Courtesy of Mendicino County Sheriff Department
New details have emerged in the case of a California family whose SUV was found at the bottom of a cliff last month.
Authorities recently announced Jennifer Hart, the woman who authorities say drove her family to their deaths, was drunk during the incident. Her wife and children — including teenager Devonte Hart, whose “free hugs” photo went viral in the wake of Michael Brown’s death — had particularly large amounts of the drug diphenhydramine in their systems, an active ingredient in Benadryl.
Hart had an alcohol level of 0.102, more than twice the legal limit.
Police previously announced they believed Hart drove the car off of the cliff intentionally. None of the car’s occupants were wearing seatbelts.
Before the crash, the Hart family was being investigated for neglect and abuse. According to family’s neighbor Bruce DeKalb, 15-year-old Devonte Hart had begun asking him for food, saying his mothers were punishing him by withholding meals. DeKalb called Child Protective Services on March 23 and officials arrived at Jennifer Hart’s home, but she didn’t answer the door. By the next morning, the family and their car were gone. Child services attempted to reach the family again on March 26 and March 27, but didn’t make contact.
One of Sarah Hart’s friends called 911 requesting a welfare check after receiving a suspicious text from Sarah and being unable to reach her on March 26. The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart were found along with their children Markis, Jeremiah, and Abigail on March 26. Their three remaining children — Devonte, Hannah, and Sierra — remain missing.
A sixth body was found last week but it has yet to be identified.
In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota for reportedly spanking one of the children. A family friend, Alexandra Argyropoulos also reported the family to social services in Oregon in 2013. According to a case report, the home-schooled children complained of being denied food and racist behavior.
Devonte Hart gained national attention in 2014 after he was photographed hugging a white police officer at a protest. Devonte’s biological aunt, Priscilla Celestine, fought for custody of him and three of his siblings but was turned down by a Texas appeals court in 2010.
Devonte and his siblings Jeremiah, Ciera (changed to Sierra) and Dontay lived with Celestine for about five months in 2006. Devonte’s biological mother was a drug addict who had other children removed from her care. The children were removed from Celestine’s care after a caseworker visited the home unannounced and discovered the children’s mother in the home.
Dontay was not adopted by Sarah and Jennifer Hart.
Celestine tried multiple times to regain custody of the children and all of her efforts were denied. Priscilla Celestine believed the kids were living in a better environment and is reportedly devastated by the news of the tragedy.
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