Mystery surrounds SUV plunge that killed entire family

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No skid marks, 3 children still missing: Cliff crash in Northern California raises questions

Alene Tchekmedyian and Javier Panzar, The Los Angeles Times

Some questions came up soon after the grim discovery of an SUV that had plunged off a steep cliff and onto the rocky shore along a remote stretch of the Northern California coast.

Why were there no skid marks? Why were there no brake marks? What had caused the car to plummet from a flat pullout, killing two women and three young people?

The deeper mystery arose once the dead were identified. The women, who were married, had six children, so where were the three who had not been found at the crash scene?

Friends and relatives told authorities that there was no way the couple would have traveled that far from their Washington state home without all of their children. But since Monday’s discovery, searchers have fanned out across a roughly four-mile stretch of rugged coastline, combing the beach and scanning the water with binoculars, looking for the missing family members.

The U.S. Coast Guard has searched by rescue boat, the California Highway Patrol has used a fixed-wing airplane and helicopter, and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has scoured the beach along the highway.

So far, they’ve turned up nothing.

“We’re still going to keep looking and then hope they turn up soon,” Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll find something.”

As the search continues, details have emerged about the family in the days leading up to the crash.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services said child welfare authorities attempted to contact the couple, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, after receiving a complaint of potential child abuse or neglect on March 23, three days before the crash.

They tried to make contact that day but were unsuccessful.

One of the missing children, as it happens, also had been in the news before. Devonte Hart, now 15, had a moment of fame in 2014, after he was photographed hugging a Portland, Ore., police sergeant at a protest related to unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

Portland police told the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office this week that the family may have moved from their former home in West Linn, Ore., due to the intense media attention that followed. When investigators searched the Harts’ most recent home, in Woodland, Wash., they found family belongings, pets and some chickens, but not the three missing children.

Child welfare staff tried to make contact in person on Friday, Monday and Tuesday but found no one. The department had no prior history with the family, said spokeswoman Norah West.

“We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations,” West said in an email.

The Harts’ neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, told ABC News that they had called authorities in part because they were concerned one of the children was going hungry.

The DeKalbs said they called child welfare services Friday after Devonte had come to their house repeatedly that week asking for food. Another child, they said, had once rung their doorbell at 1:30 a.m., wrapped in a blanket, asking for protection from abuse.

A search of court records uncovered that in 2011, Sarah Hart was sentenced to 90 days in jail in after she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of domestic assault in Minnesota. One gross misdemeanor count of malicious punishment of a child was dismissed in the case.

The deadly crash was reported Monday afternoon off Highway 1, at Juan Creek in the small town of Westport.

A passerby called authorities after noticing the wreckage from a pullout along the road. The SUV was overturned, about 100 feet down. The bodies of the women were found inside the car, and the bodies of three children were outside the vehicle.

“An entire family vanished, and perished during this tragedy,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said Wednesday. “We have every indication to believe that all six children were in there.”

The car’s engine was cold, and the water that had seeped into the car was warmer than the ocean, indicating that the vehicle had been there for several hours, Allman said.

“There was no indication of why this vehicle traversed approximately over 75 feet of a dirt pullout and went into the Pacific Ocean,” he said. Even so, he said, “We have no evidence and no reason to believe that this was an intentional act.”

Recovery efforts on the first day lasted until after midnight.

The children pulled from the wreckage were identified as Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14; and Abigail Hart, 14.

Missing along with Devonte are Hannah Hart, 16; and Sierra Hart, 12.

Investigators also are trying to piece together the 24 hours before the crash, and have asked that any witnesses who saw the family at a hotel, restaurants or gas stations come forward. While chances are slim, Barney of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said, they are still hopeful the three missing children were staying with friends.

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