One of three missing Hart children is found dead after plunge off cliff
For 12 agonizing days, search crews have combed the murky waters off Northern California in search of three missing children who were believed to be in an SUV that was driven off a cliff by one of their mothers. None of the searchers was sure they would ever find them.
Investigators had pulled five bodies from the wreckage, but could not locate three of the adopted siblings. Were they in the car when 38-year-old Jennifer Hart steered their GMC Yukon toward the ocean, or were the three missing children somewhere else and alive, authorities wondered.
Faced with that latter possibility, the FBI issued missing persons posters for the unaccounted Hart siblings Tuesday.
There was one for 16-year-old Hannah Jean Hart. Her lips pursed together into a tight smile in both pictures, hiding her teeth. There was another for 15-year-old Devonte Jordan Hart, his signature fedora perched atop his head and a megawatt smile lighting up his face. A different photo, one of tears streaking his face as he hugged a police officer during a Black Lives Matter protest, went viral in 2014. And there was a cropped picture of 12-year-old Ciera Maija Hart, her hair plaited in individual braids with barrettes at the ends. Her name on the poster is misspelled Sierra, as it was first reported.
“The missing children could currently be traveling together,” the FBI statement read.
Meanwhile, the search continued above and below the crash site with a team of divers and pilots braving, at times, strong currents and frigid temperatures. Then on April 7, they made a sad discovery. What appeared to be an African American female body was pulled from the water.
On Tuesday, authorities identified the body as belonging to Ciera Hart. The revelation confirmed what many feared — at least one of the missing children was involved in the fatal crash.
“Very sad news,” a woman posted on the Mendocino Sheriff Department’s Facebook page. “Rest In Peace, Ciera.”
The discovery of Ciera’s body still leaves many unanswered questions about the fatal March 26 crash.
Jennifer Hart was legally drunk when she drove a sport utility vehicle 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 fatal plunge appears to have been intentional. There are no skid marks and the vehicle was at a full stop before accelerating off the cliff, authorities said. Based on preliminary reports, 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, California Highway Patrol Capt. Bruce Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Friday that no one in the vehicle was wearing a seat belt.
“This case is … baffling,” he said.
Toxicology tests also showed that Jennifer Hart’s wife, Sarah Hart, had a “significant amount” of an ingredient primarily used in Benadryl in her system, Carpenter said. Two of the children also were determined to have “Benadryl-type substances in their system,” he said.
The two women were found dead inside the car March 26, and three children were found outside the vehicle, officials said.
In the days leading up to the crash, neighbors in Woodland, Wash., reported the parents to social workers with allegations of possible child neglect.
Authorities said they will continue their search for Devonte and Hannah. When asked if the discovery of Ciera’s body places all the children in the SUV, FBI spokeswoman Cameron Rogers Polan said “not necessarily.”
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