Jennifer and Sarah Hart gave their six children as many as 19 doses each of Benadryl before driving their SUV over a steep cliff and into the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night last year, a jury determined on Thursday.
The children and their mothers all died in the crash in California’s Mendocino County. The verdict was the first confirmation that the married couple had planned the crash that killed their entire family.
The case has generated much interest, in part because the two white mothers and their six adopted children had been portrayed on social media as a happy, multi-racial family. Devonte Hart, 15, who was black, gained national attention when he was photographed in tears while hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon.
The family’s story began to unravel in March of last year, when they fled their Woodland, Washington, home after a visit from social workers investigating charges they were neglecting the children. A neighbor had filed a complaint with the state saying the children were being deprived of food as punishment.
New details about their last days emerged this week at a special coroner’s jury in Mendocino County.
A coroner’s inquest is generally used in cases involving in-custody deaths or officer-involved shootings where public interest is high and the need for transparency critical, said Mendocino County sheriff’s Capt. Gregory L. Van Patten.
Authorities had indicated they believed the crash was deliberate but wanted a jury to make official findings.
Evidence included testimony that Sarah Hart had used her phone to search for information about drowning and hypothermia.
California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates testified that the deleted searches had been recovered from her phone, The Oregonian reported. They included these questions:
“Can 500 mgs of Benadryl kill a 120-pound woman?”
“Is death by drowning relatively painless?”
“How long does it take to die from hypothermia while drowning in a car?”
The SUV’s “black box” computer, recovered after the crash, showed that Jennifer Hart drove over the cliff at full throttle, The Oregonian reported.
A witness who was camping by their vehicle says he heard their car rev up around 3 a.m. on March 26, 2018.
The jury decided the six children, 12 to 19, died due to their mothers’ intentional act. They also included Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12.
The family’s Garmin GPS was recovered several weeks after the crash. It showed that they had stopped at a Walmart in Washington state, where it is believed Jennifer Hart bought the generic version of Benadryl.
Sarah Hart, who was not driving, had 42 doses of the generic, sleep-inducing drug in her system.
The children also had high levels of the drug in their bodies, the autopsies found. The couple often gave their children Benadryl on long drives so they would sleep, authorities said in the hearing.
Jennifer Hart had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit and may have been “drinking to build up her courage,” Slates said.
Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said Thursday she believed the couple succumbed to pressure.
“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,” she said.
“They both decided that this was going to be the end,” Slates said. “That if they can’t have their kids that 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.
The body of Devonte Hart has not been found.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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