In an unspeakable tragedy, Jennifer and Sarah Hart — the parents of Devonte Hart — died, along with at least three of their six children, after their car plunged off a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway. Jen Hart, 38, was driving and her wife, Sarah Hart, 38, was in the passenger seat, according to official reports. Jen was drunk at the time of the crash, according to recent reports.
The horrific crash happened on a cliff overlooking an ocean in Mendocino County, northern California. Investigators are still working on determining the cause of the crash, but told KGW-TV they have “reason to believe” that the crash was “intentional.” Air bag evidence and the lack of tire friction by the cliff’s edge all paint a picture of an intentional act. On April 7, a body was recovered in the ocean that might be one of the three missing children.
Officials have said that the entire family might have been in the car when it drove off a cliff and police fear the other three children were also killed. Police said they have “every indication to believe” that all six children were in the car, KGW reported. The bodies of 19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart were recovered along with Jen and Sarah Hart. But 12-year-old Sierra Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 15-year-old Devonte Hart remain missing, police said. On Saturday, April 7, a vacationing couple saw a body floating in the ocean near where the crash happened. A third bystander pulled the body onto the beach. Officials have not yet identified the person, but said the body was a female African American and possibly one of the three children still missing. However, they have not yet been able to determine the age, and said a DNA analysis might take several weeks.
Search crews have been using boats, aircraft, and drones to scan the ocean and beach in their search for the last three children, but the Mendocino Sheriff’s office has said that the three missing children are presumed dead. Neighbors have alleged abuse by Jennifer and Sarah Hart, saying that their young son Devonte came to them asking for food. Meanwhile, the mothers’ friends are saying that they only saw the two moms acting loving and caring to their six adopted children. Here is what you need to know about Jen Hart and Sarah Hart and their family:
1. Officials Said the Speedometer Was ‘Pinned at 90 MPH’ Prior to the Crash, & the Driver Was Drunk
Officials haven’t officially determined if the crash in Northern California was intentional or if something caused the car to plunge off the cliff and fall 100 feet, but they now say they believe it was intentional, according to KGW-TV. The investigation is still ongoing.
On April 13, investigators announced that toxicology reports showed that Jennifer, the driver, was drunk at the time of the crash, with a blood alcohol level of 0.102. Anything at .08 or higher is considered legally drunk in California. Tests also showed that Sarah and two of their children had a significant amount of the ingredient in Benadryl that causes drowsiness.
Investigators believe the crash was intentional. “It was documented at the time of the crash, the vehicle was ‘pinned’ or was traveling at ’90 mph.’ However, that information is not conclusive or factual. The speedometer could have moved at impact or somehow was manipulated,” Greg Baarts, acting assistant chief for the California Highway Patrol’s Northern Division, told KGW. “While it has been documented that the car was traveling at 90 mph upon impact, it is not conclusive whatsoever. We do have reason to believe, however, that the crash was intentional. This is all based on preliminary information.”
Police told The Associated Press they have indication that a “felony was committed.”
The highway patrol said the SUV’s on board computer shows the vehicle stopped at a pullout and then accelerated over the cliff, a distance of about 70 feet. Police said it was “pure acceleration all the way.”
But they have said that Jennifer navigated the 2003 GMC Yukon XL onto a dirt turnout, and there are no signs of skid or brake marks at the scene before the car drove off the cliff. The scene is confusing, they said, because it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. CHP Sgt. Christopher Dalin said: “We don’t know if it rolled over the edge or if it launched over the edge.”
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said the car had to cross a wide expanse of gravel between the road and a dirt berm in order to even reach the cliff, Press Democrat reported. That means the car had to travel 70 feet over a dirt pullout before going off the cliff. The crash was seen by someone passing by Monday, March 26 at 3:40 p.m., but officials said it’s not known exactly when the crash happened, and some time could have passed between the crash and when the wreckage was seen.
The car landed upside down while Jennifer and her wife, Sarah Hart, were in the front seats, wearing seat belts. Investigators found three of their six children dead at the scene, thrown from the car: Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart , 14; and Abigail Hart, 14. Officials are conducting a search for the other three children: Sierra Hart; 12, Hannah Hart, 16; and Devonte Hart, 15. Allman said they “have every reason to believe” that all six of the children were in the car. The search for the three children still continues.
“This specific location is very difficult to search because the ocean currents and tides are strong, it’s unpredictable, and the murkiness of the water makes it difficult to see,” said Captain Greg Van Patten, a spokesman for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, told The Associated Press.
All six of the children were adopted. According to a friend’s Facebook post, Jen and Sarah had been together for 18 years. Devonte and two of his siblings were the last of the six adopted, in 2007, Oregon Live reported. They lived in Alexandria, Minnesota in 2011, and moved to West Linn in 2014. In 2017, they moved to their home in Clark County, Washington, where they were still living at the time of the crash.
Just a few months ago, Jen Hart posted a photo on Facebook celebrating the ninth anniversary of adopting three of her children. She wrote on Facebook: “I am a better human in every possible way for knowing these children. They have been my greatest teachers. Contrary to the common notion that we can’t choose our family, we absolutely can. We choose by loving – and that’s worth celebrating every damn day.”
Police served a search warrant at the Harts’ Washington home on March 29 and retrieved computers and credit card and bank statements. Police said there was no suicide note left behind at the home or obvious indicator to explain what happened, according to KGW. Deputies who executed the search said the home was “neat and in order” and there was “no obvious signs of violence.” A cat and several chickens and ducks were taken from the home, KGW reports. Two dogs appeared to live at the home, but were not present, according to the news station.
Surveillance photos and other data showed that the Hart family were in the Newport, Oregon area the Saturday before the crash, traveled to Leggett, California, and then on to Fort Bragg. Jennifer was seen in Fort Bragg at a Safeway on the morning of Sunday, March 25. Read more about the timeline of sightings in Heavy’s story here.
2. Neighbors Were So Worried That They Called Child Protective Services, But Friends Insist the Harts Were Not Abusive
Jennifer Hart is originally from West Linn, Oregon, and Sarah is originally from Alexandria, Minnesota, People reported. The Harts lived with their children in Woodland, Washington, a small town just outside of Portland, Oregon. Their three bedroom, two-story home sat on two acres and had a fenced pasture. They had just moved there last year, Fox 2 reported.
Just a few days before the tragic crash was discovered, neighbors Bruce and Dana DeKalb had called CPS about the family, concerned that the children weren’t being fed, KGW8 reported. They said the mothers’ son, Devonte, often sneaked out of the house multiple times a day, asking neighbors for food. He told them that his mothers withheld food as punishment and wouldn’t let the children go outside. Dana said that Devonte’s requests for food escalated over time, Oregon Live reported. First he asked for tortillas, then asked for bread. Later he asked for a case of peanut butter and other non perishables. He would come over as many as three times a day. On the Thursday before the crash, Devonte asked her: “Have you called?”
Neighbors Bruce and Dana DeKalb told Fox 2 that in May 2017, one of the daughters rang the doorbell of their home around 1:30 a.m. She had a blanket and said she needed protection. Bruce said: “(She) was at our door in a blanket saying we needed to protect her. She said that they were abusing her. It haunted my wife since that day.”
CPS visited the Harts on March 23, 2018, and the Harts did not answer the door, Dane DeKalb told KGW8.
Neighbors in Woodland said the Harts rarely allowed their children to go outside. Neighbors from their previous home in West Linn said the same thing, Oregon Live reported. Bill Groener, 67, said they were rarely outside, even in good weather, and he’d only have contact with his neighbors through the mail. He said they were isolated, and still feels guilty that he didn’t call CPS. But he said they had enough positive activities going on to counteract the bad, like camping trips, and he just felt like privacy was important to them.
But the Woodland neighbors’ call about the Harts wasn’t even the first time that Woodland authorities had gotten worried calls about the family. Four months earlier, in November, a man called 911 after hearing a story his daughter, one of the Harts’ neighbors, had told him, CNN reported. He told dispatch that he thought the kids were being “highly abused.” Around 2 a.m., one of the girls came to his daughter’s house begging for help. She jumped out of the second story window onto the roof, then jumped to the ground, and ran to his daughter begging for help, he said. She cried and begged her not to tell her moms. But the parents were notified. Later, one of the parents came with four of the kids, who all said they were OK. “They were all standing at attention, like they were all scared to death, and I think there’s something very serious going on there,” he told dispatch. The girl never said why she was so scared, and it’s not known if any action was taken based on the call.
Then, just two days before the crash was discovered, Sarah Hart reached out to a friend, Fox News reported. Cheryl Hart (not related) got a 3 a.m. text from Sarah on March 24. Sarah told her that she was sick and not able to come out of the house or go to work, and might need to see a doctor. Her friend couldn’t get hold of her after the text, or get hold of Jennifer. She called 911 on March 26, the day their car was found, because she was worried.
But to their friends, the Harts painted a very different picture than the DeKalbs saw, which has left many people confused. Friends of the Harts disagreed with the neighbors’ descriptions that they were abusive or that something was wrong. On Facebook, Niki Ann wrote in response to one story: “This is just disgusting. That neighbor had no compassion for so many hurting people when slinging such crazy allegations. It is so sad.”
Other friends suggested the neighbors didn’t understand homeschooling, and that’s why the felt like the children weren’t outside very often. Mary Schneider wrote on Facebook: “What the hell are they implying? They would never do anything that would intentionally hurt the children!’
After CPS visited on March 23, neighbors said they thought the family left and didn’t go back home. It was unusual because they were normally at home all the time except for running errands. Bruce DeKalb told KGW8 that their vehicle was gone Saturday morning. It was still gone Sunday morning. “We figured that they saw the business card (from CPS) and loaded up the kids as quick as they could and took off.”
Clark County attempted to do a welfare check on Monday, but no one was home. Multiple welfare check attempts by CPS also weren’t successful, finding no one home. Clark County attempted a visit again on Tuesday, and no one was home. They entered the house, but found no obvious signs of trouble or violence, and the family’s pets, chickens, and belongings were still at home, WHIG reported. They thought the family had taken a short trip.
3. Sarah Hart Pleaded Guilty to Domestic Assault Involving One of Her Daughters in 2011
In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to domestic assault against one of her daughters, Abigail, KGW8 reported. A teacher called the police in Minnesota in November 2010 after she saw a six-year-old girl with bruises on her stomach and back. The girl told officials that her mom hit her so hard that she left bruises. A criminal complaint reported that Sarah admitted to a detective that she was spanking one of her daughters and had bent her over a bathroom tub and hit her. She admitted that she “let her anger get out of control.” She was charged with misdemeanor domestic assault and malicious punishment of a child. She pleaded guilty to domestic assault, and the malicious punishment charge was dropped.
Jennifer said that she saw the spanking happen. Sarah avoided 90 days of jail by following the terms of her probation. You can read the original criminal complaint above.
Later reports revealed more about what happened in 2010. During an interview with police, Abigail told a detective that Jennifer was the one who hit her (although Sarah was the one who ultimately pled guilty), Oregon Live reported. Abigail said that Jennifer was angry because a penny fell out of her pocket. She said Jennifer dragged her to the bathroom and submerged her head under cold water in the tub, then spanking her repeatedly with a closed fist. Abigail said she was grounded, and sometimes her punishment would include missing lunch. Abigail’s siblings didn’t all back her up. One sibling said that Abigail lied about the beating and had only been given a time out. That sibling also said that the parents only used open hands for spanking. Another sibling said they weren’t spanked or made to go without food.
Sarah told police that Abigail’s lying had gotten out of control and that it was her, not Jennifer, who spanked Abigail. The police investigating the case said there weren’t any other signs of abuse in the home. Det. Sgt. Larry Dailey told Oregon Live: “From what I recall, they were very anti-system folks. They didn’t like the school or that the police intervened, and they certainly didn’t like the outcome.”
The family moved to West Linn a short time later and began homeschooling their children. Clackamas Education Services District told KRON4 that they had no records of the Harts filing a declaration of intent to homeschool.
In 2013, the West Linn police department was contacted with concerns about the Harts, and the concerns were forwarded to DHS, KRON4 reported. But DHS would not confirm or deny this report. However, Alexandra Argyropoulos, a former friend of the Harts, told the Associate Press that she was the source of that report. She said she witnessed “what I felt to be controlling emotional abuse and cruel punishment” toward all six children, including depriving the children of food. She said the Oregon Department of Human Services told her they couldn’t do anything because there wasn’t enough evidence to make a case.
The Harts moved to Woodland in 2017.
4. Friends Called the Moms ‘Hart Attacks’ Because of How Loving They Said the Moms Were
On social media, friends of the Harts are expressing disbelief and shock over portrayals that the mothers were anything but loving to their children. One close friend, Pte Sapa Win, shared a video publicly on Facebook, expressing her feelings about the tragedy in a heartfelt video. She said raising six children is difficult, especially when the mothers chose to adopt troubled children who had a tough start in their lives. She said the whole thing made no sense and she only had more questions than answers. Win wrote on Facebook that she met the Hart family in 2011 at an Earth Dance.
“Most of the articles are sketchy… and just take it with a grain of salt right now.,” she said in the video. “Unless there is a note or some indication, we don’t know. We may never know. Most of us knew them (really) well. But sometimes people do keep secrets, you see that all the time. So keep that in mind… I really want this to be a sick April Fool’s joke early.”
“I’ve never known anybody as beautiful, inspiring, and loving and tough, tenacious,” she continued. “I’ve never seen any signs or anything that made me even remotely concerned with the care of the kids. I was always highly impressed with how well-mannered they were, how giving, how loving. I’ve never come across anyone like them, and I know I never will again.”
She said she knew Jen well, and Sarah worked a lot. “They didn’t have any more struggles than the rest of us,” she said. “…Take heart in knowing that you were touched by the Harts. Take away everything that you learned from them. Lead by example about the love and caring for Mother Earth and protecting our water. Take care of each other, that’s what they were about. That’s what we saw. So keep that in your heart forever.”
Friends joined on the video to agree with her, sharing that they always thought the family was wonderful and couldn’t believe reports. One person, Tatiana Katara, commented: “Those kids were cared for better than any kids I know. People just cant’ stand the idea of two loving moms adopting a tribe of colourful kids. They will always inspire me.”
Other friends have shared similar sentiments online. Desire Dalrymple wrote on Facebook: “Child abuse? Never came out of their home? No! No! No! This is not even real!!!” A friend guessed this was a misunderstanding of homeschooling. Desire added: “This family is one of the most active, loving and amazing on the planet!”
Another friend, who asked not to be named, wrote on Facebook that this was not the family she knew, and she had never seen signs of this on multiple occasions.
Alaska Nuevecasa wrote: “The Hart family has always been an inspiration to me and beings that I love and honor. This is so unreal.”
But in her public Facebook video, Pte Sapa Win said to remember that things can happen behind closed doors that no one knows about. The heartbroken friend said she’s remembering the Harts with fondness, and waiting for more news to come to light. But she warned her friends that they may never know what actually happened.
5. The Family Was Involved in Environmental Causes & Politics, & Attracted National Attention When Devonte Hart Was Photographed Hugging a Police Officer
The Hart family owned animals and chickens, and they had been very involved with a group of friends at Harmony Park in Minnesota. On social media, the Harts’ friends referred to themselves as a “Tribe” and said they loved the Harts very much. The Harts were also Bernie Sanders supporters during his campaign, and can be seen with their children, holding signs and standing behind him during one of his campaign stops in Vancouver in March 2016. A friend shared an album of photos of the Harts publicly on Facebook, which you can view above. The album includes the photo with Bernie.
One person wrote about the Harts: “They were the actual vibration of LOVE.”
In fact, the family got a lot of positive attention in 2014 when their son, Devonte, offered free hugs at protest in Portland. The protest started after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Devonte held a sign that read “Free Hugs,” and he was photographed hugging a Portland officer. The photo tugged at hearts all across the nation. But all the national attention also had a downside. After getting a lot of death threats in the mail, the family decided to move.
Jennifer wrote on social media about the event: “My son has a heart of gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police. … He wonders if someday when he no longer wears a `Free Hugs’ sign around his neck, when he’s a full-grown black male, if his life will be in danger for simply being.”
In addition to being politically minded, the family was also very health conscious. Groener, a former neighbor, told Fox 2 that the family didn’t eat sugar, had animals, went on camping trips, and raised their own vegetables.
On social media and among her friends, Jen Hart was known to be an inspiring writer who shared stories about her life and her family. Those stories are no longer publicly available, but we can get an idea of the impact they made from her friends’ posts. Pte Sapa Win said on a live, public Facebook video: “Jen’s ability to write was so remarkable. Reading any post and you felt like you were there, you were a part of it. That’s something I’m gonna miss a great deal. I was brought into their world by her writings.”
Friends agreed. Heather Dahlquist wrote: “Her posts were so inspiring and beautiful!”
One friend shared one of Jen Hart’s posts from about a month ago, when she wrote about the ninth anniversary of adopting three of their children. Her post read:
Yesterday we celebrated the 9th anniversary of the official adoption day of Sierra, Jeremiah, and Devonte. We celebrate all.the.things in this family: The day we met our kids. The day they came home. The official finalization/court date. Birthdays of cats, dogs, chickens. seasons. anniversaries. Tuesdays. Why? Why not? I get this one precious life to live. When you open up your various social media accounts, it’s probably safe to say you are inundated with a lot of challenging thoughts, feelings, realities, and events going on in this world. Many of these ongoing discussions are vital to moving forward as a society and to cultivating a better world. I firmly believe that the greatest impact starts with watering the roots of family. So, while I may march in the streets, voice my thoughts and opinions on controversial topics, stir the proverbial pot and challenge people I love with alternate viewpoints and realities, I also choose to celebrate this life as often as freaking possible.
9 years ago, the adoption of these three humans was finalized. ‘Finalized’ ~ the terminology seems so unfitting for the situation. It was just the beginning. A new beginning of an expansion of my(our) understanding of love. I am a better human in every possible way for knowing these children. They have been my greatest teachers. I’m immensely grateful to the people that have opened their hearts and shared time, talents, and love with this family. I couldn’t be more in awe of all the people that choose to CELEBRATE this life with us. The thousands of people that have shared a hug, a dance, a story, a laugh, a meal, a cry, a word of encouragement, a smile, a song
~thank you for joining us on this shared journey. Thank you for exemplifying the true meaning of family. Contrary to the common notion that we can’t choose our family, we absolutely can. We choose by loving – and that’s worth celebrating every damn day.”
Friends of the Hart family said on Facebook that they planned to keep a sacred fire lit for four days in memory of the family, and then would create an altar in their honor that they would eventually leave at Harmony Park.