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Hart family crash: Driver was legally drunk at time of fatal SUV plunge off Northern California cliff

New details on family who died in SUV plunge

San Francisco — A Washington state woman's blood-alcohol level far exceeded California's legal limit when she drove a SUV with her partner and six children inside off a Mendocino County Cliff along Highway 1 last year, a forensic pathologist testified Wednesday. Dr. Greg Pizarro was among the witnesses on day one of a two-day coroner's inquest attempting to determine whether the deaths of Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their six adopted children were accidental, a murder-suicide or undetermined.

The 100-foot drop March 26, 2018, killed the two women from Woodland, Washington, and their children Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14; Abigail Hart, 14; Hannah Hart, 16; and Ciera Hart, 12. Devonte Hart, 15, is believed to have also died in the accident, but his body has yet to be recovered. The two women and three of the kids died of broken necks, CBS San Francisco reports.

Pizarro told the inquest jury that Jennifer Hart's blood alcohol level was .102 at the of the crash — well above California's limit of 0.08. He also testified that Sarah Hard had a high level of benedryl in her blood stream at the time of her death. He added that is was not the cause of her death, but neared toxic levels.

"Her levels of benedryl were really high," Pizarro said.

SUV Off Cliff
This March 20, 2016, photo shows Hart family of Woodland, Wash., at a Bernie Sanders rally in Vancouver, Wash. Authorities in Northern California say they believe all six children from a family were in a vehicle that plunged off a coastal cliff.  Tristan Fortsch/KATU News via AP

The forensic expert said Jennifer Hart died of "multiple blunt force injuries" and was wearing her seat belt at the time of the crash. Sarah Hart also suffered numerous injuries and likely was not wearing her seat belt when the SUV plunged off the cliff.

Jared Chaney, who is the search and rescue coordinator for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department, described the intense search launched to recover all the bodies.

Initially, Chaney testified that deputies hoped to find someone alive, but the search was made more difficult because the base of the cliff was not easily accessible and the SUV had came to rest in the surf.

"We found a lot of floating debris coming up on shore," he told the jury.

Family's deadly plunge off California cliff may have been intentional

As the days passed, friends of the Hart family began showing up to help in the search, Chaney said. Hannah Hart's foot was found weeks later by a hiker's dog on a beach a ways from the crash scene.

Meanwhile, Mendocino County Sheriff Deputy Robert Julian told the inquest jury that the bodies of the women were inside the car and as it was being towed up the cliff.

"The vehicle got brought straight up and flipped onto its roof so unfortunately it got more damaged," Julian testified, according to CBS affiliate KOIN-TV. "And then I saw one of the decedents that was in the driver's seat fall from the vehicle, along with a bag."

Julian says he was able to identify Sarah Hart through a Minnesota driver's license found near the car. He says he was not able to immediately identify Jennifer Hart due to her fall.

Known as the Hart Tribe, the multiracial family of two married women — Sarah and Jennifer Hart — and six adopted children took spontaneous road trips to camp and hike and traveled to festivals and other events, offering hugs and promoting unity.

One of the children, Devonte Hart, drew national attention when the black youngster was photographed hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over the deadly police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Devonte was holding a "Free Hugs" sign.

SUV Off Cliff
Nov. 25, 2014, file photo provided by Johnny Nguyen shows Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart, 12, hugging at rally in Portland, Ore., in support of protests in Ferguson, Mo. AP

A neighbor of the Harts in Woodland, Washington, had filed a complaint with the state, saying the children were apparently being deprived of food as punishment. No one answered when social workers checking on the report went to the family's home near Portland, Oregon, on March 23.

Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children. Oregon child welfare officials also investigated the couple in 2013, but closed the case without taking any action.

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