Authorities said Monday that they’re focusing on water rescue and recovery, but are also retracing the route the family may have taken before the crash — a part of the search effort based on the possibility that the three missing children may not have been in the SUV with their parents and siblings.
“At this point there is no obvious information to suggest either possibility,” the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said.
Investigators believe the family was in Newport, Ore., about 160 miles southwest of their home in Washington state, on the morning of March 24. The family kept traveling south until they reached Fort Bragg, Calif., in Mendocino County later that evening, according to the California Highway Patrol. The following morning, on March 25, authorities said one of the parents, Jennifer Jean Hart, was seen inside a Safeway store in Fort Bragg.
The family’s 2003 GMC Yukon XL was found upside down and partially submerged at the bottom of the cliff in nearby Westport, Calif., on March 26.
The deaths have raised troubling questions about the family’s history and what may have preceded the crash, which investigators suspect was not an accident. Officials said they have searched the family’s home, as well as the couple’s bank and credit card statements and phone records, for any signs of what may have led to their deaths. They said they have not found suicide notes.
Greg Baarts, acting assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol’s northern division, said investigators did not find signs of an accident, such as tire or skid marks, or evidence suggesting that Hart, who was driving, had lost control. Preliminary data obtained from the SUV’s air bag module suggests the vehicle likely came to a stop at a gravel pullout roughly 70 feet away from the cliff before it accelerated and “went straight off the edge,” he said.
Investigators also said the speedometer was “pinned” at 90 mph when the vehicle was found. But Baarts said this does not mean the SUV was traveling at that speed before it plunged. It’s also likely the speedometer was affected by the impact or was “unintentionally manipulated” during recovery efforts, Baarts said.
Killed in the crash were Hart, her wife, Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, and at least three of their children: Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, and Abigail, 14. Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12, are feared to be dead.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said nearly six dozen searchers have combed through the crash site and surrounding areas, but unsafe ocean conditions have prevented agencies from sending divers in the water.
“The location where the crash occurred is very difficult to search. Tides are strong and unpredictable,” Capt. Greg Van Patten, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told reporters Sunday. “The murkiness of the water makes it difficult for anything to be seen.”
It remains unclear why the family left their home in Woodland, Wash. — leaving behind many of their belongings, including a pet and some chickens — and drove more than 500 miles south to California’s Mendocino County.
Days earlier, child services officials had begun investigating the Harts for “alleged abuse or neglect.”
The Washington Department of Social and Health Services said it tried to contact the Harts on March 23 after receiving a report of alleged abuse, but was unable to do so. The agency tried a second time on March 26, the day the crash was reported, and again the next day.
“We have not made any findings in this investigation and we had no prior history with this family,” the agency said. “We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations.”
Neighbors have pointed to signs suggesting that the children had been living troubled lives.
Bruce DeKalb said Devonte regularly came to his home to ask for food and indicated that his parents weren’t feeding him. The teen also asked him and his wife to call Child Protective Services, DeKalb said.
Last month, another sibling, Hannah, knocked on his front door at 1:30 a.m., DeKalb said. She was covered in weeds after jumping out of her family’s second-story window. DeKalb said the teenager, who was missing some front teeth and who he thought was only 7 years old, was “rattled to the bone.”
In 2011 in Minnesota, where the Harts previously lived, Sarah Hart was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault. Court records show that one of the couple’s daughters, who was then 6, showed up to school with bruises on her back and stomach. Hart told police she bent the girl over a bathtub and spanked her after losing her temper.
The family later left Minnesota and moved to a suburb of Portland, Ore. There, Devonte, who is African American, was photographed sobbing in the arms of a white police officer in 2014, when people gathered to support civil rights protests in Ferguson, Mo. The protests were in reaction to a grand jury decision to not charge white police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American.
Authorities said the family then left Oregon and moved across the Columbia River to Washington to escape the intense scrutiny brought by the viral photo of Devonte.
Those who were close to the Harts described them as inspiring and devoted parents who had been unfairly subjected to criticism and assumptions about their motives for adopting African American children. Jennifer and Sarah Hart were white. Friends also said that the couple tried to keep their children insulated from death threats and hateful emails prompted by Devonte’s picture.
Kevin Sullivan, Marwa Eltagouri and Maureen O’Hagan contributed to this report.