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Woman was under the influence when she drove car off cliff, killing family on Mendocino County coast

Woman was under the influence when she drove car off cliff, killing family on Mendocino County coast
The Hart family of Woodland, Wash., appears at a Bernie Sanders rally. Authorities have said the crash off a coastal cliff that is believed to have killed all eight of them was intentional. (Tristan Fortsch / Associated Press)

The driver of a vehicle that plunged off a Northern California cliff last month in a fatal crash thought to have killed all eight members of the family was under the influence of alcohol, and the crash appears intentional, authorities said Friday.

Jennifer Hart was behind the wheel of a sport utility vehicle that fell 100 feet into the Pacific Ocean off a remote stretch of Highway 1 in Mendocino County, killing her, her wife and three of their six children. The body of an African American girl was pulled from the surf last week, and further tests will confirm whether it's one of the missing children. There has been no sign of the other two children.

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Preliminary toxicology results show that Jennifer Hart's blood-alcohol level was 0.102%, Mendocino County Sheriff-Coroner Thomas Allman said at an afternoon news conference. California drivers are considered legally drunk if they have a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% or higher.

Toxicology tests also showed that her wife, Sarah Hart, had a "significant amount" of an ingredient primarily used in Benadryl in her system, said CHP Capt. Bruce Carpenter. Two of the children also were determined to have "Benadryl-type substances in their system," he said.

Authorities are using DNA to try to confirm the identity of the girl whose body was found Saturday floating in the surf close to the site of the crash, Allman said. The water had so badly damaged her body that she could not immediately be identified, he said.

Authorities think the six children were all in the car with their parents, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, both 38, when their GMC Yukon dropped onto the rocky shore near Juan Creek.

The two women were found dead inside the car on March 26, and three children were found outside the vehicle, officials said.

Carpenter said Friday that no one in the vehicle was wearing a seat belt.

"This case is … baffling," he said.

CHP officials say the fatal plunge appears to have been intentional, based on the lack of skid marks and the fact that the vehicle was at a full stop before accelerating off the cliff. Although the investigation is in its preliminary stages, it appears the SUV had stopped about 70 feet from the cliff's edge, then sped off it, authorities said.

The speedometer was pinned at 90 mph, Carpenter said.

Investigators in recent days have released a timeline of the family's movements after March 23, when their neighbors in Woodland, Wash., reported the parents to social workers with allegations of possible child neglect.

About 8:15 a.m. the following morning, the family was in the area of Newport, Ore. Investigators think they continued south along U.S. 101 until they reached California 1 in Leggett. They made it to Fort Bragg about 8 p.m. and stayed there and in the Cleone area until 9 p.m. March 25.

Carpenter said Friday that authorities are still trying to determine the family's exact route of travel based on cellphone data and data from the vehicle.

Twitter: @haileybranson

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