A white lesbian couple who drove themselves and their six adopted children off a Northern California cliff last year did so deliberately, a special coroner’s jury has ruled.
The couple, Sarah Hart, and her wife, Jennifer Hart, had purposely driven their sport utility vehicle over the cliff with their six children in the car in a murder-suicide in March 2018, the jury said, confirming earlier suspicions that the crash was intentional.
The couple had done this on purpose after learning that they were under investigation by child welfare officials. According to the The New York Times, jurors reached a unanimous decision in about an hour of deliberation after hearing details of the incident over two days of testimony
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The Hart family had fled their Woodland, Washington, home March 23 after a visit from social workers that day, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Investigators later found that Sarah Hart had performed internet searches about suicide, Benadryl dosages and whether drowning was painful.
Authorities found these deleted searches from her phone. An investigator also testified that Sarah Hart had 42 doses of generic Benadryl in her system, while Jennifer Hart, the driver, had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.102 per cent (a level over the legal limit) when she drove the car off the cliff.
“They both decided that this was going to be the end,” Jake Slates, a California Highway Patrol investigator was quoted by the AP. “That if they can’t have their kids that nobody was going to have those kids.”
The remains of the couple, as well as, five of the children were found: Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12. A sixth child, 15-year-old Devonte is still considered missing even though is presumed dead.
Devonte was once the focus of media attention after a photo of him hugging a white police officer during a 2014 demonstration in Portland, Oregon, went viral.
Photos and videos would later depict a happy family, but authorities would soon learn that the adopted children had repeatedly accused their parents of abuse, based on reports from neighbours and a social worker.
In 2010, Minnesota’s child welfare agency received six reports of abuse or neglect, two of which were deemed to be founded, said The New York Times.
Sarah Hart admitted to physically harming Abigail and was convicted of misdemeanour domestic assault.
When the family moved to West Linn, Ore., child welfare officials investigated the couple after reports that the children appeared malnourished and were being given harsh punishments. The case was closed after officials found no “safety threat.”
Meanwhile, the children would continue to tell neighbours that their parents were denying them food as punishment, compelling them to beg for food from these neighbours.
In 2017, the family moved to Woodland, Wash. There, neighbours said that one of the children, Hannah, rang their doorbell at 1:30 a.m., begging them to take her to Seattle. She had to hide in a bedroom when her parents arrived at their neighbour’s minutes later, but she went home in the long run.
Then in March 2018, Devonte also started going to the home of their neighbours to beg for food. On March 23, three days before the crash, neighbours alerted child protective services about the plight of the children.
But when social workers went to the Hart family’s home later that day, there was no answer.
A witness who was camping near where the Hart family’s vehicle drove off the cliff said he heard sounds of a car revving up and accelerating early in the morning on March 26, according to OPB. A passing motorist also reported seeing the family’s smashed GMC Yukon at the bottom of the cliff later that day
Criminal charges cannot be brought against dead people, so the jury was assigned to determine cause rather than guilt, said The New York Times.
Authorities believe that since there is no prosecution involved in the case, the jury’s verdict “can help bring closure to those who were close to the Hart family, as well as the investigators themselves.”