Coroner's inquest begins into death of family that plunged off California coastal cliff
OAKLAND, Calif. - Two women and their six adopted children died last spring when their SUV plunged off a Northern California coastal cliff, and now the mysterious crash could be deemed the largest mass murder ever recorded in Mendocino County.
It will be up to a jury to listen to law enforcement officials and forensic experts and decide if the crash was accidental, a murder-suicide or undetermined. Wednesday was the start of a two-day public coroner’s inquest, a legal inquiry into a death or deaths when the cause is unknown, violent or unnatural.
“As the coroner for Mendocino County, it is my responsibility to ensure that all death certificates are as accurate as possible,” said County Sheriff Tom Allman,
A few things are certain in the case: toxicology tests show the driver, 38-year-old Jennifer Hart, was legally drunk and her wife, Sarah Hart and two of the six kids had "a significant amount" of an ingredient commonly found in the allergy drug Benadryl, which can make people sleepy.
But what remains a mystery is motive. Why, on the afternoon of March 26, 2018, did the vehicle plunge 100 feet off an ocean overlook on a rugged part of Highway 1 coastline, just north of the town of Westport in Mendocino County.
“I’ve responded to many crashes on the coast, and it was very unusual to have no evidence of any kind to show why the vehicle went down the cliff,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Covington during the inquest Wednesday.
Allman said that if the findings from the inquest show that Jennifer Hart purposely drove off the cliff to kill her family, it would be “the largest mass murder we’ve had in Mendocino County.”
Authorities have said that data from the vehicle's software suggested the crash was deliberate and that Jennifer Hart accelerated the 2003 GMC Yukon XL from a dead stop over the side of the cliff.
Authorities said none of the passengers was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash.
Just days before the family set out from their home in Woodland, Washington for the road trip to California, state authorities had opened an investigation into the Harts for possible child neglect.
Then the crash occurred and the mystery began.
During the coroner’s inquest Wednesday, Mendocino County Sheriff Deputy Robert Julian described responding to the grisly scene. He said 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.
That was the body of Jennifer Hart. Both she and her wife Sarah Hart, 38, were positively identified through driver’s licenses found in and around the SUV.
Greg Pizarro, a forensic pathologist, testified Wednesday an autopsy found Jennifer Hart 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.
Officials hope the inquest will resolve not only lingering questions from the public about the motive behind the crash, but also their own frustrations about not being able to pin down intent.
“In my career, I’ve never had so many people ask me questions about a case. This case, this topic, comes up weekly, if not every other day, and it’s a year old,’’ Allman told the Press Democrat. “I drive by where the scene is, and I see fresh flowers there on maybe a weekly basis. I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions that I truly believe that it’s my responsibility to at least put the evidence out there and allow people to come up with an educated conclusion rather than guessing at the conclusion.”
The inquest will be live streamed and the viewing link will be posted on the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/MendocinoSheriff).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.