Mendocino County, California: A coroner’s jury ruled Thursday that two women killed themselves and their six adopted children when they drove off a Northern California cliff last year. The Mendocino County jury deliberated for about an hour before delivering the unanimous verdicts after nearly two full days of testimony.
The verdicts were unanimous, but a decision could have been reached by a simple majority — in this case eight of the 14 jurors. The jury had four choices for each verdict: Death by natural causes, accident, suicide or death at the hands of another.
The crash happened days after authorities in Washington state opened an investigation following allegations the children, ages 12 to 19, were being neglected by Jennifer and Sarah Hart.
The bodies of the women were found in the vehicle, which landed upside down below a cliff more than 160 miles north of San Francisco.
The bodies of four children were recovered and a fifth was matched to remains found in a shoe. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte Hart have not been found.
Also revealed Thursday, Sarah Hart spent hours searching on her phone for overdosing options and whether it was relatively painless to die by drowning, according to a highway patrol investigator who testified.
California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates said despite the cell phone searches as they fled their Washington state home, the women weren’t committed to killing themselves and their six adopted children. But at some point, Sarah and Jennifer made the decision that would end with all eight presumed dead.
“They both decided that this was going to be the end,” Slates said at a coroner’s inquest. “That if they can’t have their kids that nobody was going to have those kids.”
Authorities who testified on the second day of the inquest said that in their opinions, the crash was deliberate.
“It is my belief that both Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to a lot of pressure,” said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney. “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.”
Slates said that Jennifer Hart, who rarely drank, had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit and may have been “drinking to build up her courage.” Sarah Hart and the children had high amounts of generic Benadryl in their systems, he said.
A neighbor of the Harts in Woodland, Washington, had filed a complaint with the state, saying the children were apparently being deprived of food as punishment. No one answered when social workers went to the family’s home.
Jennifer Hart searched suicide, drowning, Benadryl dosages and overdose methods throughout the drive to California, Slates said. Authorities recovered the deleted searches from her phone.
A witness who was camping by their vehicle says he heard their car rev up and peal out around 3 a.m. March 26.
Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children. Oregon child welfare officials also investigated the couple in 2013, but closed the case without taking any action.
Image: This March 20, 2016, photo shows Hart family of Woodland, Wash., at a Bernie Sanders rally in Vancouver, Wash. Authorities in Northern California say they believe all six children from a family were in a vehicle that plunged off a coastal cliff.