Hart family murders
|Location||Mendocino County, California, U.S.|
|Date||March 26, 2018|
|Deaths||8 (including both perpetrators)|
|Victims||6 adopted children|
|Perpetrators||Jennifer and Sarah Hart 39°42′08″N 123°48′14″W / 39.7023005°N 123.803873°W|
The Hart family murders was a murder–suicide which took place on March 26, 2018, in Mendocino County, California, United States. Jennifer Hart and her wife, Sarah Hart, murdered their six adopted children: Ciera (aged 12), Abigail (14), Jeremiah (14), Devonte (15), Hannah (16), and Markis (19) when Jennifer intentionally drove the family's sport utility vehicle off a cliff. Jennifer was in the driver’s seat, and Sarah was in the front passenger seat.
Jennifer Jean Hart (June 4, 1979 – March 26, 2018) and Sarah Margaret Hart (April 8, 1979 – March 26, 2018, née Gengler) were both from South Dakota; Jennifer originated from Huron, Sarah from Big Stone City, although some sources claim Ortonville, Minnesota – adjacent to Big Stone City – as Sarah's hometown. Both women were the eldest children of their families. Jennifer had two siblings and Sarah had three siblings. According to her father, Jennifer was not initially raised as a Lutheran but was baptized as one.
Jennifer attended Huron High School. Sarah attended Ortonville High School in Minnesota. The two women attended and began their relationship at Northern State University (NSU); Sarah had initially attended the University of Minnesota for one semester before transferring to NSU, while Jennifer started at Augustana University before transferring in 1999. Both women majored in elementary education, with Sarah focusing on special education. After Sarah graduated in 2002, Jennifer left the university without graduating. In 2005, Sarah asked a local court to have her last name altered to match her partner's. The couple went to Connecticut to be married in 2009; at the time same-sex marriage was not legal in every U.S. state.
On Facebook, Jennifer stated that the women were initially closeted when they lived in South Dakota, and that when they came out they lost friends. They moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, in 2004, where both women worked at a Herberger's store. In the new location, they made a choice to be open about their relationship. Jennifer worked miscellaneous jobs until she became a stay-at-home mom in 2006, while Sarah became a manager at Herberger's. After a period of living in West Linn, Oregon, the Harts moved to an unincorporated area near Woodland, Washington; Sarah became a manager at a Kohl's in Hazel Dell. The couple were living near Woodland at the time of the murders.
The Harts received funds from the state of Texas, covering their six adopted children, which accounted for almost 50% of the family's income. Members of Jennifer's and Sarah's families stated that the two women distanced themselves from them, although both families were accepting of their sexual orientation. Jennifer estranged herself from her father after 2001. State government reports stated that the couple cut off contact with their relatives because of criticism about their parenting.
Prior to adopting their six children, the Harts were foster parents to a 15-year-old girl. A week before their first three children were due to arrive, the Harts dropped the girl off at a scheduled therapist appointment. The therapist then informed the girl that the Harts would not be coming back for her.
Abigail (born 2003), Hannah Jean (born 2002), and Markis Hart (born 1998) were adopted by the Harts from Colorado County, Texas; the placement came on March 4, 2006, and they were adopted that September. In June 2008, they adopted three additional children: Ciera Maija (born 2005), Devonte Jordan (born 2002), and Jeremiah Hart (born 2004), originating from Houston. After their biological mother, Sherry Davis, lost custody due to substance abuse problems in August 2006, the Davis children were given to their paternal aunt, Priscilla Celestine, under the condition that they have no contact with their biological mother. However, after she was required to work another shift, Celestine allowed Davis to babysit the children, which a case worker observed. As a result, the children were removed from Celestine's care and a court prevented Celestine from obtaining permanent custody. The Davis children were put into foster care; their older brother, Dontay, was not adopted by the Harts due to behavioral issues.
Prior to the murders, 12-year-old Devonte came into the national spotlight when he was photographed crying as he embraced a police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, resulting from the Ferguson unrest. The image became known as the "hug felt 'round the world." Jennifer was very active on social media and used Facebook to project 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 within the family. One allegation of child abuse from 2013 touched upon Jennifer'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."
In 2008, while the family was living in Minnesota, a teacher observed bruises on Hannah's left arm and was told 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. In 2010, Abigail said that she had "owies" on her back and stomach and stated that she felt threatened by the Harts, who had beaten her and held her head in cold water over a penny they assumed had been stolen. When authorities became involved, all children claimed that they had been spanked constantly and deprived of food. Sarah took responsibility for the abuse, pled guilty to assault and was sentenced to community service for a year. 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 she just be given water. Soon afterward, all six children were taken out of public schools and were homeschooled from then on.
In 2013, Oregon authorities were notified of the abuse allegations in Minnesota. Their investigation included separate interviews of everyone in the family, as well as interviews of people who knew the family. Two family friends stated 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 Jennifer had ordered a pizza for the children, but each was only allowed to have a small slice. When Jennifer 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. Friends also stated that the children acted "scared to death of Jen" and likened them to "trained robots".
However, the interviews of the children themselves revealed no new incidents of abuse, nor did they mention anything that had happened in Minnesota. When Jennifer 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".
In August 2017, after the Harts had since moved to Woodland, Washington, Hannah jumped out of her second-story bedroom window at around 1:30 a.m. and approached the residence of her next-door neighbors, the DeKalbs. Hannah reportedly pleaded, "Don't make me go back! They're racists and they abuse us!" Soon afterwards, the Harts found Hannah and took her back home. The following day, Jennifer attempted to explain the incident by claiming that Hannah was lying, that the children occasionally acted out because they were "drug babies", and that Hannah's biological mother was bipolar.
After this incident, the DeKalb family came into contact with Devonte, who constantly begged for food and asked the DeKalbs not to tell Jennifer about these requests. In later conversations with Devonte, he told them that his adoptive 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 both the police and to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Case workers from DSHS tried to reach the Harts twice: once on March 23, 2018—three days before the murders—and once on the day of the murders.
On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart murdered all six of the children when Jennifer drove their vehicle, a GMC Yukon XL, over a 100-foot (30 m) cliff on California State Route 1, in Mendocino County, California, near Westport. The bodies of five of the children (Hannah, Markis, Jeremiah, Abigail, and Ciera) were found in or near the vehicle, which had landed upside down on a beach below the cliff. The body of Devonte has not been found as of 2022[update]. 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 of that year.
Expert analysis of the SUV’s internal air bag-deploying computer determined that the Yukon had been intentionally driven off the edge of the cliff from a standing stop, accelerating to 20mph in 3 seconds with the throttle at 100%. A fourteen-member coroner's jury unanimously ruled the case a murder–suicide. The inquest was called to determine cause of death, but not any responsibility in the civil or criminal fields. The California Highway Patrol stated that criminal prosecution was not possible due to the deaths of any responsible parties.
Toxicology results showed that Jennifer's blood alcohol content was over the legal limit at the time of the crash, and that both Sarah and two of the children had diphenhydramine in their systems. Sarah had made Google searches before the crash, inquiring about the lethality of Benadryl and the nature of death by drowning. Her searches also included "No-kill shelters for dogs"; the family's two dogs were found inside the Hart family home. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Department officially closed the case and released declassified records in 2019.
According to an incident report following the murders, it was reported that Sarah 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."
- Disappearance of Susan Powell
- List of homicides in California
- Murder of Hannah Clarke
- Murder of Zachary Turner
- "Three Slaps"
- ^ 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.
- ^ "Hart family crash: Investigators reveal details from search of home after family SUV plunged off cliff". CBS. August 25, 2018.
- ^ a b KGW News. "2013 LEA-Report Redacted". Scribd.
- ^ 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.
- ^ a b c d e f 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.
- ^ 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.
- ^ "Broken Harts, Episode 2: Full Transcript". Glamour. December 11, 2018. Retrieved May 30, 2021. – View at Yahoo! Finance
- ^ 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.
- ^ 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.
- ^ a b c "Hart family deadly crash: a timeline". The Oregonian. March 29, 2018. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
- ^ a b c d e f Stevens, Matt (January 17, 2019). "Before Harts Plunged Off a Cliff, Strain Dogged Family". The New York Times.
- ^ 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.
- ^ a b "Broken Harts Podcast, Episode 1: Full Transcript". Glamour. December 4, 2018. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
- ^ a b Bush, Evan; Shapiro, Nina (April 8, 2018). "Who were the Harts, really? Mystery surrounds family that plunged off California cliff". The Seattle Times.
- ^ "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
- ^ a b Bailey, Everton Jr.; Molly Young. "Inside the Hart family home, police search reveals debts, contradictions". The Oregonian. Retrieved January 3, 2020.
- ^ "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.
- ^ "Broken Harts, Episode 8: 'There Were Good Times'". Glamour. January 29, 2019. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
- ^ a b c 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.
- ^ 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.
- ^ "Hannah Jean Hart". Federal Bureau of Investigation. March 26, 2018. Archived from the original on April 22, 2018. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
- ^ 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.
- ^ 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.
- ^ "Devonte Jordan Hart". FBI. March 26, 2018. Archived from the original on April 22, 2018. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
- ^ a b Asgarian, Roxana (January 30, 2019). "Devonte Hart's biological mom: They gave my kids 'to monsters'". The Oregonian. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
- ^ 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.
- ^ Asgarian, Roxana (December 11, 2019). "His siblings were killed by their adoptive mother. He was left in foster care to suffer a more common fate". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 30, 2021. – Alternate version at the Seattle Times: "His siblings were killed when the Hart family’s van went off a cliff. He had been left in foster care." Alternate title #2 : "How the foster care-to-prison pipeline trapped the Hart children's biological brother"
- ^ Kavanaugh, Shane Dixon (March 28, 2018). "Child in viral Portland police hug photo missing, 5 family members dead after California cliff crash". The Oregonian.
- ^ Espinoza, Joshua (March 29, 2019). "Body of Devonte Hart, Kid Who Hugged Cop in Viral Protest Pic, Still Missing 1 Year Later". Complex.
- ^ a b c d e f "Edge Of The Cliff: How An American Dream Turned Into A Nightmare For A Model Family". Investigation Discovery. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
- ^ 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.
- ^ Stevens, Matt (January 17, 2018). "Before Harts Plunged Off a Cliff, Strain Dogged Family". The New York Times.
- ^ 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.
- ^ a b c d "Family cliff plunge case in California ruled murder-suicide". BBC. April 5, 2019.
- ^ 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.
- ^ 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.
- ^ Callahan, Mary (April 4, 2019). "Jury finds Hart family crash on Mendocino Coast was murder-suicide". The Press Democrat. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- ^ Dumont, Tyler (April 3, 2019). "California coroner: Devonte Hart, teen previously reported missing after SUV crash, is dead". KPTV. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- ^ 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.
- ^ "Authorities now believe all 6 Hart children were in the SUV at the time of the fatal cliffside crash". CNN. April 5, 2018.
- ^ "Mendocino County Sheriff's Office releases Hart Family public records". The Willits News. April 11, 2019. Retrieved May 27, 2021.
- ^ Sokmensuer, Harriet (September 19, 2018). "Before Wife Drove Her and Their Kids off a Cliff, Mom Expressed Regret Over Adopted Family". People.
- Asgarian, Roxanna (2023). We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America. New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374602298.
- "Hart Family" Index of articles from The Seattle Times
- Broken Harts podcast and Broken Harts: Behind the Episodes (includes transcripts) – Glamour
- MEDIA ADVISORY/NEWS RELEASE. Mendocino County Sheriff's Office (MCSO). April 7, 2018.
- "Hart Family Coroner's Inquest – Press Conference". Mendocino County Sheriff's Office. April 4, 2019.
- http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2018/images/04/25/2013.07.23.cps-report_redacted.pdf – Minnesota child protective services (CPS) report, posted by CNN
- Priscilla Celestine v. Department of Family and Protective Services—Appeal from 313th District Court of Harris County
- 2018 controversies in the United States
- 2018 deaths
- 2018 murders in the United States
- 2018 road incidents
- 21st-century mass murder in the United States
- Child abuse in the United States
- Child abuse resulting in death
- Filicides in California
- March 2018 crimes in the United States
- Mass murder in 2018
- Mass murder in California
- Mass murder in the United States
- Murder–suicides in California
- Road incidents in the United States