To everyone on social media, the Hart family looked like a picture perfect family dream come true. However, behind closed doors another story was actually at play when it came to the family of eight.
Jen and Sarah Hart seemed like they had it all, which is exactly what Jen wanted her Facebook followers to believe.
The young couple’s motherhood journey had been documented for friends and family to follow and fawn over ever since they adopted their first set of siblings in 2006.
Then, on March 26, 2018, German tourists found the family’s 2003 GMX Yukon XL after it flipped and fell off of a cliff on the 101 Highway in Northern California, with Jen and Sarah, both 38, and three of their six adopted Black children found dead at the scene. The shocking accident made national news.
Soon after investigations took place to find the truth, a story of unusual detail started unfolding. Facts such as, Jen who had been driving, had high levels of alcohol in her system and Sarah and two of the children appeared to have taken Benadryl. None of the family was wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash and the speedometer was clocked at 90 mph.
All signs seemed to point at Jen intentionally driving the SUV off the cliff.
“I’m to the point where I no longer am calling this as an accident,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said on HLN’s Crime & Justice shortly after the tragic event. “I’m calling it a crime.”
As more information was uncovered, more and more questions about who exactly Sarah and Jen were arose. Their relationship history, ongoing troubles with Child Protective Services and allegations of abuse were being meticulously unpacked, as reporters spoke to their friends, family, neighbors and the police to try and understand one of the most disturbing true crime stories.
“Everyone was envious,” family friend Ian Sperling said. “They were the perfect people with the perfect kids.”
Another friend, Zippy Lomax said, “There was nothing about the way Jen was presenting their life that seemed at all at odds with my understanding of who they were.”
Yet behind the endless stream of photos of their six children smiling, presented with long, happy-memory-filled captions, was a long history of abuse allegations, with the couple being reported and investigated in three different states.
In 2006, Jen and Sarah, who had then been dating for about a year at the time, became first-time mothers in a big way: A set of siblings—Markis, 8, Hannah, 4, and Abigail, 2 entered their family as foster children.
In a detailed Facebook post, Jen recounted the hardships of their first night of motherhood, but said they remained committed to becoming mothers to the three Texas siblings. “If not us…WHO?” she wrote.
Two years later, they took in three more foster children, another trio of siblings: Devonte, 5, Jermiah, 4, and Ciera, 3, with the couple changing the spelling of the latter two children’s name to Jeremiah and Sierra.
As it turned out, the couple had actually fostered another child in 2004, when they were in their mid-twenties. A 15-year-old girl came to live with them and was expecting to be a big sister to the first set of siblings they would adopt, until they dropped her off at a therapist’s office and she never saw them again.
While there was some friction between the girl and the couple, mostly Jen, the teen said, “I remember being devastated.”
While Sarah worked, Jen stayed home and raised the children, later home-schooling them after they were all abruptly pulled out of school following investigations by CPS. The couple was big into “transformational festivals,” which partially factored into their move from Minnesota to Portland in 2013. They would bring their kids to the days-long events, which included yoga, music and dancing.
Jen would often post photos from these festivals, with all of the children wearing huge smiles, and would share inspiring updates from their daily life. As one friend said, “She was a master poster.”
The friend went on to say, “Commenters would leave glowing remarks about their parenting. Some even asked if they would ever think of doing a reality show. She made parenting look unbelievably easy and awesome and there was no red flags.”
However, the first sign of something not being right in the Hart household actually happened 10 years prior to the horrifying crash, with the authorities interviewing the couple in September 2008 after Hannah showed up at school with bruises on her arm, telling a teacher she had been whipped with a belt, according to a police report.
No criminal charges were filed.
Still, how was the couple ultimately allowed to foster three more children, with the agency even using a photo of Jen and Sarah with their first three adopted kids? “Unless there’s a criminal charge, what can you do?” now-retired judge Patrick Shelton, who presided over the court that granted the couple custody of the second set of siblings, told The Appeal. “Believe it or not, kids get bruises that do not get beat.”
Then in 2010, Sarah was charged with malicious punishment of a child and misdemeanor domestic assault, according to Minnesota court records, after bruises were discovered on Abigail at school. But in the police report, Abigail had said it was Jen that had injured her because they thought she had stolen a penny that fell out of her pocket. When the other children were questioned, they revealed they were often spanked or sent to bed without food.
When Sarah told police she had been the one to spank Abigail, Jen backed up her account, with investigators believing them.
“They were a little guarded. They didn’t want anyone in their business,” Larry Dailey, the former police who interviewed the Harts, told Glamour.
In 2011, after Sarah plead guilty, she was sentenced to community service and one year probation. Around this time was when the couple pulled all six of the kids out of school and they never went back.
Following their move to Oregon in 2013, a few people called into CPS to report some troubling things they had noticed. According to one report, an anonymous person, who called the children “trained robots,” brought attention to the alleged façade of Jen’s Facebook posts: “Jen does this thing for her Facebook page, where the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.”
The person also said they seemed “scared to death of Jen.”
A former friend of theirs also called Child Protective Services after the Hart family had stayed with them, claiming Jen handled the children “like a regimented boot camp,” adding that she would often get angry if they laughed too loudly: “True kindness, love, and respect for the kids was largely absent.”
The calls lead to child welfare visiting the family in August 2013. According to the report filed by the case worker, Jen was “adamant that many of the family’s issues stemmed from others not understanding their alternative lifestyle.”
While the state ultimately closed the case, the case worker had warned, “The problem is these women look normal.”
If any of the kids received positive attention from Jen, it was Devonte, friends said. When he was 12, a photo of him went viral, with it being called “the hug shared around the world.” It was taken after a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, with a crying Devonte, who had been wearing a sign that said “free hugs,” hugging a white police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest.
Questions later arose if the moment was staged, and according to a Clark County sheriff’s report, Sarah had told a co-worker that the moment had changed her wife. Jen claimed to friends she had to turn down many TV offers, and posted on Facebook, asking people not to share photos of the Hart children: “Understand that these kids come from incredibly fragile and challenging beginnings in life and we have done our very best to protect the past from seeping back into their lives.”
By mid-2017, after a social media break, Jen revealed the family had moved to Washington, their third state since adopting their children. And while they tried to remain “private,” their neighbors eventually reported an incident to police.
“One of the girls came to the door at 1:30 in the morning and said that she needed help and the parents were not treating her properly, and she wanted us to protect her,” their neighbor Bruce DeKalb said. According to his wife, Dana DeKalb, the girl said to them, “They’re racists, and they abuse us!”
It was Hannah, who was missing her two front teeth, and claimed she had been whipped with a belt and not been fed as punishment, according to an incident report.
Jen eventually was able to convince Bruce and Dana everything was OK. “She sold it well,” Dana said. “She was good.” (One line? When explaining why they home-schooled the kids, Jen said it was because they were bullied. “We’re two lesbian moms with six Black kids,” she said, according to Dana.)
But then a nervous Devonte showed up asking for something to eat. And kept showing up, even coming with a list of food. Eventually, he told Dana that his mothers withheld meals from him and his siblings.
“It started out as one time a day and escalated up to three times a day,” Dana said, “until a week went by and we decided that we needed to get professional help.”
Finally feeling like they had enough information, the DeKalbs called CPS on March 23, just a few days before the crash. Jen didn’t answer the door. By the next day, the Hart tribe was gone.
“I’m like, ‘S–t’s getting real,'” Dana told Glamour of the family’s hasty departure. “We knew they were running, but it never occurred to me that they needed to be intercepted.”
What happened next that lead up to the horrifying discovery of their flipped car on March 26 hundreds of miles away from their home? No one knows…not even the police.
“I can fairly say that several of the questions that have been asked today will never be answered,” Mendocino County, California, Sheriff Tom Allman told reporters. “It was un-witnessed. We don’t know what happened.”
After their car was discovered, three of the six Hart children were unaccounted for, while the bodies of Markis, 19, Abigail and Jeremiah, both 14, were found.
In April, the body of Sierra, 12, was pulled from the water, in addition to the remains of 16-year-old Hannah, though they were not identified until January 2019. Devonte is the only sibling unaccounted for, with a superior court judge determining he was in the car at the time of the crash in March 2019, with a death certificate signed by the coroner the following month.
When police searched their home, investigators described it as “sterile,” with empty picture frames hung on the wall. The kids’ room had two small beds, a mattress on the floor and not much else.
“I did not get the indication that children lived in the house,” one officer wrote in the report.
Despite their 18 year relationship, Jen would still post loving tributes to Sarah on social media.
In a 2010 e-mail, Jen described their home life as “very rollercoasterish.” She explained to a friend, “For quite some time I have felt very under appreciated, and taken for granted in our relationship…and at times unloved. While I know deep in my heart how much she loves me….she is just horrible about showing it.”
In a Facebook post in 2016, Jen wrote, “We’ve come to realize that some think our lives are next to perfect. We’re human, and we struggle through life’s obstacle course just like everyone else.” Later on, she looked back on the first half of 2017, claiming, “This. Year. Slammed. Us. Hard.”
But in November 2017, after they had moved to Washington, Sperling saw a small crack in the couple’s “perfect” image, when a worn down Sarah admitted to him, “I’m just so tired.” When he acknowledged how hard it must be to work full-time to support the family of eight (sometimes six days a week), Sperling remembered Sarah saying, “Thanks. I don’t hear that very often.”
As details about the allegations of abuse emerged following the crash, friends of the couple struggled to reconcile the disturbing accounts with the image that had been presented on social media.
Looking back with what they know now though, there are some things loved ones didn’t notice before. Like Sperling’s wife realizing there was no paint on the brushes in the picture Jen posted of some of the children painting.
As Sperling told Glamour, “I don’t know what’s real or fake anymore.”