The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Family that is feared dead in SUV plunge had troubled home life, neighbors say

Six family members were killed in a car accident March 26. Records show officials had known of child-abuse allegations since 2013. (Video: Taylor Turner, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

It was 1:30 a.m. when Bruce DeKalb answered the pounding on his front door and found a little girl from the family that had recently moved in next door to his home in rural Woodland, Wash.

Hannah Hart was covered in weeds after jumping out of her family’s second-story window and running through the woods to reach DeKalb’s house, he said. She ran upstairs, found the bedroom and woke his wife, Dana.

“That kid was totally losing her mind, just rattled to the bone,” Bruce DeKalb said.

The incident was one of several that concerned the DeKalbs about the family that moved in last year: married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, and their six adopted children. They later learned that Hannah, who they thought was about 7 years old, was actually a teenager. Her front teeth were missing.

“They had some story about her getting them knocked out and said she didn’t want them fixed,” DeKalb said.

On Monday, the Harts’ SUV went off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, crashing onto rocks 100 feet below, killing the mothers and at least three of their children, with the other three still missing.

The DeKalbs said they had called Child Protective Services three days earlier at the behest of another one of couple’s children, 15-year-old Devonte Hart, who they said regularly visited their home asking for food. The DeKalbs said that they saw a CPS worker knock on the Harts’ door but that no one answered.

What happened to this family on the gravel pullout off a curvy roadway, nearly 600 miles south of their home, has left troubling questions.

Police have said there were no skid marks where the vehicle left the road and went over the cliff but added that they have no reason to suspect the crash was intentional.

Samantha Sinclair, a Portland trauma nurse who has known the family since 2014, said it was “unfathomable” that the crash was anything but an accident. She speculated that the driver must have had a medical emergency, or that the parking brake failed, or that the family suffered some other accident.

California police are investigating and have not announced any results from the autopsies or their examination of the crash.

It was the second time the Hart family had captured the world’s attention. The first was in 2014, when Devonte, then 12, was photographed sobbing into the arms of a white police officer in Portland, Ore., where people had gathered to support the protests in Ferguson, Mo.

Devonte and his siblings are black. Jennifer and Sarah Hart were white.

The family’s mixed races have fueled suspicion and anger around the case, reflected in hundreds of online comments left on Facebook postings mourning the family. Many of the comments questioned the motives of white women who adopted black children.

“Your friends are killers,” wrote one commenter in response to a post by Jammie Hermans, a friend of the Harts’ who had written a long tribute that called the couple “the example of marriage and parenting that I looked to and wanted to emulate.”

Hermans, in an interview, said the messages she has endured on Facebook demonstrate “how far we still have to go in race relations. The racial tension is still there.”

Stacey Patton, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University, said reaction to the Hart case is more complicated than that.

“Anytime black bodies are killed as a result of something white people have done, there is this almost intuitive response from white people that, ‘We shouldn’t rush to judge, we don’t have all the facts,’ ” Patton said. “White people are constantly given the benefit of the doubt despite the evidence we do have here, potentially six dead kids.”

Hermans said the Harts were devoted parents to two sets of three siblings who were adopted in Texas. She said people who never knew them are jumping to offensive and hurtful conclusions about their motives and their parenting.

“Were they perfect? No. But they are not the monsters they are being painted as,” said Hermans, who went to high school with Jennifer Hart in South Dakota and met Sarah Hart, who was originally from Minnesota, shortly after. “The amount of love and good that they put into this world is what their legacy should be.”

Minnesota court documents show that Sarah Hart was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault in 2011, and received a 90-day suspended sentence and a year of probation. Court records show that the couple’s 6-year-old daughter had come to school with bruises on her back and stomach, so police and child welfare authorities were called.

Sarah Hart told police she had “let her anger get out of control” and bent the girl over a bathtub and spanked her, court records show.

Retired Alexandria Police Department Detective Sgt. Larry Dailey, who investigated the case, said the two mothers were “not happy” that the school, child services and the police were involved in the case.

“They felt it was a little overboard for spanking a child,” Dailey said.

Dailey also said the women “expressed some sentiment about not fitting in” to their small town, and said they planned to move. “The kids would get strange looks at school, and the moms would get strange looks in church,” he said.

When the family moved to West Linn, neighbor Bill Groener said they were pleasant but very private.

“They were very lovely kids, they smiled a lot. But you couldn’t really have a conversation with them. It was like they had been asked not to,” Groener said. “It seemed like they were pretty controlled.”

It was during their time in West Linn that Devonte was photographed with the white police officer. Zippy Lomax, a family friend, said the Harts received death threats and hateful emails saying the photo was falsified and that Devonte was an actor.

The Harts became “more insular and a lot more private and guarded” after that, Lomax said. What may have appeared to be “controlling” to some observers was simply the Harts trying to keep their children safe, she said.

Groener said the Harts frequently spoke of how they wanted more land where they could raise their animals. When they told him they were moving to a new home in rural Washington, “It seemed to me that they had found their dream place.”

It was months after the Harts arrived in Woodland that the DeKalbs began having unusual encounters with the Hart children.

This month, Devonte came to their house and asked for food, saying his parents weren’t feeding him, DeKalb said. The DeKalbs gave him some tortillas and peanut butter and he went home.

The 15-year-old kept returning, and last Thursday stopped by three times, including at 11:30 p.m. He had asked for six packs of tortillas and a case of peanut butter, some cured meats and apples.

Devonte also asked the couple whether they had called CPS, DeKalb said.

He said they called the agency last Friday and saw a CPS employee knock on the Harts’ front door, then leave after a minute. By the time the CPS employee returned on Monday, the Harts were gone, DeKalb said. The Harts had piled into their SUV and driven away sometime between Friday evening and Saturday morning.

Washington CPS did not respond to a request for comment.

“When kids are coming to the house in the middle of the night, I can’t help but think there’s something wrong,” DeKalb said.

Maureen O’Hagan and Julie Tate contributed to this report.