Investigator details events preceding SUV crash over cliff

Photo Courtesy: KTVU

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Before her wife drove an SUV off a Northern California cliff, Sarah Hart spent hours searching on her phone for overdosing options and whether it was relatively painless to die by drowning, a highway patrol investigator testified Thursday.

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 Hart made the decision that would end with all eight presumed dead, the body of one of the siblings who gained attention years earlier still unrecovered.

"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."

A coroner's jury in Mendocino County is trying to determine whether the March 26, 2018, deaths of the Hart family were murder-suicide, accidental or something else. Authorities have called the deaths intentional, but want a jury to decide.

On Thursday afternoon, the jury of 14 was read the instructions to choose from four manners of death for each of the eight people who died: natural causes, suicide, accident or an intentional act by another.

The crash happened days after authorities in Washington state opened an investigation following allegations the children, ages 12 to 19, were being neglected. The bodies of both women were found in the vehicle, which landed below a cliff more than 160 miles (250 kilometers) north of San Francisco.

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 remains of 15-year-old Devonte Hart, who was photographed in tears while hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, have not been recovered.

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.