Mom, at least 5 kids in fatal CA cliff crash had high levels of Benadryl; driver was drunk, officials say

The coroner’s inquest will determine the family’s mode of death: natural causes, accident, suicide or death at the hands of another

PORTLAND, OR (KOIN/KRON/CNN) - More than a year after an SUV containing an Oregon couple and at least five of their children plunged into the Pacific Ocean from a California cliff, a coroner’s inquest is underway to determine the family’s manners of death.

Multiple law enforcement officers, a search-and-rescue leader and a forensic pathologist testified Wednesday on the opening day of a corner’s inquest into the deaths of the Hart family.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart and five of their adopted children – 19-year-old Markis, 16-year-old Hannah, 14-year-olds Jeremiah and Abigail and 12-year-old Ciera – were found dead on March 26, 2018, after their car plunged into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County, CA.

The remains of the couple’s sixth child, 15-year-old Devonte, have not been found, but he is presumed to be dead.

Sarah and Jennifer Hart and five of their adopted children – Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Abigail and Ciera – were found dead on March 26, 2018, after their car plunged into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County, CA. The couple's sixth child, Devonte, is presumed dead. (Source: Hart Family/KOIN/KRON/CNN)
Sarah and Jennifer Hart and five of their adopted children – Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Abigail and Ciera – were found dead on March 26, 2018, after their car plunged into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County, CA. The couple's sixth child, Devonte, is presumed dead. (Source: Hart Family/KOIN/KRON/CNN) (Source: Hart Family/KOIN/KRON/CNN)

The majority of Wednesday’s hearing was spent with pathologist Dr. Greg Pizarro, who detailed the causes of death for each family member recovered from the crash site.

Based on his toxicology report, Pizzaro said Jennifer Hart, who was driving the SUV, had an alcohol level above the legal limit. He also confirmed several other family members had unusually high amounts of Benadryl in their systems, including Sarah Hart, who had a toxic level.

Also at the inquest, officers detailed how the cliffside was an odd scene for this type of crash because there were no signs of the vehicle trying to stop before going over the edge. One officer said he’d never seen anything like it.

“I’ve responded to quite a few collisions on the coast area and vehicles down the cliffs, and it was very unusual to have no evidence of any kind," said Officer M. Covington with the California Highway Patrol.

There was later testimony on the accusations of child abuse that followed the Harts from 2011 in Minnesota, 2013 in Oregon and 2017 in Clark County, WA.

When the inquest is over, the 14 jury members will decide among four modes of death: natural causes, accident, suicide or death at the hands of another.

The Hart family disappeared from their Woodland, WA, home in late March 2018, shortly after a Washington Child Protective Services caseworker tried to contact the parents. Neighbors had called CPS, concerned the children were being abused and neglected.

Pathologist Dr. Greg Pizzaro also several family members had unusually high amounts of Benadryl in their systems, including Sarah Hart (pictured), who had a toxic level, at the time of the crash. (Source: Hart Family/KOIN/KRON/CNN)
Pathologist Dr. Greg Pizzaro also several family members had unusually high amounts of Benadryl in their systems, including Sarah Hart (pictured), who had a toxic level, at the time of the crash. (Source: Hart Family/KOIN/KRON/CNN) (Source: Hart Family/KOIN/KRON/CNN)

Documents released in April 2018 showed Oregon CPS knew that the Hart family had been investigated for child abuse in Minnesota.

Despite the allegations, the Department of Human Services’ investigation into Jennifer and Sarah Hart was closed with investigators concluding that they were "unable to determine" whether there was abuse in the home, despite some indications of abuse or neglect.

By August, Clark County authorities said the entire case and investigation into the family’s deaths was “very frustrating.” They weren’t able to locate a suicide note, a message or even any journal entries that spelled out a clear intention.

In November, the investigators released documents, including emails between Jennifer and Sarah Hart, indicating marital trouble.

Now, the coroner’s inquest will provide another piece in the ongoing puzzle of the Hart family crash.

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