ a b c Bush, Evan; Shapiro, Nina (April 8, 2018). "Who were the Harts, really? Mystery surrounds family that plunged off California cliff". The Seattle Times.
  10. ^ "Affidavit for Search Warrant" (PDF). State of Oregon. Retrieved June 18, 2020. - The whole address in the document shows that the house is not in the Woodland city limits; even though it has a "Woodland, WA" postal address, it is not in the Woodland city limits. This document is on the website of the Portland Tribune
  11. ^ a b c "Hart family deadly crash: a timeline". The Oregonian. March 29, 2018. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Stevens, Matt (January 17, 2019). "Before Harts Plunged Off a Cliff, Strain Dogged Family". The New York Times.
  13. ^ a b Bailey, Everton Jr.; Molly Young. "Inside the Hart family home, police search reveals debts, contradictions". The Oregonian. Retrieved January 3, 2020.
  14. ^ "Texas likely paid Hart moms $270k to care for adopted kids, report says". The Statesman Journal. The Oregonian. April 18, 2018. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  15. ^ a b Shapiro, Nina (April 12, 2018). "Story of Harts' foster child is one of heartbreak, though not the way some might expect". The Seattle Times.
  16. ^ "Hannah Jean Hart". Federal Bureau of Investigation. March 26, 2018. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
  17. ^ Levenson, Eric (April 6, 2018). "Authorities now believe all 6 Hart children were in the SUV at the time of the fatal cliffside crash". CNN. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  18. ^ Jennings, Angel (April 17, 2018). "One of three missing Hart children is found dead after plunge off cliff". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
  19. ^ "Devonte Jordan Hart". FBI. March 26, 2018. Archived from the original on April 22, 2018. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
  20. ^ a b Callan, Will (November 2018). "Telling Lies: How a Decade of Deception Led to the Hart Family's Tragic End on the Mendocino Coast". Sonoma Magazine. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  21. ^ Asgarian, Roxana; Shane Dixon Kavanaugh (April 12, 2018). "Devonte Hart family crash: 'It's just devastating,' says aunt who fought for custody". The Oregonian. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
  22. ^ Kavanaugh, Shane Dixon (March 28, 2018). "Child in viral Portland police hug photo missing, 5 family members dead after California cliff crash". The Oregonian.
  23. ^ Espinoza, Joshua (March 29, 2019). "Body of Devonte Hart, Kid Who Hugged Cop in Viral Protest Pic, Still Missing 1 Year Later". Complex.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g "Edge Of The Cliff: How An American Dream Turned Into A Nightmare For A Model Family". Investigation Discovery. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
  25. ^ a b c d e Stevens, Matt (April 27, 2018). "Hart Family, Before Driving Off Cliff, Hid Dark Home Life From View". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 16, 2019.
  26. ^ Sokmensuer, Harriet (September 19, 2018). "Before Wife Drove Her and Their Kids off a Cliff, Mom Expressed Regret Over Adopted Family". People.
  27. ^ a b c Holcombe, Madeline; Augie Martin (April 6, 2019). "Jennifer Hart drove her six children to their deaths as her wife looked up how much they would suffer, a jury says". CNN. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  28. ^ a b c d "Family cliff plunge case in California ruled murder-suicide". BBC. April 5, 2019.
  29. ^ Sokmensuer, Harriet (March 26, 2019). "Where is Devonte Hart? Boy in Viral Photo Was in Fatal Cliff Crash, But Body Remains Missing". People. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
  30. ^ Young, Molly (April 4, 2019). "Hart family inquest: Information from SUV's 'black box' reveals new details about its fatal last trip". The Oregonian. Retrieved June 18, 2020.
  31. ^ Callahan, Mary (April 4, 2019). "Jury finds Hart family crash on Mendocino Coast was murder-suicide". The Press Democrat. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  32. ^ Dumont, Tyler (April 3, 2019). "California coroner: Devonte Hart, teen previously reported missing after SUV crash, is dead". KPTV. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  33. ^ Smiley, Lauren (September 6, 2018). "Two White Moms. Six Black Kids. One Unthinkable Tragedy. A Look Inside the 'Perfect' Hart Family". Glamour. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
  34. ^ Theen, Andrew (January 30, 2019). "Deadly Hart crash stands out for experts who study family annihilators". The Oregonian. Retrieved June 17, 2020.
  35. ^ Woolington, Rebecca (June 23, 2018). "Hart family crash: Celebration of life planned in South Dakota". The Oregonian. Retrieved December 30, 2019.

External linksEdit

  • Morgan, Rachel; Lewis, Chuck; Sherwood, Matthew (May 22, 2020). "The Hart Family Tragedy" (Podcast). Documentary. Factual America.