Details of Disappearance
At 4:15 p.m. on the afternoon of March 26, 2018, the police were called to the site of a car crash off Highway 1, near Juan Creek, north of Westport, California. A brown 2003 GMC Yukon XL SUV with tinted windows, registered to Jennifer Jean "Jen" Hart, had gone off a cliff and landed on the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean, over 100 feet below. A tourist saw the vehicle lying upside down, partially submerged in the surf, and called the police.
The bodies of Jen and her wife Sarah Margaret Hart (formerly Sarah Gengler), both 38, and their adopted children Abigail, 14, Hannah, 16, Jeremiah, 14, Markis, 19, and Sierra, 12, were all eventually located. None of them had been wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. Authorities believe they all died within seconds.
The two adults and Abigail, Jeremiah and Markis were found in the vicinity of the crash site at the same time the vehicle was discovered. The three children were floating in the surf outside the vehicle. Sarah was inside it, in the backseat. Jen was in the driver's seat, but when the car was being winched up the side of the cliff, her body fell out and had to be retrieved later.
Sierra remained missing for another two weeks, when her body was found floating in the ocean near the cliff. A single foot from Hannah was also found washed ashore on May 9, but authorities were initially unable to identify it. In October 2018, Hannah's biological mother reached out to police and submitted a DNA sample. In January 2019, the DNA results proved the foot was Hannah's. Only Devonte is still unaccounted for.
Despite the lack of skid marks at the scene, the police initially thought the crash could have been an accident. Within days, they however, they announced it had been a criminal act, a murder-suicide.
Jen had been driving the SUV. Data from the vehicle's "black box" computer showed 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. She never attempted to apply the brakes, and when the car hit the water, the speedometer was stuck at 90 mph.
When police examined Sarah's phone, they discovered that while the car was in motion in the hours before the family died, someone was doing research online using the phone. The searches were later deleted, but a forensic examination of the phone recovered them.
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. There were also searches about no-kill shelters for dogs. The family dog, which usually traveled with the Harts, has not been seen since the crash, and there's no evidence it was dropped off at a shelter.
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.
Jen hadn't taken any diphenhydramine, but she was legally drunk at the time of her death. She rarely drank alcohol, but before her death she consumed the equivalent of five alcoholic drinks. 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, whose blood could be tested, also had high levels of diphenhydramine in their blood, although none of them had enough to be fatal. Markis had the most, the equivalent of 19 capsules. The recommended dose listed on the bottle is one or two capsules. According to people who knew the Hart family, Sarah and Jen often gave the children Benadryl on long car rides so they would sleep through them.
At autopsy, the coroner did not find that the children were emaciated, but they were all very thin and only Markis weighed more than 100 pounds. Abigail had bruises on her backside near the top of her leg; the bruising was recent but had not been caused by the crash.
When the police searched the Hart residence in Woodland, Washington after the crash, they found it in an extremely neat, clean condition, to the point of being "very sterile." Jen and Sarah's bedroom had a double bed with a colorful quilt and other decorations. The six children apparently slept in two different rooms; one of the rooms had a single twin bed, and the other had no beds, only two foam loveseats and a padded mat on the floor.
There were no items in the house such as games, posters, toys, or other personal belongings that would have been used by children or teenagers. There were also no family photos; although there were picture frames hanging on the walls, the frames were all empty. The investigators who searched the home found little indication that children had lived there.
Jen had recently written on social media about keeping a lot of plants inside until it got warm enough to bring them outdoors, and for years she had been outspoken about her and her family's commitment to a vegetarian diet and organic foods. However, the police found various kinds of meat and processed food in the fridge, and no plants anywhere in the house. Jen had also claimed the family owned no television set, but a large-screen television was in the family room.
It didn't appear as if the family's departure had been planned. The police found several suitcases stacked in the garage, and toiletries were present, including toothbrushes. There was also recently purchased food, including milk and fresh fruits and vegetables, in the house. Three cats and a rabbit had been left behind. Cadaver dogs went through the house and property, and didn't detect the scent of human remains.
A look into the Harts' finances showed Sarah and Jen were deep in debt and living beyond their means. Sarah made $45,000 annually as an assistant manager at Kohl's, a retail store. The family also made between $30,000 and $41,000 a year in adoption subsidies for all the children except Markis, whose payments stopped when he turned 18. They had a mortgage on their $375,000 home, and $21,000 in credit card debt.
The last time anyone heard from Sarah before her death was at 2:53 a.m. on March 24, when she texted her co-workers at Kohl's to say she was sick and would not be able to open the store that morning, and that she might have to see a doctor. That same morning, the Harts' neighbors noticed their SUV was no longer in their driveway.
March 25 was the last day anyone in the family was seen alive. Jen bought $20.08 worth of groceries at a Safeway store in Fort Bragg, California at 8:05 a.m. She paid in cash and used her discount card. At 1:12 p.m. on March 26, one of Sarah's co-workers called 911 to ask for a welfare check on Sarah, as she had not been to work in several days and no one had been able to get in touch with her or Jen. By then, the family was already dead.
Sarah was viewed as a good employee at Kohl's and a hard worker who sometimes put in six days a week at her job, but her coworkers said she had seemed stressed and worn down in the months prior to her death. She had told a coworker she regretted adopting six children and that she "wished someone told her it was okay not to have a big family." She said Jen would sometimes stay in bed and cry all day, and that the children had mental health problems.
The reasons as to why the fatal incident occurred may have started as far back as 1999, when Jen and Sarah first met. They were both attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Sarah graduated with a bachelor's degree in education, but Jen dropped out. In 2004, the women bought a house in Alexandria, Minnesota.
Beginning in 2005, they were were licensed as foster parents, and they fostered a fifteen-year-old girl for several months. They told the girl that they planned to adopt children, and that she could live with them until age 18 and would be their adopted children's older sister. But as soon as the first three of the couple's adoptive children arrived at the home, the Harts had their foster daughter removed and placed with another family.
The children Jen and Sarah adopted came from two different biological families. Markis, Hannah and Abigail, then aged seven, four and two respectively, arrived first, in March 2006. Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra arrived two years later, at ages five, four, and two. Both sibling groups were from Texas.
Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra's biological mother was addicted to crack cocaine. One of her seven children had suffered multiple bone fractures in her care, and the three oldest children had already been removed. Devonte, Jeremiah and their older brother lived with their biological father until 2005, when Sierra was born. The mother tested positive for cocaine at her birth. The baby was taken from her care immediately, and her three brothers were removed from their father's care at the same time. All four were placed in foster care.
In August 2006, the mother's and father's parental rights to the four youngest children were terminated. The children's paternal aunt took them in and planned to adopt them, but in December 2006, they were removed from the aunt's home and placed back in foster care. The oldest boy in the group grew up in foster care, and the three younger children were sent to live with the Harts in February 2009.
By September 2008, Jen and Sarah had adopted Markis, Hannah and Abigail, but Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra were still in foster care in Texas. That month, the first of several complaints were made to child protective services by staff at the children's school. Hannah and Abigail were both seen eating out of garbage bins and stealing food from their classmates, and both girls had suspicious bruises and said Jen had hit them, or beaten them with a belt.
The complaints were investigated but no action was taken. Sarah and Jen claimed the bruises were caused by accidents. Whenever the women were asked if they were withholding food from the children, they said the children were "high risk" kids and had "food issues" due to pre-adoption trauma. The school officials eventually stopped calling Jen and Sarah about the food problem, because they were afraid the children would be punished at home.
Eventually, Jen and Sarah withdrew all the children from school and started homeschooling them. They only re-enrolled them starting in September 2009, because Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra's adoption was still pending and the adoption agency required all the children in the family to attend public school until the adoption was finalized.
In November 2010, the school reported Jen and Sarah for child abuse and neglect again, because Abigail had bruises on her abdomen, back and buttocks. Abigail said Jen had "spanked" her with a closed fist, held her head under cold water in the bathtub, and hit her again. This was because Abigail had a penny in her pocket and said she had found it, and Jen thought she had stolen it and lied about it.
The children, when interviewed, said they were often spanked or "grounded." Abigail said "grounded" meant a child had to stay in bed all day and miss lunch. Abigail, who was six years old at the time, was the size of a two-year-old, and was assessed by a doctor, but the Harts said she was "just small" and that they didn't know her biological family's medical history.
Although Abigail had implicated Jen in the abuse, Sarah said she was the one who had spanked her. She said she bent Abigail over the bathtub and "swatted" her repeatedly, and admitted it "got out of control." Charges were filed against her for malicious punishment of a child and domestic assault, both of which are gross misdemeanors in Minnesota. Jen and Sarah were also ordered by CPS to attend counseling, in-home therapy, and "skill-building activities", with a goal towards ending physical discipline in the home.
In spite of the child abuse case, the adoption of Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra was allowed to go forward. In April 2011, Sarah pleaded guilty to domestic assault. She was given a suspended jail sentence and a $300 fine, and placed on probation. The day after the court case was resolved, Jen and Sarah removed all six children from public school for homeschooling. They never attended public school again.
Later that year, after completing the terms of her probation, Sarah moved to Oregon and took a job at Kohl's. A few months later, Jen and the children followed Sarah to Oregon. The family settled in West Linn.
The children continued to be homeschooled, but were never registered as homeschoolers, as was required by state law. Their mothers never left them alone with others, even as they grew older. When the family spent the night in friends' homes, Jen and Sarah made the six children stay in the same bedroom as their parents.
In 2013, a friend of the Hart family, later identified as Alexandra Argyropoulos, reported the Harts for abuse and neglect, saying the children were deprived of food as punishment. This was after she spent two weeks with Jen and the children, without Sarah. When Jen and Sarah found out she had reported them, they cut off contact with her.
Argyropoulos would later say Jen was "unnecessarily cruel" and ran the family "like a regimented boot camp", and that "true kindness, love, and respect for the kids was largely absent." She said the children were severely punished for common child/adolescent behavior, such as laughing too loudly. Jen would punish them by, for example, not allowing them speak for an entire day, or forcing them to stand in a corner or stare at a wall for an extended time period. She also repeatedly withheld meals from the children, who appeared to be constantly hungry.
At least two other women who knew the family also said they'd seen the Harts severely punishing the children and withholding food from them. The witnesses said Jen tended to target Hannah and Markis for harsh punishments, while favoring Devonte and giving him more privileges than his siblings.
When individually interviewed by caseworkers, the children were "very reserved" and gave nearly identical answers to questions. All of them denied having been abused and said if they got in trouble, their mothers made them meditate for five minutes.
Jen and Sarah told the caseworkers that Abigail had been diagnosed borderline mentally disabled, and that Jeremiah had been diagnosed with autism, but said they didn't think either of these diagnoses were correct. (Jen would also tell others that Devonte had been almost nonverbal and very violent at the time of his adoption and that Hannah had been "morbidly obese" before her adoption.) The women said they thought the abuse reports were malicious lies by people who didn't approve of or understand the family's alternative lifestyle.
As part of their investigation into neglect, the Oregon child welfare authorities had all six children assessed by a doctor. Five of them were so small that their heights and weights weren't even listed on the growth charts for children their age. One child's size was on the growth chart, but still well below average. Because of their small size, the children looked much younger than their actual age. The doctor could not find anything medically wrong with them, however, in spite of their small size. The case was closed with no follow-up.
Jen was very active on social media, particularly Facebook, depicting her family as happy and harmonious and putting up "inspirational" type posts and smiling photos of the children. Later it was proven that most of her stories were lies and the photos, staged.
The family was active in the music festival scene and also participated in social justice protests. Devonte would hold up a sign saying "Free Hugs" and offer hugs to any stranger who asked for one. In November 2014, Jen and the children participated in a protest in Portland, Oregon, which protested the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer who shot him. Devonte had his "Free Hugs" sign on display, and offered to hug an officer with the Portland Police Department who was on duty supervising the protest.
A photograph of the two of them of hugging was published in an Oregon newspaper and went viral; it was seen by millions of people around the world. In part as a result of the ensuing publicity, the Harts left Oregon and moved to Washington, in the house next door to Bruce and Dana DeKalb in Woodland. Sarah continued to work at the same Kohl's store across the state line in Oregon.
They moved to Woodland and purchased their house in 2017. The family's neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, rarely saw anyone on the property and said the blinds were always closed. They saw Jen and Sarah's vehicles come and go, but never saw children playing outside, even on nice days. Devonte was the only child Bruce and Dana ever saw outside the Hart residence. They saw him doing chores and yard work alone on the property, and wondered why his siblings didn't help him.
In the summer of 2017, Hannah appeared at the DeKalbs' home in the middle of the night, saying she had jumped out of the second-story window at her house and needed help. She told the DeKalbs that her adoptive parents were racist and abusive. Before the DeKalbs could decide what to do with her, Jen, Sarah and the other children arrived at the residence and told them they would take Hannah home. Jen and Sarah told the DeKalbs that Hannah was upset and had mental health issues, and that she was not being abused.
The DeKalbs allowed Hannah to leave with her family, and chose not to call the police. At 6:00 a.m. the next day, the entire Hart family returned to the DeKalb residence and Hannah delivered a handwritten letter, in which she said she was sorry for disturbing the DeKalbs in the middle of the night and that she had been "telling lies to get attention" because she was frustrated with one of her brothers and sad that two of her cats had recently died.
In the months after the incident with Hannah, Dana gradually became acquainted with Devonte because they would both take out the garbage at the same time. Beginning in March 2018, Devonte started asking DeKalbs for food. He made food requests a dozen times between March 15 - 17 and March 20 - 22, eventually coming over three times a day.
He said everything Hannah had told them was true, and that Jen and Sarah withheld food from them, sometimes for days, as punishment. He asked for bread, cured meat, peanut butter, tortillas and apples, food that didn't need to be kept cold. He asked the DeKalbs not to call the police because he feared he and his siblings would be separated, but the last time he visited he had changed his mind, and asked if they had called yet.
On the morning of March 23, Dana called child protective services to report the Harts for child abuse and neglect. She explained about the incident with Hannah, and what Devonte had told her, and about the food she had been giving him. A few hours later, social workers went to the property.
One of the family vehicles was in the driveway, but no one answered repeated knocks on the door, so the social workers left a card on the door asking the Harts to get in touch. A short time later, Sarah was seen arriving home from work, apparently in a hurry.
Sometime afterwards, the Harts left their residence and went to their deaths. On the way out of the driveway, they hit a wall on their property and knocked some bricks out of it.
They were apparently in Newport, Oregon shortly after 8:00 a.m. on March 24, five hours after Sarah texted her coworkers saying she was sick and couldn't come to work. They took Route 101 until they reached State Route 1 in Leggett, California, and then drove all day down Route 1 to Fort Bragg, California, arriving at 8:00 p.m. The Harts stayed in that area until the morning of March 25, when Jen was spotted buying groceries. That night, Jen drove off the cliff.
Because Devonte was not found with the rest of his family, there is speculation that he is either still alive or died elsewhere, before the rest of the family, and that perhaps his death was what prompted Jen to drive off the cliff. There isn't anything to support these theories, however, and the inquest jury ruled there was a preponderance of evidence that he died in the car with his mothers and siblings. The deaths of the six children were ruled homicides, and those of their mothers were ruled suicides.
His body has never been found and may have been swept out to sea.