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Family of 8 that’s feared dead after SUV plunged off cliff 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)

WOODLAND, Wash. — What happened to the Hart family Monday is almost unimaginable: Their SUV plunged off a Pacific Coast Highway cliff, crashing onto the rocky coast 100 feet below.

Some things are certain, according to authorities. The married couple, Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, were killed. So were three of their six adopted children: Martin, 19; Abigail, 14; and Jeremiah, 14.

But much remains unknown, including the fates of the Harts’ three other children — Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15; and Sierra, 12. They are feared dead; authorities say they have “every indication to believe” that all six children were in the family’s 2003 GMC Yukon when it drove off an ocean overlook near Mendocino, Calif., about 150 miles north of San Francisco.

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The family, who most recently lived in Woodland, Wash., captured the world’s attention long before their SUV went off the cliff. Devonte became famous in 2014 when he was photographed sobbing in the arms of a white police officer in Portland, Ore., where people had gathered to support the protests over police actions in Ferguson, Mo.

The deaths have brought renewed attention to the family of eight, including allegations of a troubled home life. The family’s neighbors say Devonte repeatedly knocked on their door, asking for food. The neighbors called Child Protective Services to report the Harts on Friday, shortly before the couple packed their children into the SUV and drove south to California.

Jennifer Hart was behind the wheel of the SUV when it plunged off the cliff, California Highway Patrol spokesman Olegario Marin said Friday.

The Harts’ friends have defended the family. Samantha Sinclair, a Portland trauma nurse who has known the family since 2014, described their home as one of joy, filled with books, music and healthful food.

“Their story is not about abuse,” she said. “It is a story of triumph and love.”

The Harts’ home in Woodland, a town of 6,000 that acts as a gateway to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, is tucked away in the woods, hidden from busy Interstate 5 just a few miles away. A long gravel driveway leads to the gray, two-story home the Harts bought last May.

Sgt. Brent Waddell told the Associated Press that the family had likely planned a short trip, since they left behind a pet, chickens and most of their belongings. He also said that the family had recently been visited by Child Protective Services, although sheriffs’ officials found no signs of trouble or violence during their visit.

The visit is part of a troubling narrative about what went on inside the Harts’ home. Court documents show that in 2011, when Sarah Hart lived in Minnesota, she was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault. In Woodland, some of the Harts’ neighbors were concerned about the children’s well-being.

Bruce DeKalb recalled how one night, about three or four months after the Harts moved into the house next door last year, Hannah Hart pounded on his door. She was “covered in weeds” after jumping out of the family’s second-story window and running through the woods to reach DeKalb’s house, he said. She ran up DeKalb’s stairs, found the bedroom and woke up DeKalb’s wife, Dana.

“That kid was totally losing her mind, just rattled to the bone,” Bruce DeKalb told The Washington Post. “You can’t fake that.”

Sarah and Jennifer Hart and the rest of their children then rushed into DeKalb’s house, looking for Hannah. They found her upstairs, crouched between the bed and the dresser. After Jennifer Hart spoke with Hannah, she came down and apologized to the DeKalbs.

The family came back the next day with an apology letter, and the parents introduced each of the children to their neighbors. DeKalb said he learned Hannah, who he thought was around 7 years old, was a teenager. She was missing her front teeth.

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

Sarah and Jennifer Hart told the couple that their children were not being abused, and said that Hannah was having a rough week because her cat had just died.

The DeKalbs said they tried to overlook the incident, although they considered calling Child Protective Services.

Then, on March 15, Devonte came over to their house and asked for food, claiming 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 asked for six packs of tortillas and a case of peanut butter, some cured meats and apples, DeKalb said.

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

Boy in viral hug photo and his family feared dead after their SUV plunges off a cliff

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

Child Protective Services did not immediately 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.

The Harts’ friends say Sarah and Jennifer Hart were nothing short of supportive and nurturing to their children.

“Jen and Sarah were providing a hilarious, joyful life for these kids,” Sinclair said. “They were what gave me hope for the future.”

Zippy Lomax, a Portland photographer who had known the family for six years, said the couple was “incredibly invested in their children.”

“They inspired me deeply and just felt like the most incredible people that the world needs more of,” she said.

She said the couple were activists who wanted to give the six children, who they said came from difficult backgrounds, a chance to thrive. The children were bookworms who were never on electronic devices. They instead spent time with their chickens and held their own dance parties.

Lomax said the family became private and guarded after the photo of Devonte embracing the police officer went viral in 2014. The photo was taken at a Portland demonstration after a grand jury’s decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson. The Portland police officer, Sgt. Bret Barnum, noticed Devonte crying. When he saw Devonte’s “Free Hugs” sign, he asked for a hug.

But the photo gave the Harts some trouble. Lomax said the Harts received death threats and hateful emails saying that the photo was falsified and that Devonte was an actor. Mendocino authorities learned from the Portland Police Bureau that the family may have moved to Woodland from their previous home in West Linn, Ore., because of the intense media coverage surrounding Devonte.

Lomax said the Harts often piled into their SUV for weekend adventures, and she wasn’t surprised that they were taking a long drive at the start of spring break.

On Friday, rescue teams in Mendocino, where the crash occurred, combed the coastline, searching for Devonte and his two missing siblings. Divers have been unable to enter the ocean for the past several days because of dangerous conditions, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Greg Van Patten said.

“We haven’t been able to confirm that [the missing children] were in the vehicle, so it’s still not definitive,” Van Patten said Thursday. “But it sounds like they are a close-knit family. There would be no reason to suggest that they weren’t all together.”

However, “not finding the three of them at the scene leaves the possibility that they’re out somewhere else,” he said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report. O’Hagan reported from Woodland, Wash. Sullivan and Eltagouri reported from Washington.

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