US

Expert Reveals Causes of Death for Family of 8 at Hearing into SUV Crash

By Zachary Stieber

A jury in California will decide whether the deaths of Jen and Sarah Hart and their six adopted children were accidental or on purpose.

The Harts’ SUV plunged off a cliff on Northern California, traveling 90 miles per hour and falling about 100 feet.

Officials said the crash was likely intentional, because the road the family was traveling on—the Pacific Coast Highway—was so far from the cliff. Court documents stated investigators found no “acceleration marks, tire friction marks or braking furrow marks” at the scene.

“I’ve responded to quite a few collisions on the coast area and vehicles down the cliffs, and it was very unusual to have no evidence of any kind,” said Officer M. Covington with the California Highway Patrol at an April 3 hearing, the first of several scheduled days where evidence gathered in the case would be presented, reported WWSB.

The clifftop in Mendocino County where the SUV was found
The clifftop in Mendocino County where the Hart family’s SUV was found on March 26, 2018. (Mendocino County Sheriff/AP)

The majority of the hearing featured testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. Greg Pizarro, who testified that Jennifer Hart was drunk when she drove her large family off the cliff, reported WWSB.

Pizarro said an autopsy found she had a blood alcohol level of 0.102; California drivers are considered drunk with a level of 0.08 or higher.

Pizarro said he found evidence showing that only Jennifer Hart was wearing a seat belt when the SUV flew off the cliff and slammed into the rocks below, reported The Oregonian.

All family members died almost instantly from spinal injuries they received upon impact, he said.

A helicopter hovers at the scene of the crash
A helicopter hovers at the scene of the crash in which members of the family of Devonte Hart were killed. (California Highway Patrol)

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announced in April 2018 that Hart was intoxicated before the crash, saying that autopsy results showed that Sarah Hart and at least two of the children had diphenhydramine in their systems.

Diphenhydramine, an active ingredient in Benadryl, can cause drowsiness.

According to Pizarro, Sarah Hart may have been drowsy, hallucinating, and experiencing heart palpitations at the time of the crash, reported the Oregonian.

The bodies of siblings Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail were found the same day of the crash near the vehicle, while the body of Ciera Hart was pulled from the Pacific Ocean weeks later, Pizarro said, noting that the latter’s body was too decomposed and the cause of death could not be determined.

Human remains found in a shoe were matched to Hannah Hart through DNA testing while the remains of 15-year-old Devonte Hart have not been found.

In addition to Pizarro, two California Highway Patrol officers, a Mendocino County sheriff’s deputy, the county’s search and rescue coordinator, and a detective from Clark County, Washington testified during Wednesday’s hearing.

The Hart family in a file photo. (Mendocino County Sheriff)

The Harts lived in Oregon before moving to Washington state about a year before the fatal crash.

Neighbors of the family in Woodland said they contacted Child Protective Services after one of the adopted children came to their home begging for food for him and his siblings.

The Oregonian previously reported that the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services confirmed in a statement that a case had been opened against the parents shortly before the crash, identifying the children as “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect.”

In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to abusing one of the children, Abigail, who was then 6 years old. The girl told officers that one of her parents hit her with a closed fist, shoved her head into a cold bath, and then hit her again.

In 2013, Oregon officers responded to a call at the home after a Department of Human Services referral but ultimately took no action.

The Hart family left their home on March 23, 2018, the same day employees with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services tried to contact them.