Edge Of The Cliff: How An American Dream Turned Into A Nightmare For A Model Family

Jennifer and Sarah Hart were regarded by all who knew them as caring and devoted parents who had adopted two sets of three Black siblings and dedicated their lives to raising the six children in a socially conscious atmosphere that focused on love and acceptance.

December 28, 2018

The Hart Family

Photo by: Mendocino County Sheriff's Office

Mendocino County Sheriff's Office

The Hart Family

By: Matt Gilligan

On Tuesday, March 26, 2018, a German tourist stumbled upon a shocking scene on California’s scenic Highway 1 in Mendocino County, 200 miles north of San Francisco.

The picturesque beauty of the jagged, rocky cliffs and the dramatic drops to the Pacific Ocean are typically taken in with wonder by tourists and locals alike, but on this day, a different scene played out. The tourist noticed a GMC Yukon crashed upside-down on the rocks below a steep 100-foot cliff.

The Hart Family SUV at the bottom of the cliff [California Highway Patrol]

The Hart Family SUV at the bottom of the cliff [California Highway Patrol]

The authorities were alerted and rescue workers rapelled down the rocks. Inside the SUV the dead bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, a married couple, both 38-years-old, were discovered. Nearby, three of their adopted children — Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14 — were also found dead. The Hart’s three remaining children — Devonte, 15; Hannah, 16; and Sierra, 12 — were missing from the wreckage.

Was the grisly scene a tragic accident or a deliberate act of suicide and murder?

Friends and acquaintances of the Hart family were initially astonished at the deaths. Jen and Sarah Hart were regarded by all who knew them as caring and devoted parents who had adopted two sets of three Black siblings and dedicated their lives to raising the six children in a socially conscious atmosphere that focused on love and acceptance. Friends referred to them as “The Hart Tribe” because of their tight bond.

Once authorities began to dig into Jen and Sarah Hart’s pasts, however, they pieced together a decade-long tale of abuse and neglect that ended tragically on a remote stretch of highway more than 500 miles from the Hart homestead in Washington state. The full story of the Hart family and the shocking conclusion to eight lives was, as the saying goes, truly stranger than fiction.

Jen and Sarah Hart’s romance began nearly 20 years earlier, at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The women both attended school there when they met and fell in love. For years, Jen and Sarah told people they were friends or roommates until they eventually decided to come out as lesbians. When they did reveal their relationship, Jen later said they lost friends and that “the Midwestern mindset was relentlessly unforgiving and unaccepting.”

Perhaps this was the original seed planted in Jen and Sarah’s heads and made them feel they were outsiders for the rest of their lives. The couple moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, and both worked at the same department store. Jen was recognized as the dominant person in the relationship, a woman with a big personality who liked to be in control and wasn’t afraid to let her voice be heard. Sarah was seen as sensitive and passive.

In 2004, the couple took in a 15-year-old foster daughter, who they complained about openly to coworkers. The girl, now in her late 20s, remembers how Jen and Sarah told her of their plans to adopt three more children and how she could be a big sister to them. But one day, inexplicably, the Harts dropped their foster daughter off at a therapist’s office and never returned. The girl never heard from Jen or Sarah again.

In 2006, the couple took in three siblings from foster care in Texas: Markis, 7; Hannah, 4; and Abigail, 2. Two years later, in 2008, the Harts took in three more siblings from Texas: Devonte, 5; Jeremiah, 4; and Sierra, 3. “The Hart Tribe” was now complete and they looked like the model of a progressive, 21st century family: two white lesbian mothers and six adopted Black children.

Sarah worked while Jen stayed home to raise the kids. But it didn’t take long for warning signs to appear. While still living in Minnesota in September 2008, their daughter Hannah went to school with bruising on her arm. When asked by a teacher about the marks, the little girl said that her parents whipped her with a belt. No charges were filed, but the Harts took all six of their children out of school for nearly a year before re-enrolling them the following fall.

In November 2010, teachers noticed signs of abuse on six-year-old Abigail Hart and alerted authorities. The girl told investigators that her mother Jen had held her head under cold water and had punched her because they believed she had stolen a penny they found on her.

Police interviewed the other Hart children, who admitted that they were often spanked, denied food, and grounded. When Jen and Sarah were interviewed, Sarah took the blame for striking Abigail and was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault and sentenced to probation and one year of community service. It was at this time that Jen and Sarah decided to pull their kids out of school for good. The six Hart children would now be totally isolated from outside influences and anyone who could perhaps notice the abuse they were subjected to.

The Harts decided to pack up and move to West Linn, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, in 2013. The family rented a house and raised goats and chickens in the backyard. As was the case before, Sarah worked and Jen stayed home with the six children.

The Harts began attending many music festivals as a family unit and became well-known members of the nationwide festival community. These multi-day gatherings focused on togetherness, dance, yoga, and music, all in a socially conscious atmosphere. The Hart children were often seen dancing and singing at these events, and attendees looked on with smiles at the large, seemingly enlightened and happy family.

Over the years, Jen Hart cultivated a carefully curated social-media presence that portrayed her family as socially conscious and, most importantly, happy and healthy — a tribe that wouldn’t be broken apart by an uncaring world filled with prejudice. Her social-media posts were filled with photos and videos of the family on cross-country adventures and at the various festivals they attended as a cohesive unit. One person referred to Jen Hart as a “master poster,” her long online diatribes filled with her thoughts and feelings about raising a happy family and the challenges of modern-day society.

But, like in Minnesota, some people saw through the facade and alerted the authorities. One person who notified the Oregon Department of Human Services in 2013 said, “the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.”

Others noted how the children looked underfed and small for their ages. Another tipster told authorities that the kids acted like “trained robots” and that they appeared to be “scared to death of Jen.”

A friend whom the family stayed with in California told investigators that Jen ran the family like a boot camp and that “true kindness, love, and respect for the kids was largely absent.”

After receiving numerous complaints, child-welfare authorities paid the Harts a visit in August 2013 to interview the kids and their mothers. The responses from the six Hart children were nearly all the same and they all stressed there was no abuse in the home and that they were grateful for their situation. One investigator noted that the children “showed little emotion or animation.”

Jen Hart argued that many of the issues the family faced were due to outsiders not understanding the Hart family’s lifestyle. Officials in Oregon couldn’t find any concrete evidence of abuse or neglect and the case was closed.

In a strange development, one of the Hart children became nationally recognized in December 2014 after a photograph of him at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland went viral. In the photo, Devonte, with tears streaming down his face, embraced a white police officer who was at the protest to keep the peace. The photo was shared countless times as people across the country used it as an example of unity after a racially charged shooting caused riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and sparked a national debate on police violence.

Overnight, television shows wanted to have Devonte as a guest, but Jen refused and argued she wanted to protect her son’s privacy. Jen, always conscious of her family’s social-media presence, decided to take a hiatus from online forums for six months.

In the spring of 2017, Jen was back on social media. She told her followers “This. Year. Slammed. Us. Hard.” The Hart family had relocated to rural Woodland, Washington. Their next door neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, noticed that the six Hart children rarely left the house, and that the blinds were usually drawn.

In August 2017, at 1:30 in the morning, Hannah Hart showed up at the DeKalbs' door, frantic and asking for protection. Bruce and Dana noticed that the young girl was missing her two front teeth. She told them that she had jumped from a second-story window in her house and ran next door. She also said she wanted her neighbors to hide her and exclaimed, “Don’t make me go back! They’re racists and they abuse us!” Soon after, Jen Hart showed up at the DeKalb’s front door and took her daughter back home.

The next morning, all eight members of the Hart family went to the DeKalbs house and Jen explained to them that the kids were “drug babies,” which is why they acted out sometimes. She also said that Hannah’s birth mother was bipolar and that her front teeth had been knocked out when she accidentally fell.

When Dana DeKalb asked to speak to Hannah alone, Jen replied, “We do everything as a family.” Hannah then handed the DeKalbs a handwritten note apologizing for her actions the previous night and saying she lied and was trying to get attention. Dana DeKalb told her father about the bizarre encounter and he reported Jen and Sarah Hart to authorities. No follow-up action was taken.

Several months later, in March 2018, Devonte Hart approached Bruce DeKalb while he worked on his truck in front of his house. The 15-year-old boy asked DeKalb if he could have something to eat and nervously asked him not to tell his parents.

DeKalb gave the boy food, and then this happened a few more times. Devonte then gave his neighbor a wish list of food and asked DeKalb to leave the items in a box by a fence where his parents wouldn’t notice.

After several visits from Devonte, the DeKalbs decided to alert authorities again. On March 23, 2018, Dana DeKalb called Child Protective Services. A CPS worker visited the Hart house and, after no one answered the door, left their card in the door.

The following day, Saturday, March 24, the DeKalbs noticed that the GMC Yukon usually parked next door was gone. Sarah Hart had texted her coworkers at 3 A.M. and told them she was too sick to come to work.

No one knew it then, but the Harts, perhaps fearing that authorities would uncover abuse and neglect, decided to once again leave their home as they had in Minnesota and Oregon. As the eight members of the Hart family drove south along Highway 1, there would be no stopping for group photos or lengthy Facebook posts about the many joys of family life. Instead of looking for a new town and a new home to settle in, The Hart Tribe was headed for a different, sinister destination.

Jennifer Hart at the Safeway in Fort Bragg, California on March 25, 2018 [California Highway Patrol]

Jennifer Hart at the Safeway in Fort Bragg, California on March 25, 2018 [California Highway Patrol]

The last sighting of any of the members of the Hart family alive was at a Safeway grocery store in Fort Bragg, California, on the morning of Sunday, March 25. A surveillance camera captured Jen Hart paying for $20 worth of groceries.

The following day, Monday, March 26, the Yukon was spotted belly up on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, only a 25-minute drive from the Safeway store. As investigators released details of the crash, the details finally came to light.

The scene and the GMC Yukon’s computer and air bag controllers were analyzed for information, and the story they told was disturbing. Jen Hart was at the wheel of the Yukon, in control as always. She pulled off of Highway 1 onto a gravel turnout and stopped the vehicle 70 feet from the cliffs. She then accelerated the car to roughly 90 miles per hour and, without touching the brakes (investigators found no skid marks), plunged the car off of the 100-foot cliff onto the rocks below, killing herself and her entire family.

No one in the car was wearing a seatbelt. It was later determined that Jen Hart had alcohol in her system above the legal limit, and that Sarah and two of the children had taken antihistamines that cause drowsiness.

On April 8, nearly two weeks after the crash, 12-year-old Sierra’s body was recovered. Devonte and Hannah Hart’s bodies have never been found, but authorities believe both of them also perished in the crash.

Nine months after the horrific crash that killed the eight members of the Hart family, many questions remain. Was the decision by Jen Hart to kill herself and her family a spontaneous one, or had it been planned when they hastily drove away from their home in Woodland?

Was Sarah Hart a willing conspirator in the crash, or did she not realize what her ultimate fate would be? Jen Hart had always been the dominant figure in their relationship, so maybe Sarah accepted her destiny and went along with the plan.

As investigators continue to try to unravel this great mystery, they may realize that some questions will never be answered, and that many of the answers washed out into the Pacific when the Yukon carrying the eight members of the Hart family plummeted into the ocean.

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