As authorities sifted through the questions and clues left behind by Jenniferand Sarah Hart and their six kids earlier this year — after a cliff crash killed them all in March — a co-worker of Sarah’s came forward with a strange anecdote.
The story, police would learn, showed a moment of candor from a Washington family whom no one seemed to really know.
As the co-worker recalled, Sarah had once alluded to reservations about her six children, two trios of biological siblings reportedly adopted from Texas in 2006 and 2009: Abigail, Devonte, Hannah, Jeremiah, Markis and Sierra.
According to an incident report from the investigation, Sarah told her co-worker “during a conversation about kids” that “she wish[ed] someone told her it was okay not to have a big family. Then she and Jennifer would not have adopted the children.”
It’s unclear when this conversation occurred, though the co-worker mentioned it at the same time she mentioned another interaction on March 20, days before the fatal crash.
On March 26th, the Harts’ SUV was found at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff in Northern California, off the Pacific Coast Highway. Jennifer, Sarah and four of their kids — Abigail, Jeremiah, Markis and Sierra (whose legal name is Ciera) — were found dead.
The remaining two members of the family, Devonte and Hannah, remain unaccounted for and are believed dead.
A subsequent investigation led officials to describe the crash as likely intentional with Jennifer, who was intoxicated at the time, behind the wheel.
“I’m to the point where I no longer am calling this an accident,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said in April. “I’m calling it a crime.”
While authorities have not released an exact motive, revelations from 400 pages of recently released investigative documents in Clark County, Washington, add to the mounting evidence that the Hart family’s home life was concealing volatility and even violence behind closed doors.
As one sheriff’s office report shows, co-workers of Sarah at a local Kohl’s, where she worked as an assistant manager, had mixed feelings toward her: Some colleagues described Sarah as “reputable and friendly,” but others said her persona was all an act.
One co-worker said “she saw through Sarah’s presentation of who she was,” according to the incident report. The woman described Sarah as a silver tongued devil “who was fooling people.”
It wasn’t the first time that Sarah and Jennifer’s characters had been put into question.
In 2013, the Department of Human Services in Oregon, then the Harts’ home state, opened an investigation into the family after learning of multiple abuse and neglect allegations, according to documents previously obtained by PEOPLE.
One woman alleged to state child welfare workers that Jennifer “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 documents state.
Up until their death, Jennifer and Sarah — who called their family the “Hart tribe” — posted pictures of their kids smiling on hikes or doing arts and crafts in the backyard. Their colorful online persona made it hard for friends to believe the crash was no accident even after authorities announced their belief otherwise.
According to another woman interviewed by Oregon authorities during their 2013 investigation, Jennifer appeared “controlling in her relationship with Sarah,” as well as manipulative and cold to the children.
Those comments align with the impression Sarah’s co-workers had of Jennifer. Although they never met her, they told Clark County sheriff’s deputies that Jennifer made an impression on them based purely on what they heard from Sarah, according to incident reports in the crash investigation.
As with other stories about the Harts, however, what these co-workers knew of Jennifer could conflict wildly.
One co-worker of Sarah’s told deputies that she “spoke very fondly” of Jennifer. But another Kohl’s employee recalled how Sarah said that the Hart children caused her wife “emotional stress” and that Jennifer, who stayed home while Sarah worked, would “often call about the kids making her crazy and arguing with them.”
Another co-worker remembered Sarah revealing that Jennifer struggled with depression and anxiety and would sometimes spend her day crying while being unable to get out of bed.
A fellow manager told authorities that Sarah was also known to have “heated” discussions with her wife once store management was gone, during which she could be heard crying on the phone — sometimes even closing herself up in the management office to finish her conversations with Jennifer.
In one incident report, a deputy wrote that, according to this other manager, “Sarah would be very concerned if Jennifer were to text or called her at work.”
Sarah also claimed at work that her children, whom others noted seemed underweight, “were mentally delayed and could not function on their own,” according to an incident report. Another co-worker said that, according to Sarah, the Hart kids “had food issues and would eat out of the garbage after being provided dinner.”
Sarah said something similar to her next-door neighbors in Clark County months earlier after Hannah, then 15, fled their home and asked for help. The woman at the next house later told authorities that Hannah looked “thin” and “much younger” than her age.
Sarah and Jennifer told the concerned neighbors that Hannah had a “rough childhood” and “some mental health issues,” according to another incident report.
Following that incident, son Devonte came to his neighbors asking for food and saying his moms did not feed him and his siblings and would not let them play outside.
The 2013 investigation in Oregon was not the first instance of child abuse in the Harts’ home. After a teacher in Minnesota found bruises on then 6-year-old Abigail’s body in 2010, Sarah was charged with domestic assault and malicious punishment. She pleaded guilty to an abuse charge and was sentenced to 90 days in jail — which was stayed — and one year of supervised probation.
During police questioning, Sarah admitted to letting her “anger get out of control” and spanking her daughter, according to the criminal complaint against her. But according to the Oregonian, it was Jennifer whom Abigail said had hit her.
The family then took their children out of school to homeschool them before moving to Oregon, where they lived until being investigated again — then finally on to Washington. But the allegations continued.
Three days before the crash was reported, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services received a call alleging the Hart children appeared to be “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect.”
The state’s DSHS tried unsuccessfully to contact the Hart family on three occasions, the first time on March 23.
They tried again March 26 and March 27, not knowing the family was already dead.