What we know about the mysterious California crash that killed five family members

Posted at 10:04 PM, Apr 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-03 00:04:19-04

A family’s SUV found upside down at the bottom of a cliff near a remote stretch of highway on the Northern California coast. Five bodies recovered, including three teens. Questions surrounding whether the vehicle was deliberately driven off the road.

The deaths of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, and their children — Markis, 19, and Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14 — are indeed a mystery. The couple’s other children — Hannah, 16, Devonte, 15, and Sierra, 12 — are still missing. Investigators aren’t certain whether they were in the SUV when it tumbled into the sea.

Here is what we know about the Hart family, and the fatal crash last week:

The children

The children were adopted in Texas in 2006 and 2009, according to Tiffani Butler, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Butler couldn’t immediately say if both women or just one of them legally adopted the six children.

Siblings Abigail, Hannah and Markis were adopted first, in September 2006, in Colorado County, according to Butler. Sierra, Jeremiah and Devonte, also siblings, were adopted in February 2009 in Harris County. Out-of-state adoptions are not uncommon, according to Butler.

Devonte, who is black, earned national attention when a touching photo of him went viral in 2014.

In the photo, tears streamed down his face as he embraced a white police officer in the middle of a Portland, Ore., demonstration over a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Devonte had been holding a sign offering "Free Hugs."

The fatal crash

The SUV plunged 100 feet into the water from a flat, gravel-covered outcrop where travelers stop to admire the view, walk their dog and stretch their legs, according to Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart were found inside the overturned SUV on March 26, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said. Emergency responders recovered the bodies of Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail outside the SUV. Scattered belongings, including a purse, were found nearby.

Investigators found no skid marks or brake marks.

A passerby happened to notice the vehicle but nobody reported seeing the crash, so authorities don’t know when or how it happened.

On Sunday, police said preliminary information suggested the SUV may have been intentionally driven off the edge of the cliff.

There is "every indication" that Hannah, Devonte and Sierra were riding in the SUV, too, but it’s also possible they were left behind with friends, Allman said.

Authorities are still searching for the three children.

The Hart family

Jennifer and Sarah Hart once lived in Minnesota, where Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault involving one of the children in 2010, according to court records from Douglas County, Minnesota.

The child had told an elementary school teacher of pain in her stomach and back, which was discovered to be caused by bruises. Sarah Hart told police she had spanked the child over the edge of the bathtub because of the child’s behavior. She was sentenced to community service and one year of probation.

About 10 months ago, the Harts moved into their home in Woodland in Washington state, said neighbor Bruce DeKalb. He said the family was "very private."

Another neighbor, Bill Groener, said the children were home-schooled and kept inside most of the time.

Zippy Lomax, a friend of the couple, told CNN affiliate KOIN: "Jen and Sarah really were the kind of parents that I think the world desperately needs."

Neighbor’s suspicions

DeKalb told HLN last week that Devonte and one of his sisters had said they were being mistreated. He recalled two disturbing encounters he had with the children.

"One of the girls came to the door at 1:30 in the morning and said that she needed help and the parents were not treating her properly, and (she) wanted us to protect her," DeKalb said. "We ended up getting her back to her parents … and then I went over there the next morning and just checked on things, and everything seemed normal, and we let it go from there."

DeKalb said he and his wife also encountered Devonte, the one child he saw doing outside chores, such as taking the garbage bins to and from the street.

"About a week ago, he (Devonte) started coming over asking for food and saying that they were taking meals away from him due to punishment," DeKalb told HLN. "And it started out as one time a day and escalated up to three times a day, until a week went by and we decided that we needed to get professional help."

DeKalb said he called Child Protective Services on March 23, and they arrived just after Jennifer Hart came home from work. But she didn’t answer the door.

Sarah Hart came home soon after, DeKalb said. By the next morning, the family and their vehicle were gone.

Child Protective Services tried to visit the family twice more — on March 26 and March 27 — but had no success, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The agency was trying to get in touch after the "now deceased children were identified as potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect," according to a statement from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The department said it had no history with the Hart family.

On March 29, Clark County, Washington, sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant at the family’s Woodland home, looking for any evidence in the missing persons case, Sgt. Brent Waddell said then.