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Hart family crash: Investigators will ask Texas court for adoption records

Hart family crash: Investigators will ask Texas court for adoption records
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Investigators are still piecing together what happened before a coastal California crash that killed Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their adopted children in March.

As they wait for closure, the parents of the two mothers filed paperwork to sort out their estates and get approval to sell the rural Woodland property where the couple lived with their six children.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart died with their children when their SUV plunged off an oceanside cliff. A passerby discovered the wreckage March 26. A child welfare worker had come to their Woodland home three days earlier to investigate reports the children were being neglected. Jennifer Hart, who was driving, was found to be under the influence of alcohol when the crash occurred.

Four of the children, Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, Abigail, 14, and Sierra, 12, were found near the crash site. Two of the children, Hannah, 16, and Devonte, 15, have never been found.

Detectives hope to finish their investigation into what led to their deaths by early 2019, Lt. Shannon Barney, a spokesman for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday. They are waiting for results from toxicology tests and forensic reviews of the family’s cell phones, he said.

Barney said law enforcement officials hope to conclude their investigation as quickly as possible, partly in the interest of transparency into the high-profile case.

“There’s really no secrets,” he said. “It will be full matter of public record at one point, and we’re pushing to get there.”

The family’s new court filings acknowledge the continued uncertainty. The outcome of the investigation could affect the way their estates are divided, the documents say. California officials have said at times that it appeared to them that Jennifer Hart intentionally drove off the cliff. The women’s parents are listed as their heirs, as well as their two missing children, “presumed deceased.”

The court filings say the relatives believe Hannah’s remains “have been discovered.” Stefan Wolf, the Portland attorney representing both estates, said that refers to a partial human foot, shoe and pants leg that washed ashore near the crash site in May.

Barney confirmed that nothing has been found since then. Scientists compared DNA from the remains to samples from Hannah’s biological siblings, Markis and Abigail. The results were inconclusive.

“They can’t rule her out,” he said, “but can’t with any definitiveness say it’s her.”

The sheriff’s office appealed for DNA from biological relatives, but no parent has stepped forward. Barney said the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which placed for the children in foster care before their adoption, doesn’t have records that could identify the parents. The sheriff’s office now plans to petition a Colorado County, Texas, judge to unseal their adoption case to identify Hannah’s birth mother and, possibly, her father.

The Hart’s three other children were also biological siblings adopted from Texas foster care.

The recent court filings say the families have petitioned for a death certificate for Devonte and that it’s unlikely his body will ever be found. Barney said the sheriff’s office has no plans to resume searching for the siblings unless they receive a new tip.

Devonte gained international attention in 2014 when a photo of him embracing a Portland police officer went viral. At the time, the Harts lived West Linn. They had moved to Oregon from Minnesota. The women grew up in South Dakota, moved to Minnesota after college and, while there, adopted six children from the Texas foster care system.

A history of child welfare investigations followed the family from Minnesota to Oregon to the rural Woodland homestead they purchased last year.

The California Highway Patrol is leading the criminal side of the investigation, Barney said.

He said Clark County deputies have also been helped out since they were dispatched to the home to check for the three missing children after the crash. The body of Sierra was ultimately discovered at the California coast days later. The court filings, as well as the girl’s obituary, use the spelling Ciera, though Jennifer Hart spelled it Sierra in her prolific postings online.

The estate cases include death certificates for both women, with their causes of death as “pending investigation.”

Barney, who also acts as the county’s chief deputy coroner, signed off on the certificates five days before Sarah Hart would have turned 39.

The certificates show that autopsies were performed on both women. A contract pathologist performs autopsies and determines medical causes of death, Barney said. Investigators determine the manner of death, such as suicide or accident.

Barney said a pathologist is not done analyzing all the toxicology results. Their death certificates will be amended pending the outcome of the investigation, he said.

Mendocino County deputies have previously said toxicology tests showed Sarah Hart and at least two of their children had diphenhydramine, an active ingredient in Benadryl, in their blood. Jennifer Hart had a blood alcohol level of .102, above the legal limit of .08.

Sarah Hart’s occupation is listed as retail manager on her death certificate. Her wife’s occupation is listed as homemaker.

The court filings for their estates say the mortgage is not being paid on their Woodland home, valued at $380,000. The families would like to get it on the market as soon as possible, Wolf said. Sarah Hart’s father, Alan Gengler, is handling the estates.

— Molly Young

myoung@oregonian.com

@mollykyoung



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