The grisly true story of the Hart family murders

Married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart killed themselves and their six children in March 2018. A new episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta seems to take its inspiration from the tragic foster system case, writes Sheila Flynn

Tuesday 29 March 2022 22:26 BST
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<p>Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove themselves and their six adopted children off a California cliff in a 2018 murder-suicide; the tragedy has inspired the first episode of Season 3 of Donald Glover’s <em>Atlanta</em> </p>

Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove themselves and their six adopted children off a California cliff in a 2018 murder-suicide; the tragedy has inspired the first episode of Season 3 of Donald Glover’s Atlanta

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It’s not immediately apparent, during the initial scenes of the first episode of Atlanta’s Season 3 return after a years-long hiatus, that the plot is based on a true story.

But anyone familiar with the tragic tale of the Hart family deaths - which occurred in 2018, when a White lesbian couple killed themselves and their adopted Black children by driving off a cliff - will soon recognise the backstory.

Atlanta, the acclaimed series from brothers Donald and Stephen Glover, premiered its third season last week after a break four years ago. Directed by award-winning Hiro Murai, it follows the exploits of Earnest “Earn” Marks, an Ivy League dropout played by Donald Glover who tries to manage the fledgling career of his cousin, rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles.

Earn and Paper Boi, like Donald and Stephen Glover, grew up in the Atlanta area, and the Georgia city is essentially another character on the show.

In the first episode of Season 3, however, the characters audiences know and love barely appear. Instead, the storyline focuses on a boy named Loquareeous who acts up in class, gets physically punished by his family in view of school officials and subsequently is removed from his home by authorities.

He’s placed with other young Black children with a lesbian foster couple who give the impression of social justice campaigners while running a strict and subtly abusive household.

The plot is all too reminiscent of the Harts.

The Hart family vehicle plunged off a 100-foot cliff in March 2018, killing both parents and six children aged between 12 and 19

That family, who’d lived in several states before settling with the six adopted children in Washington, had made headlines for more positive reasons before the 2018 murder-suicide. Four years earlier, their adopted son, Devonte, went viral after being pictured hugging a police officer at a Portland protest in support of the Ferguson, Missouri backlash to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Some called the picture, taken by a freelance photographer and showing a tearful Devonte, then 12, hugging the Portland cop, a sign of hope; others argued it was pro-police propaganda.

It was far from the only time, however, that the Hart family had interacted with authorities - and Atlanta’s reimagining of their tragic case offers a different explanation for that exchange between cop and child.

After the family drove off a cliff - almost four years exactly to the day of Atlanta’s airing of the first Season 3 episode - it was revealed that adoptive mothers Jennifer and Sarah Hart had repeatedly been reported to child services in several states.

The couple, both 38 at the time of their deaths, had adopted Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12. Social media pictures showed them travelling the country, smiling and embracing, seemingly happy. But witnesses such as neighbours had raised concerns about the family’s treatment of the children.

Portland police Sergeant Bret Barnum, left, and Devonte Hart, 12, hug at a rally in Portland, Oregon, where people had gathered in support of the protests in Ferguson

In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in Minnesota to domestic abuse related to spanking one of the children. Two years later, Oregon authorities also opened an investigation into the family, who were living in the state at the time, but found no conclusive evidence and closed the case.

The pattern of concern about the family, however, followed them to Woodland, Washington, where the couple bought a two-story house with a fenced-in pasture.

According to Woodland neighbours Bruce and Dana DeKalb, they contacted officials days before the fatal crash after Devonte had come to their house several times in the previous week asking for food.

The Dekalbs also described a night when one of the female children, at 1.30am, “was at our door in a blanket saying we needed to protect her. She said that they were abusing her.”

Washington State opened an investigation into the family, and the Harts seemingly responded by packing the kids up, fleeing the house and deciding it was better to end the lives of both mothers and all six children. They researched ways to do it beforehand, according to evidence, as they headed to the eventual scene of the crime in a cliff in Mendocino, California.

The Hart family lived in this two-story home with a fenced pasture in Woodland, Washington; neighbours said the children turned up looking for food and protection from their mothers

“Sarah Hart searched suicide, drowning, Benadryl dosages and overdose methods on the internet throughout the drive to California, California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates said. She also queried whether death by drowning would be painful. Authorities recovered the deleted searches from her phone.

“They both decided that this was going to be the end,” Mr Slates said in 2019, when it took a jury less than an hour to rule that all eight family members died in a murder-suicide. “That if they can’t have their kids then nobody was going to have those kids.”

He added that Jennifer Hart rarely drank and had a high blood alcohol content on the night of the crash, when she revved the car around 3am - according to a witness - and drove the family vehicle off a cliff into the Pacific.

She may have been “drinking to build up her courage,” Mr Slates told AP, while her wife had 42 doses of generic Benadryl in her system. The children were also drugged to sedate them, he said.

The body of Devonte has never been recovered.

In the Season 3 premiere of Atlanta, however, the story - while mirroring the case - has a much more uplifting ending. It shows a lesbian foster couple overly disciplining the four children in their household, forcing them to work, stand as props at a farmers market and even changing their names. When they’re checked on by a Black child welfare official who seems concerned and listens to the kids, they seemingly panic, load the children into a car and, at night, drive off a cliff.

TV-Atlanta-Last Season

But the fates of Loquareeous and the other children are less tragic than those of the real-life Hart kids.

Donald Glover, in the runup to the episode’s release, said the writing team “wanted to make a black fairytale” with the show’s third season.

“I remember sitting in the writers’ room and being like, ‘What do we write about?’” he told Variety. We just wanted to do short stories. Something I would want to watch.”

It’s not surprising a story about foster care caught the Glovers’ eyes; the men’s parents took in foster kids throughout their three biological children’s youths.

Representatives for Donald and Stephen Glover did not immediately return a request for comment from The Independent.

Viewers, however, were quick to make the connection on social media after the episode’s 24 March debut. Twitter user @JoCool_isDead tweeted: “Definitely getting Hart Family vibes from this.

“Also, huuuuge appreciation for Donald Glover shining light on the toxicity of ‘White Saviour’ foster famlies that plague the system.”

User @OTB___ tweeted: “Shout-out to AtlantaFX for shining the light” on the system’s failings.

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