The 15-year-old adopted child of Sarah and Jennifer Hart, who made national news after he was photographed tearfully hugging a police officer during a 2014 protest over the failed indictment of the cop who killed Mike Brown, died in a fatal car crash that was ruled a murder-suicide by a coroner’s jury Thursday (April 4), reports the Associated Press.
Following testimony from authorities and a forensic pathologist who conducted autopsies on the deceased, jurors determined that Sarah and Jennifer killed themselves and their six adopted children, who ranged from ages 12 to 19.
At the time of her death, Jennifer Hart’s blood alcohol level was found to be .102%, far above California’s legal limit. She was the only one wearing a seatbelt when she drove the family SUV off of a Northern California cliff on March 26, 2018. The vehicle was later found partially submerged in the ocean following a 100-foot drop.
Sarah Hart, who was in the passenger seat, had high amounts of Benadryl in her system. The children were also found to have the sedative in their systems. During the drive to California, Sarah Hart searched suicide, potential ways to overdose on the allergy medication and whether or not drowning would be painful, authorities said.
The couple and the children died of broken necks, forensic pathologist, Greg Pizarro, testified Wednesday (April 3) sharing the grizzly details of the murder-suicide. Sarah Hart was identified by her driver’s license, but Pizarro was unable to positively identify Jennifer Hart “due to her fall.” She was later identified by authorities.
Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney concluded that the pair simply “succumbed to a lot of pressure,” likely due to a looming child services investigation into claims of child neglect. Barney said that the two had “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 neighbor filed a complaint alleging that the Harts were starving the children as punishment, but when a social worker came to the family home in Woodland, Wash., no one answered the door. The Harts killed themselves and the children three days after the visit. The couple were also the focus of a 2013 child welfare investigation that was later closed.
The bodies of Markis, 19, Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14, were found near the vehicle. The remains of Ciara Hart, 12, were pulled from the Pacific Ocean weeks later. Her body was too badly decomposed to determine the cause of death, but Pizarro believes she likely died in a similar manner to “all the other children.” A human foot found on a beach by a hiker’s dog was later determined to be that of 16-year-old Hannah Hart.