The Hart Family Murders: A Fact-Based Overview & Court Documents

On the afternoon of March 26, 2018, a brown 2003 GMC Yukon XL SUV was found at the bottom of a cliff off Highway 1, near Juan Creek, north of Westport, California. The vehicle, registered to Jennifer Jean "Jen" Hart, had plummeted over 100 feet from the cliff edge to the Pacific Ocean shoreline. Inside were the bodies of Jen and her wife, Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, and three of their six adopted children: Abigail, 14, Jeremiah, 14, and Markis, 19. The bodies of three other children, Hannah, 16, Sierra, 12, and Devonte, 15, were found later, with Devonte's body never being recovered.

The initial discovery of the crash scene revealed a grim tableau: the bodies of Jen, Sarah, and three of their children were found in and around the vehicle. Jen was in the driver's seat, Sarah in the backseat, and the children were floating in the surf outside the vehicle. None of them had been wearing seat belts. Sierra's body was found two weeks later, floating in the ocean near the cliff. A single foot, later identified as Hannah's through DNA testing, was found washed ashore on May 9. Devonte remains unaccounted for.

Data from the vehicle's "black box" computer showed that the driver had come to a stop at a gravel pullout about 70 feet from the cliff's edge, then had accelerated off the cliff. The speedometer was stuck at 90 mph when the car hit the water. There were no skid marks at the scene, and it was determined that the driver never attempted to apply the brakes.

The police initially thought the crash could have been an accident. However, within days, they announced it had been a criminal act, a murder-suicide. Examination of Sarah's phone revealed that while the car was in motion in the hours before the family died, someone was doing research online using the phone. The searches included questions about how to overdose on over-the-counter medication, how much Benadryl would be needed to kill a woman of Sarah's weight, and how quick and painful death from drowning and hypothermia would be.

When the family's Garmin GPS was found several weeks after the crash, investigators discovered they'd stopped at a Walmart in Washington and one of the women had bought a bottle of diphenhydramine (an over-the-counter nausea and allergy medication that causes drowsiness, often known by the brand name Benadryl), paying cash for it. Autopsy reports revealed that Jen was legally drunk at the time of her death, and Sarah had the equivalent of 42 capsules of diphenhydramine in her blood at the time of her death. The three children whose bodies were recovered immediately also had high levels of diphenhydramine in their blood.

The investigation also revealed a history of child abuse allegations against the Harts. In 2008, their daughter Hannah went to school with bruising on her arm. When asked by a teacher about the marks, the little girl said that her parents whipped her with a belt. No charges were filed, but the Harts took all six of their children out of school for nearly a year before re-enrolling them the following fall.

In November 2010, teachers noticed signs of abuse on six-year-old Abigail Hart and alerted authorities. The girl told investigators that her mother Jen had held her head under cold water and had punched her because they believed she had stolen a penny they found on her. Police interviewed the other Hart children, who admitted that they were often spanked, denied food, and grounded. When Jen and Sarah were interviewed, Sarah took the blame for striking Abigail and was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault and sentenced to probation and one year of community service. It was at this time that Jen and Sarah decided to pull their kids out of school for good. The six Hart children would now be totally isolated from outside influences and anyone who could perhaps notice the abuse they were subjected to.

The Harts moved to West Linn, Oregon, in 2013. Child-welfare authorities paid the Harts a visit in August 2013 to interview the kids and their mothers after receiving numerous complaints. The responses from the six Hart children were nearly all the same and they all stressed there was no abuse in the home and that they were grateful for their situation. One investigator noted that the children “showed little emotion or animation.” Officials in Oregon couldn’t find any concrete evidence of abuse or neglect and the case was closed.

In the spring of 2017, the Harts relocated to rural Woodland, Washington. Their next-door neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, noticed that the six Hart children rarely left the house, and that the blinds were usually drawn. In August 2017, Hannah Hart showed up at the DeKalbs' door, frantic and asking for protection. She told them that she had jumped from a second-story window in her house and ran next door. She also said she wanted her neighbors to hide her and exclaimed, “Don’t make me go back! They’re racists and they abuse us!” Soon after, Jen Hart showed up at the DeKalb’s front door and took her daughter back home.

Several months later, in March 2018, Devonte Hart approached Bruce DeKalb while he worked on his truck in front of his house. The 15-year-old boy asked DeKalb if he could have something to eat and nervously asked him not to tell his parents. After several visits from Devonte, the DeKalbs decided to alert authorities again. On March 23, 2018, Dana DeKalb called Child Protective Services. A CPS worker visited the Hart house and, after no one answered the door, left their card in the door. The following day, Saturday, March 24, the DeKalbs noticed that the GMC Yukon usually parked next door was gone. Sarah Hart had texted her coworkers at 3 A.M. and told them she was too sick to come to work.

The last sighting of any of the members of the Hart family alive was at a Safeway grocery store in Fort Bragg, California, on the morning of Sunday, March 25. A surveillance camera captured Jen Hart paying for $20 worth of groceries. The following day, Monday, March 26, the Yukon was spotted belly up on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, only a 25-minute drive from the Safeway store.

The Harts were known for their seemingly idyllic family life, often appearing at social justice protests and music festivals. They were particularly active in the music festival scene and also participated in social justice protests. Devonte, one of their adopted children, gained national attention when a photograph of him hugging a police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, went viral. The family was often seen dancing and singing at these events, and attendees looked on with smiles at the large, seemingly enlightened and happy family.

Over the years, Jen Hart cultivated a carefully curated social-media presence that portrayed her family as socially conscious and, most importantly, happy and healthy — a tribe that wouldn’t be broken apart by an uncaring world filled with prejudice. Her social-media posts were filled with photos and videos of the family on cross-country adventures and at the various festivals they attended as a cohesive unit. One person referred to Jen Hart as a “master poster,” her long online diatribes filled with her thoughts and feelings about raising a happy family and the challenges of modern-day society.

However, some people saw through the facade and alerted the authorities. One person who notified the Oregon Department of Human Services in 2013 said, “the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.” Others noted how the children looked underfed and small for their ages. Another tipster told authorities that the kids acted like “trained robots” and that they appeared to be “scared to death of Jen.”

A friend whom the family stayed with in California told investigators that Jen ran the family like a boot camp and that “true kindness, love, and respect for the kids was largely absent.” Despite these reports, Oregon state officials did not find any evidence of abuse in 2013.

In a strange development, one of the Hart children became nationally recognized in December 2014 after a photograph of him at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland went viral. In the photo, Devonte, with tears streaming down his face, embraced a white police officer who was at the protest to keep the peace. The photo was shared countless times as people across the country used it as an example of unity after a racially charged shooting caused riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and sparked a national debate on police violence.

The Hart family murders shocked the nation, raising questions about the foster care system, child protective services, and the ability of individuals to hide abuse behind a carefully curated public image. The tragic end of the Hart family serves as a stark reminder of the importance of vigilance and thorough investigation when it comes to the welfare of children. Despite the outward appearance of a loving, progressive family, the reality was a far more sinister tale of control, abuse, and ultimately, a devastating act of murder-suicide.

Publically Released Autopsy Reports
Related Images