Family famed for protest photo die when SUV goes off cliff
MENDOCINO, Calif. (KTVU) - A horrific car crash off a North Coast cliff may have been something more . Two adults and three teenagers are known to have perished, and three other children remain missing and presumed dead.
"We know that an entire family vanished," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, briefing reporters late Wednesday afternoon. "This is a tragic week for Mendocino County."
The sheriff stood before a large photo of the eight-member family and pointed to the teenagers whose bodies have been recovered: Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14.
"Hannah is still missing, Sierra is still missing, and Devonte is still missing," said Allman.
They are 16, 12, and 15, respectively.
Adoptive mothers Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, were belted into the wrecked GMC Yukon SUV.
The children were unrestrained, thrown from the vehicle and recovered on the rocky shore and in the water.
A passerby on Highway 1 happened to spot the vehicle on its roof, over a 100 foot embankment.
"We have every reason to believe all six children were in there," said Allman.
Authorities are searching the water for the missing three, and trying to determine why the vehicle would go off a cliff at a wide, flat dirt turnout with no curve.
"I was at the scene Monday and I can tell you it was a confusing scene because there were no skid marks, no sign of braking," said Sheriff Allman.
"I won't know if it rolled over the edge or launched over the edge," said CHP Officer Christopher Dalin, who supervises the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team or MAIT assigned to the crash.
"I won't have that information until we get all of our data back, analyze it and see what the evidence leads us to."
Devonte Hart, 15, won national acclaim in 2014 as he participated in a police reform rally with his family.
"Many of us remember him during Portland protests, when this picture went viral," said Sheriff Allman, pointing to a much- circulated photo of Devonte hugging a Portland Police officer, with tears streaming down Devonte's cheeks.
But the family image had come under harsher scrutiny lately. A CPS investigation had been initiated this month, after neighbors in Woodland, Washington reported the children were often hungry, and sneaking out to ask them for food. They claimed meals were withheld as a form of punishment.
It was not the women's first run-in with child welfare authorities.
In 2011, Sarah Hart plead guilty to domestic abuse, for beating and bruising one of their daughters.
In the more recent probe, CPS workers had come to the family home at least three times, but the women refused to answer the door.
After the last CPS visit Friday, neighbors said the family drove away hurriedly, leaving pets unattended.
Jennifer Hart was at the wheel of the Yukon when it plunged over the cliff.
"We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act," said Sheriff Allman, while asking that anyone between southern Washington and the Bay Area who may have seen the travelers, come forward.
"We want to know if anyone recognizes this family, staying in a hotel, or eating in a restaurant, or buying gas at a gas station," said Allman, trying to piece together a timeline.
"Nobody wants to get to the bottom of this more than me, so we now why this happened, how this happened, and how can we prevent it from happening again."