SAN FRANCISCO – A special coroner's jury in California ruled the deaths of two women and their six adopted children was a murder-suicide after hearing testimony that one of the women had searched death by drowning online and the other deliberately stepped on the gas, sending their SUV plunging off a cliff.
Jurors returned unanimous verdicts that Jennifer and Sarah Hart killed themselves on March 26, 2018, in Mendocino County. The jury ruled the six children, 12 to 19, died at the hands of another and not by accident.
Authorities had indicated they believed the crash was deliberate but wanted a jury to make official findings.
The deaths drew national attention; the women were alleged to have abused their children. The body of Devonte Hart, 15, who was black and had gained attention when he was photographed in tears hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Ore., has not been recovered.
"It is my belief that both Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to a lot of pressure," Sheriff's Lt. Shannon Barney said. "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."
The crash happened days after authorities in Washington state opened an investigation into allegations of neglect. The bodies of both women were found in the vehicle, which landed below a cliff.
The Hart family had fled their Woodland, Wash., home March 23 after a visit from social workers that day.
Sarah Hart searched suicide, drowning, Benadryl dosages and overdose methods on the internet throughout the drive to California. She also queried whether death by drowning would be painful. Authorities recovered the deleted searches from her phone.
"They both decided that this was going to be the end," investigator Jake Slates said. "That if they can't have their kids then nobody was going to have those kids."
The bodies of siblings Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail were found the same day near the car. Weeks later, the body of Ciera Hart was pulled from the Pacific Ocean. Hannah Hart was eventually identified through a DNA match.
Jennifer Hart, who rarely drank, had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit and may have been "drinking to build up her courage," Slates said. Sarah Hart had 42 doses of generic Benadryl in her system and the children also had high amounts of the sleep-inducing drug in their bodies.
Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Alexandria, Minn., over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children.