Updated April 5 at 12:30 p.m. ET
A special coroner’s jury has determined that the couple who drove themselves and their six adopted children off a Northern California cliff last year did so deliberately.
The jury’s verdict of murder-suicide on Thursday confirms authorities’ suspicions that the March 2018 crash was intentional. It also concludes thousands of hours of investigation into the widely publicized deaths of Sarah and Jennifer Hart and their children.
Presenting the findings from two days of testimony, Mendocino County Sheriff- Coroner Thomas Allman told reporters that he would accept the jury’s ruling.
“It is my belief that both Jennifer and Sarah succumbed to a lot of pressure,” sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said on Thursday, The Associated Press reports. “Just a lot of stuff going on in their lives, to the point where they made this conscious decision to end their lives this way and take their children’s lives.”
The proceedings were hard on the jurors in the case, as Oregon Public Broadcasting reports:
“One juror, who identified himself as Tony Howard of Mendocino County, said he was ‘kind of in pain’ after sitting through the proceedings.
” ‘I’m going to be really honest with you guys. Coming up with the decision wasn’t the hard part,’ Howard told reporters after the verdict. ‘Dealing with the whole tragedy was the hard part.’
“Howard said the jury reached a unanimous verdict quickly after hearing thorough testimony from investigators of the family’s plunge off a California cliff.”
Authorities said the crash occurred in the days after the married couple took their children and fled their home following a visit from social services authorities, OPB reports. Neighbors had filed a complaint stating that the children were being deprived of food by their parents.
A witness who was camping near where the vehicle drove off the cliff, along California’s Highway 1, said he heard sounds of a car revving up and accelerating early in the morning on March 26, according to OPB.
Later that day, a passing motorist reported seeing the family’s smashed GMC Yukon at the bottom of the cliff.
The California Highway Patrol said at the time that there was reason to believe the crash was intentional. Police determined that there were no brake marks where the vehicle accelerated and drove over the cliff, OPB reports.
The bodies of the women and three of their children — Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail — were found inside and around the vehicle on the rocky shore. The remains of two other children — Ciera and Hanna — were also recovered later.
The body of the last child, Devonte, has not been found. Devonte had made headlines several years prior as the young black child pictured crying and embracing a white police officer during a Ferguson-related protest.
“I’m certainly aware of a contingent of citizens who have a belief that Devonte was not in the car,” Allman said Thursday. “It is our opinion and the jury’s opinion that he lived with his family and unfortunately he perished with his family.”
CHP investigator Jake Slates told the jury that Sarah Hart had used her phone to search for information on suicide, drowning and overdose methods. Slates also said Jennifer Hart, the driver, had a blood alcohol level over the legal driving limit, OPB reports, and that Sarah and the children had high amounts of generic Benadryl in their systems.
Slates said these searches on Sarah’s phone happened when the vehicle was in motion, after the family left their home in Woodland, Wash.
“I don’t think they knew when they left. I don’t think they were committed at that point,” Slates said, according to OPB. They made a decision at some point on their drive along the coast, he posited: “If they can’t have their kids, then nobody was going to have their kids.”
Another crash investigator with CHP, Timothy Roloff, said he had examined the vehicle’s computerized data recorder and determined that the vehicle accelerated rapidly before the crash. Roloff said the car was going 20 mph at 100 percent throttle, or “pedal to the metal,” OPB reports.
Authorities pointed out that, since there’s no prosecution involved in the case, the jury’s verdict can help bring closure to those who were close to the Hart family, as well as the investigators themselves.
“The blood relatives and adopted relatives of the entire family,” Allman said. “Those are the people who I certainly want to tell you that our hearts are with you.”