Details Shared in Family Killed in California Cliff Plunge

April 3, 2019 Updated: April 3, 2019

WILLITS, Calif.—Officials shared grisly details of the deaths of a family whose SUV plunged off a cliff off Northern California’s coast during a coroner’s inquest Wednesday, April 3, to help them classify the deaths.

Law enforcement officials and a forensic pathologist testified on the first of two days of testimony before a jury that will decide whether the March 2018 deaths of Jen and Sarah Hart and their six adopted children were accidental, a murder-suicide, or undetermined.

The crash happened just days after authorities in Washington state, where the family moved in 2017 from Oregon, opened an investigation following allegations the children were being neglected.

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 checking on the report went to the family’s home near Portland, Oregon, on March 23.

Three days later, their SUV was found partially submerged on the ocean, below a rugged cliff.

The bodies of the women were inside the SUV when it was discovered, but one of them fell out as the vehicle was being towed up the cliff off the coast of Mendocino County, Sheriff Deputy Robert Julian said.

Julian testified he was able to identify Sarah Hart through a Minnesota driver’s license found near the car.

“I wasn’t able to identify Jennifer Hart due to her fall,” Julian said.

The bodies of siblings Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail Har were found the same day near the car. Weeks later, the body of Ciera Hart was pulled from the Pacific Ocean and human remains found in a shoe were matched to Hannah Hart through DNA testing. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte Hart have not been found.

Jennifer Hart was drunk when she drove her large family off a Northern California cliff, authorities said.

The clifftop in Mendocino County where the SUV was found
The clifftop in Mendocino County where the SUV was found on March 26, 2018. (Mendocino County Sheriff)

Greg Pizarro, a forensic pathologist, testified Wednesday an autopsy found she had an alcohol level of 0.102. California drivers are considered drunk with a level of 0.08 or higher.

Pizarro said her cause of death was a broken neck.

Her wife, Sarah, and several children had large amounts of a drug in their systems that can cause drowsiness, authorities have said.

The family’s SUV plunged off a seaside cliff more than 160 miles north of San Francisco.

A helicopter hovers over steep coastal cliffs near Mendocino
A helicopter hovers over steep coastal cliffs near Mendocino, Calif., where a vehicle, visible at lower right, plunged about 100 feet off a cliff along Highway 1, killing all passengers, on March 27, 2018. (California Highway Patrol via AP, File)

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.