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Episode 15: USA – The Hart Family Murders

  • 1:45:50
  • April 4, 2022
  • Explicit Content

On March 26, 2018, in Northern California, a motorist on Highway 1 in Mendocino County spotted a horrific sight. : 100 feet off a cliff leading to the Pacific Ocean, there was a gold Yukon SUV. It was upside-down on the jagged shoreline.

In the wreckage, authorities recovered the bodies of married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart and 3 of their adopted children – Markis, Jeremiah, and Abigail. Over the next few weeks, the remains of 2 more of their children were discovered – Hannah and Ciera. The body of the 6th child, Devonte, has never been found.

The Hart Family Murders

Introduction

On March 26, 2018, in Northern California, a motorist on Highway 1 in Mendocino County, California spotted a horrific sight: 100 feet off a cliff leading to the Pacific Ocean, there was a gold Yukon SUV. It was upside-down on the jagged shoreline.

In the wreckage, authorities recovered the bodies of married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart and 3 of their adopted children – Markis, Jeremiah, and Abigail. Over the next few weeks, the remains of 2 more of their children were discovered – Hannah and Ciera. The body of the 6th child, Devonte, has never been found.

Friends and family were devasted and bewildered when they heard the news. The Harts seemed so happy and lived a “picture-perfect” life. There were no signs that something was wrong. What prompted a seemingly normal mother to drive off a cliff with her wife and 6 children in the car?

Background

Jennifer Jean Hart was born on June 4, 1979. Sarah Margaret Hart was born on April 8, 1979.

Both of them attended Northern State University (NSU) in South Dakota and began dating. Both women majored in elementary education, with Sarah focusing on special education. After Sarah graduated in 2002, Jennifer left the university without graduating.

Jennifer stated that the women were initially closeted and faced ostracism once they publicly outed themselves, prompting the couple to move. Members of Jennifer’s and Sarah’s families stated that the two women distanced themselves from them, although both families were accepting of their sexual orientation. They moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, in 2004.

In 2005, Sarah asked a local court to have her last name changed to match Jennifer’s. The couple went to Connecticut to get married in 2009 because Minnesota hadn’t legalized same-sex marriage yet, whereas Connecticut had legalized it on November 12, 2008.

Both women worked at a department store until Jennifer became a stay-at-home mom in 2006 when they adopted the first 3 children of their eventual 6 children.

Adoption/Children

Prior to adopting their children, the Harts were foster parents to a 15-year-old girl. A week before their first 3 children were due to arrive from Texas, the Harts dropped the girl off near where the girl was to attend a session with a therapist and the therapist then informed the girl that the Harts would not be coming back for her.

The first 3 children Jennifer and Sarah adopted were 3-year-old Abigail (born 2003), 4-year-old Hannah (born 2002), and 9-year-old Markis (born 1998). They were biological siblings from Colorado County, Texas. They were placed in the Harts care on March 4, 2006, and officially adopted that September.

In June 2008, Jennifer and Sarah adopted 3 more children, all biological siblings as well, but this time from Houston, Texas: 3-year-old Ciera (born 2005), 4-year-old Jeremiah (born 2004), and 6-year-old Devonte (born 2002). Background: After their biological mother, Shirley, lost custody due to substance abuse problems in August 2006, the 3 children were given to their paternal aunt, Priscilla, under the condition that they have no contact with Shirley. But one day Priscilla had to work another shift, so she allowed Shirley to babysit the children, which a caseworker observed. As a result, the children were removed from Priscilla’s care and a court prevented her from obtaining permanent custody and the 3 children were put into foster care.

They had an older brother named Dontay, but he wasn’t adopted by the Harts due to behavioral issues.

In May 2007, before the Harts were in the picture, Priscilla had filed a petition to adopt all 4 children while they were still in state custody, but the petition was denied. Priscilla filed a motion for a new trial, and that was denied as well. In October 2008, Priscilla appealed to a Texas appeals court to overturn the adoption petition and trial dismissals, but in July 2010, her attempt to adopt the 4 children was turned down again. She never received custody.

Jennifer was very active on social media and used Facebook to project an image of a loving, happy family while also sharing her thoughts on literally anything – mainly race and politics.

In November 2014, a photo of 12-year-old Devonte went viral for its powerful message of racial harmony. Devonte was crying and hugging a police officer at a protest in Portland, Oregon. The protest was in response to a grand jury’s controversial decision not to charge Ferguson, Missouri officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The intention of the protest was to demand police reform and shine a light on police brutality. At the protest, Devonte had carried a sign that read “free hugs,” which prompted a Portland police officer to ask him if he could have one. The image became known as the “hug felt ’round the world.”

The Harts traveled cross-country to music festivals to hear their favorite bands play, took frequent hikes, and even attended political rallies, like one for Bernie Sanders in Vancouver, Washington, in 2016, when they showed up in matching T-shirts bearing the senator’s likeness.

Jennifer’s positive, loving, caring façade on social media helped mask some of the problems within the family. Particularly, the abuse.

Abuse

In August 2017, after the Harts had moved to Woodland, Washington, Hannah jumped out of her second-story bedroom window at around 1:30 a.m. and approached the residence of her next-door neighbors, the DeKalb’s.

The DeKalb’s initial reaction was an absolute shock because their neighbours had lived there for 3 months, and they never saw the children.

Dana DeKalb noticed Hannah was really thin and appeared young for her age (16) and she was missing her 2 front teeth. Hannah had reportedly told Dana that her parents would whip her with a belt and withhold food as punishment. She asked if the DeKalb’s could save her and drive her to Seattle. Within minutes Hannah and the DeKalb’s could hear the rest of the family outside calling for Hannah, but Hannah hid asking Dana not to let her family come in, and reportedly pleaded, “Don’t make me go back! They’re racists and they abuse us!” The Harts found Hannah at the DeKalb’s and took her back home.

The next morning, the Harts went to the DeKalb’s as a group to offer an apology for Hannah’s actions. Hannah handed them a letter that expressed remorse for her actions, and Jennifer explained to the DeKalb’s that Hannah was acting out after having a few bad days. Apparently, none of the children spoke and hung back behind their mothers.

Dana claims she wanted to call 911 as soon as they left, but apparently, Bruce DeKalb visited the Harts briefly and didn’t see anything concrete to report. Instead, they talked to their daughter, who is “an educator with expertise in special-needs children and infants born addicted to drugs”, and they concluded the children’s origins and background might have triggered the alleged behavioural issues (struggles with poverty, drug abuse, food insecurity) and the family’s reclusiveness, so they didn’t report anything to the police and CPS and instead kept a watchful eye on the family. Bruce said he never saw anything because the children rarely went outside. Sarah Hart went to work at Kohl’s, but Jennifer was always home.

The only child they’d see was Devonte when he went outside occasionally to feed the chickens, rake leaves, or take the trash cans down the driveway. When the DeKalb’s tried to engage with him, he wouldn’t speak.

In November, they told Dana’s father about Hannah’s strange visit, and the father immediately called the Sheriff’s Office to report it.

“They have 4 black children, but that part doesn’t matter… They’re new here, Texas, but the other night, a little girl jumped out of the second-story window on the roof and then down to the ground and then ran to my daughter and this is like 2 in the morning, begging them to help her… Then she [one of the parents] had all four of the kids come back later and say everything was okay, and they were all standing at attention like they were all scared to death… And I think there’s something very serious going on there… The more I sit on it, I just can’t live with it. Somebody has to go there and check on these kids.” The sheriff’s official that handled the report said they couldn’t do anything because this happened months ago and it didn’t appear any laws had been broken at the time that would warrant the department’s intervention…

“This incident happened two months ago. Dana recently told her mom about the situation who in turn told her elderly father who felt it necessary to call the police from his residence in Tacoma. Dana said no other issues since this one. Determined a welfare check was not warranted based on this isolated incident.”

Beginning early March 2018, Devonte finally spoke to the DeKalb’s. He went to their house, rushed and nervous, begging for food. He asked the DeKalbs not to tell Jennifer and not to call the police. He told them that, as punishment, his adoptive mothers were withholding food from him and his siblings and they were starving. He also said his parents weren’t letting any of them out of the house and they were sometimes abused. Over the next week, he was sneaking over to their house up to 3 times a day asking for food, and during one visit he begged the DeKalb’s to buy six-packs of tortillas and six jars of peanut butter and put them in a box hidden near the fence between the two properties so his siblings could sneak and get it.

This, combined with the earlier incident with Hannah, made the DeKalb’s report the Harts to both the police and to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). They called alleging the children appeared to be ” victims of abuse and neglect”, so caseworkers from DSHS/CPS opened an investigation and started by trying to reach the Harts. Over the few days leading up to the murders, DSHS tried contacting Jennifer or Sarah on 3 separate occasions: the first time was on Friday, March 23, 2018 – just 3 days before the murders – but there was no answer, so the caseworker left a business card in the door. When they returned again on Monday, March 26, the business card was gone. They called the Sheriff’s Office and asked someone to conduct a welfare check. A deputy came by, no one answered, and he left. On Tuesday, March 27, having no idea the family had been found dead in the remains of the family’s SUV the day before, the caseworker tried the house once more. Still unable to establish contact with the Harts, the caseworker called 911 to have another welfare check done because they were worried. It appeared no one had been home for days, but animals and family belongings were still at the home.

The DeKalbs later told the police that after the first visit on March 23, the family left the home, and they didn’t see them return.

Bruce DeKalb, the husband, said: “The next morning when we saw that the vehicle was gone, and then Sunday morning when it still wasn’t there, we figured something was off.”

Dana said: “Because they never go anywhere. They go to the store and back.”

Bruce added: “We figured that they saw the business card and loaded up the kids as quick as they could and took off.”

On March 26, Sarah’s friend from work, Cheryl, had also called 911 to ask that a welfare check be conducted. She was worried because she had received “worrisome texts” from Sarah at 3 am on March 24, and she was unable to reach the family. The texts from Sarah claimed she was really sick, she couldn’t leave the house, and she might have to go to the hospital. Her phone was dead, and no one had seen or heard from her or Jennifer.

Investigation / Coroners Inquest

Over the next year, the murder-suicide would be investigated and tons of unusual details about the family’s life would come to light.

Authorities determined that the Yukon had been intentionally driven off the edge of the cliff. The car’s black box recorded the car was going full throttle and reached speeds up to 90 mph (144 km). Responding officers later stated the site of the accident was unusual. It’s normal to respond to collisions on the coast and reports of cars going off the edge, but there’s always evidence of the driver trying to correct the vehicle. In this case, there was nothing and the tracks show the SUV deliberately sped straight toward the cliff’s edge. Investigators believe the Harts’ SUV was stopped at a flat, dirt pull-off area before it sped off the steep rocky face and plunged into the water.

Friends of the Harts were confused by the tragedy. They described the family as ideal, they said Jennifer and Sarah were the kind of parents everyone in the world needs, they loved their children, they were generous, loving, and only saw the good in people. But they hadn’t seen the Harts in years when they gave these statements. This is the life they saw on Facebook and heard about through texts. A family friend said the family frequently traveled together, taking scenic routes to explore new places, and thinks that’s what they were doing when the fatal crash occurred.

Police believed all 6 children were inside the vehicle when it went over the cliff. Because the 3 kids immediately recovered from the vehicle were not wearing seat belts, investigators believe the other 3 children unaccounted for — Ciera, Hannah, and Devonte — were likely ejected from the SUV or carried away by the high tide as waves pushed water in and out of the wreckage.

Abigail’s body was covered with bruises which investigators believed indicated past abuse.

Naturally, the first step was to stake out the area of the crash for any signs of the 3 missing children. Lookout crews consisting of 15 search-and-rescue volunteers were stationed around the area to watch the coastline and the ocean for any signs of them. Law enforcement used cadaver dogs and drones to search the area.

The next step was to get a search warrant and investigate their home. By March 29, 2018, the house was flooded with law enforcement looking for information that could help explain why this happened.

They were searching for bills, credit card receipts, cell phone records, anything to help them learn why the family left.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart lived beyond their means, and aspects of their lifestyle diverged widely from what they presented publicly online. They recently purchased their Woodland home for $375,000 and had accumulated over $21,000 in credit card debt. Money was tight, and the children were a huge source of income. According to records found at the scene, the children yielded payments of roughly $20,000 a year from their birth families and an additional $30,000 a year in adoption assistance payments from Texas. Those payments decreased by about $550 a month in August 2016 when Markis turned 18.

Jennifer Hart was a stay-at-home parent who homeschooled the children, and Sarah Hart earned about $45,000 as an assistant manager at Kohls.

Investigators couldn’t figure out where the children slept. Jennifer and Sarah had a double bed. Another bedroom contained two foam loveseats and a padded mat where police believed some of the children may have slept. The third bedroom held a twin bed. 8 people shared 1 bathroom, which doubled as a laundry room.

No family photos were on display anywhere in the home. No keepsakes, posters, or other personal objects indicated that children and teenagers lived in the bedrooms. The only sign of children living there was some school supplies, board games, and a small library filled with Harry Potter, Twilight, and other young adult novels.

Investigators found chest freezers filled with lunch meat, tortillas, and a ton of bread.

Six wooden chairs sat around the dining room table for the family of eight.

Jennifer regularly mentioned their vegetarian lifestyle on Facebook. She had posted a photo of Ciera smiling as she held a bunch of kale like a bouquet of gross flowers. But investigators found the family’s fridge and freezer stocked with hot dogs, ham, large packs of chicken breasts, a large roll of ground beef, corn dogs, frozen tilapia, and pizza rolls.

A friend said Jennifer didn’t drink, but Sarah occasionally drank. Police photos show 17 bottles of wine displayed on the kitchen counter. The couple also had some pot and a small pipe on a dresser in their bedroom.

Jennifer’s social media posts portrayed a family that didn’t have a TV or electronic devices and instead kept busy camping, gardening, reading books, and caring for animals. In May 2013, she made a post that read, “Traded in the television for the best big-screen available. Planet Earth”. When searching the home, police found a huge TV in the living room, a tablet, and a laptop.

Police found Sarah’s Kohl’s name tag and there was a section blocked out. When they spoke to her coworkers, they told police that section states what city you’re from/live in, and Sarah covered it because Jennifer didn’t want people to know where they lived. She lived in Woodland and worked in Vancouver, Washington.

While investigators are undoubtedly busy with their weird-ass house, the toxicology results came in and showed that Jennifer’s blood alcohol content was over the legal limit. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.102 (legal is .08). Sarah, Markis, Jeremiah, and Abigail had diphenhydramine (Benadryl) in their systems. Sarah had 42 doses, a lethal amount in her system, and the children had enough to knock them unconscious or put them to sleep.

Investigators also received cellphone records and surveillance footage that showed the family stopped in Fort Bragg, California, the day before the crash. Investigators believe the Harts arrived in town around 8 p.m. on March 24 and may have spent the night there because surveillance footage from a convenience store shows Jennifer buying bananas on the morning of March 25. According to authorities, a local man believes he saw the Harts the day before the crash, but he wasn’t positive it was them and couldn’t say if all 6 children were present.

During the drive, down from Washington, cell phone records show Sarah had made Google searches like: “can 500 mgs of Benadryl kill a 120-pound woman?”, “is death relatively painless?”, and “how long does it take to die from hypothermia in water while drowning in a car?”. She searched questions like these on Google until 6:30 p.m. that night and she’d delete each search from her phone once she was done.

At one point during the drive, the family made a pit stop at Walmart, where Sarah bought generic Benadryl.

A man who was camping near the site of the crash told investigators around 11 pm on March 25, 2018, he saw a vehicle similar to the Hart’s SUV parked near his campsite. A few hours later, he awoke to the sound of a car engine revving and tires on gravel. He also thought he heard some sort of cry — but he didn’t realize that what he heard could be someone yelling for help until he saw news of the Hart crash the next day.

On April 7, 12 days after the SUV was discovered, a body was found in the ocean near the crash site. On April 17, Mendocino County Coroner Division announced that through DNA analysis, the body was positively identified as 12-year-old Ciera.

In May, a mile from the crash site, the sheriff’s office announced that a shoe with what appeared to be bones inside of it had been found. This shoe was discovered entangled in the pant leg of a pair of girl’s jeans. Months later, they finally confirmed through DNA analysis that the remains belonged to Hannah. These were the only remains found of Hannah.

As the investigation continued, more documented abuse came to light.

In 2008, while the family was living in Minnesota, school officials reported Hannah was stealing people’s food and eating out of garbage cans or off the floor. When a teacher observed bruises on Hannah’s left arm, Hannah said she had been hit by Jennifer with a belt. The teacher finally called the authorities. When they got involved, Jennifer and Sarah told the social worker that Hannah had fallen down the stairs and no charges were filed.

Within months, all six children had been pulled out of the public school system for a year. In 2010/2011, the children were back in school, and Abigail told a teacher that she had “owies” on her “tummy” because her “mom hit [her]”. There were more marks on her back, and she also said she felt threatened by the Harts. The Harts had beaten her and held her head in cold water over a penny they assumed she had stolen, and Jen would take her into the bathroom, bending her over the edge of the bathtub and hitting her on the backside. When authorities became involved, all children claimed that they had been spanked constantly and deprived of food. Sarah took responsibility for the abuse, originally charged with domestic assault and malicious punishment but ultimately pled guilty to domestic assault so the malicious punishment charge was dropped. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail and one year of supervised probation.

Two years later, the family had relocated to West Linn, Oregon, and were attending a new school. At this new school, Hannah reportedly told a school nurse that she had not eaten all day because she was grounded and wasn’t allowed to eat; Sarah claimed that Hannah was merely “playing the food card” and recommended that she just be given water. Soon afterward, all six children were taken out of public schools and were homeschooled from then on.

Bill Groener, who lived next door to the family in West Linn, said they kept to themselves, and the kids mostly stayed indoors – even in good weather. Groener said the only contact he had with the family is when they went out to get the mail. “Something,” Groener said, “just didn’t seem right.”

In 2013, Oregon authorities were notified by a family friend of the abuse in Minnesota and reports there’s still abuse happening. Their investigation included separate interviews of everyone in the family, as well as interviews of people who knew the family. Two family friends stated that the children were forced to raise their hands before speaking, could not wish each other a happy birthday, and could not laugh at the dinner table. There were other reports that the children were poorly fed and looked small for their ages. One family friend reported that Jennifer had ordered a pizza for the children, but each was only allowed to have a small slice. When Jennifer discovered that the pizza was gone, she punished the children by not feeding them breakfast and forcing them to lie on their beds for five hours. Friends also stated that the children acted “scared to death of Jen” and likened them to “trained robots”.

However, the interviews of the children themselves revealed no new incidents of abuse, nor did they mention anything that had happened in Minnesota. When Jennifer herself was interviewed, she claimed that “any family problems were the results of others not being tolerant to two lesbian mothers with six African American children.” In the end, the investigation could not conclude whether the Harts were guilty of anything or whether the children were unsafe in their care. Yet, an Oregon doctor who examined the children in 2013 found that nearly all of them were so small they were off the growth charts for height and weight. Plus, the children were probably terrified and coached on what to say.

The Harts left Oregon and moved to Woodland, Washington.

Authorities across at least three states received multiple warnings that something was wrong.

According to an incident report following the murders, Sarah told a co-worker “she wished someone told her it was okay not to have a big family. Then she and Jennifer would not have adopted the children.” Sarah confided in another co-worker, her friend Cheryl, about Jennifer’s demanding, obsessive behaviors.

No suicide note was ever recovered. Doubt there was one.

On March 18, 2019, the sheriff’s office announced that the Coroner’s Inquest would be presented to a jury on April 3 and April 4. The purpose of the inquest was for authorities to present the facts of the crash to a jury, which would decide the manner of death for each member of the Hart family. Criminal responsibility and prosecution were impossible since the responsible parties were dead.

Typically, coroner’s inquests are conducted only in cases involving high public interest (like officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths), but the decision was made in this case because of the mysterious circumstances and the number of children involved.

A 14-member inquest jury deliberated for less than an hour and unanimously ruled the case a murder-suicide. They believed the 6 Hart children had been intentionally killed by their adoptive mothers. A superior court judge ruled that Devonte was in the vehicle at the time of the crash, and a death certificate was signed on April 3, 2019.

One of the jurors said he was in pain sitting through the proceedings and that “Coming up with the decision wasn’t the hard part… Dealing with the whole tragedy was the hard part.”

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department officially closed the case and released declassified records in 2019.

Sadly, Dana DeKalb blames herself for what happened to the children, saying “Because I reported them, they took off and killed these kids”.

In reality, oversights in the system, and Jennifer and Sarah, are to blame for the deaths.

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