Mendocino County, Calif., police have wrapped up an investigation into the deaths of six Black children who died last year when their white adoptive parents drove their SUV off a cliff.
Police said Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 39, drove their SUV off a cliff in Northern California, in what many believe was an intentional act. At the time of the crash, police investigators said Jennifer’s blood alcohol level was .102.
READ MORE: Six children and two women assumed dead after SUV plunged off California cliff
The bodies of five of the couple’s six adoptive kids — Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 16; Hannah; and 12-year-old Sierra – were found. The body of 15-year-old Devonte Hart, the sixth child, was never found but police say he is believed to be dead. Police said several of the children tested positive for diphenhydramine in their blood. Diphenhydramine is an active ingredient in Benadryl, according to investigators.
Now, a coroner’s inquest of the Hart family is scheduled for April 3. The coroner will present his findings to a jury – and the jury members will deliberate as to how each member of the Hart family died. The jury deliberation process is expected to take two days and will be livestreamed on the sheriff’s office Facebook page.
The case made national news and was an instant heartbreaker.
Stories came out of reported neglect and child abuse at the hands of Jennifer and Sarah Hart. In fact, just a few days before the crash, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services had begun investigating the couple for possible child abuse.
The Hart family first made news in 2014 when Devonte, then 12, was photographed hugging a police officer at a protest in Portland after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
READ MORE: ‘Sterile home’: Boy forced to hug cop & siblings lived under harsh conditions before fatal crash
The image went viral almost immediately with more than 15,000 Facebook shares. But Jennifer Hart told the Oregonian that negative reaction to it and the multiracial nature of their family, plus the fact that she and Sarah were a married lesbian couple, spurred the family to move Woodland, Wash.
Investigators in the case said they found a “sterile” home that did not give “any indication” that the family’s six children lived there.
Because of the mystery, officials with the Clark County, Calif., sheriff’s office have been looking all through the family’s home for clues. But what they found was a home that was “extremely clean and organized, giving a perception of being very sterile,” the Daily Mail wrote last August.
The news website quoted police Det. Joe Swenson as saying: “The house was so orderly and nothing seemed out of place regarding any belongings, toys or entertainment items the children may have owned.”
Child Protective Services was alerted by a neighbor, Dana DeKalb, who had concerns the children were being abused and neglected after one child visited her home and asked for food and would return several more times.
“Hannah said her parents would whip her with a belt and withhold food as punishment,” she said. And within minutes, “they could hear the rest of the family outside calling for Hannah,” but the teen “hid behind the bed, asking Dana not to let her family come in.”
When a caseworker attempted to visit the Hart home, no one answered the door.
DeKalb told authorities she saw the Hart family leave in the SUV shortly after the case worker came by.
The couple are believed to have fled the home after a case worker visited to investigate claims of alleged abuse. Authorities were beginning a probe into allegations that the couple starved and whipped their children, according to news reports.
READ MORE: The Hart Sibling tragedy: Teen girl begged neighbors for help months before mom killed entire family
Law enforcement documents, including an incident report from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, revealed that the children often asked neighbors for food and one of the children jumped out of a window in an attempt to escape.
DeKalb’s husband Bruce also recounted a story saying that one of the girls rang his bell at 1:30 a.m. about three months ago, begging for help and saying she had been abused. She “was at our door in a blanket saying we need to protect her. She said they were abusing her,” he said.
Court records also revealed that Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota. After her plea, the Associated Press reports that a charge for malicious punishment of a child was reportedly dismissed.
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