Hart family murders
|Hart family murders|
|Location||Mendocino County, California|
|Date||March 26, 2018|
|Victims||6 adopted children|
|Perpetrators||Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart|
The Hart family murders were a March 2018 murder–suicide by Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who murdered their six adopted children by driving the family's sport utility vehicle off a cliff in Mendocino County, California.
Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart (née Gengler) were both from South Dakota; Jennifer originated from Huron, Sarah from Big Stone City. Jennifer Hart attended Huron High School. Sarah attended high school in Minnesota. Some sources described Ortonville, Minnesota, adjacent to Big Stone City, as Sarah Hart's hometown. The two women attended Northern State University; Sarah initially attended University of Minnesota for one semester before transferring and Jennifer had transferred from Augustana University. Both women majored in elementary education, with the latter focusing on special education. The former did not graduate, while the latter did. The two women were no longer university students after 2002.
The women began their relationship at the university. On Facebook, Jennifer stated that the women were initially closeted and faced ostracism once they publicly outed themselves, prompting their moves. They moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, in 2004, were subsequently residents of West Linn, Oregon, and an unincorporated area in Clark County, Washington (outside of the city limits of Woodland); and had six adopted children during their lives. The couple was living in Woodland at the time of the crime. In 2005 Sarah asked the local court to have her last name altered to match her partner's. They went to Connecticut to be married in 2009; at the time same sex marriage was not yet legal in every state. Jennifer worked miscellaneous jobs until she became a stay-at-home mom in 2006, while Sarah worked as a manager at a Herberger's shop in Alexandria, and later at a Kohl's in Hazel Dell, Washington. The Harts received funds from the state of Texas, covering their children. Almost 50% of the family income was made up of Texas funding.
Prior to adopting their six children, Jennifer and Sarah Hart were foster parents to a 15-year-old girl. A week before their first three children were due to arrive, the Harts dropped the 15-year-old girl off at a therapist appointment and the therapist informed her that the Harts would not be coming back to get her, saying the Harts were just not a good fit.
Abigail (born 2003), Hannah Jean (born 2002), and Markis Hart (born 1998) were adopted from Colorado County, Texas; the placement came on March 4, 2006. The children's biological parents had their parental rights canceled by a court in Harris County, Texas, in August, and the formal adoption came in September. In June 2008 they adopted three additional children, Ciera Maija, Devonte Jordan, and Jeremiah Hart. Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera were born in 2002, 2004, and 2005, respectively, and originated from Houston. Their biological mother lost custody as she had substance abuse problems with crack cocaine. Each of the children had a different biological father. They were given to an aunt under the condition that they have no contact with their biological mother. However, the aunt allowed the biological mother to babysit the children, which a case worker observed. As a result, the aunt lost custody. She attempted to obtain permanent custody of the children, but the courts prevented her from doing so.
Prior to the murders, Devonte Hart was 12 years old when he came into the national spotlight when he was photographed crying as he embraced a police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland resulting from the Ferguson unrest. The image became known as the "hug felt 'round the world." Jennifer Hart was very active on social media and used Facebook to portray 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 in the family. One allegation of child abuse in 2013 touched upon Jennifer Hart'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, Hannah Hart was seen with bruises on her left arm, and when a teacher had asked about it, she said 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 Hart said that she had "owies" on her back and stomach. The incident was supposedly over a penny. Abigail said she had found it, but Sarah and Jennifer did not believe her. According to Abigail, Jennifer held Abigail's head under cold water and hit her. When the authorities got involved, all children claimed that they had been spanked constantly and deprived of food. Sarah, however, took responsibility for the abuse, pled guilty to assault, and was sentenced to community service for a year. Abigail at the time, along with some siblings, was enrolled in Woodland Elementary School, with the remainder enrolled in other schools of Alexandria Public Schools.
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 Hannah just be given water. Around this time, all six children were taken out of public schools and were homeschooled from then on.
In 2013, authorities in Oregon had begun their own investigation into the Hart family, after being notified of the allegations in Minnesota. This investigation included separate interviews of everyone in the family, as well as interviews of people who knew the family. Two family friends said 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 Jen had ordered a pizza for the children, but each was only allowed to have a small slice. When Jen 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 of the family stated that children acted "scared to death of Jen" and like "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 Jen 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".
The Hart family moved to Woodland in 2017. In August of that year, Hannah Hart jumped out of her bedroom window at around 1:30 a.m. to try and contact her next door neighbors, the DeKalbs, pleading with them, "Don't make me go back! They're racists and they abuse us!" Soon afterwards, Jen and Sarah found Hannah and brought her back home. Jen later attempted to explain this by saying that Hannah was lying, that the children occasionally acted out because they were "drug babies," and that Hannah's biological mother was bipolar. The DeKalb family still reported this incident to the authorities.
After this incident, the DeKalbs were also in contact with Devonte Hart, who was constantly begging for food and asking the DeKalbs not to tell Jen about these requests. In later conversations with Devonte, he told them that his 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 Child Protective Services. CPS workers tried to reach the Harts twice: once on March 23, 2018—three days before the crash—and once on the day of the crash.
According to an incident report following the crash, it was reported that Sarah Hart 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."
On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart murdered all six of their children when Jennifer Hart drove an SUV 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, 16; Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12) were found in or nearby the vehicle, which landed upside down on a Pacific Ocean beach. The body of Devonte, 15, has not been found. 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, 2019.
Authorities found that the SUV had been intentionally driven off the edge of the cliff. The car had a black box that recorded parameters of the drive and fall. A 14-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 emailed Glamour magazine, stating that criminal prosecution was not possible due to the deaths of any responsible parties.
Toxicology results showed that at the time of the crash, Jennifer Hart was over the alcohol legal limit. The toxicology tests also found that Sarah Hart and two of their children had diphenhydramine in their systems. Before the crash Sarah Hart made Google searches inquiring about Benadryl, no kill shelters, and the nature of drowning. Andrew Theen of The Oregonian stated that previous child abuse allegations were a common element with familicide.
Jennifer Hart's family planned a memorial service in Huron, but a relative stated that the event did not occur.
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[...]and Sarah Gengler, from Ortonville, Minn.
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