MENDOCINO, Calif. (AP) — The cliff-side plunge that killed a Washington state family riding in an SUV may have been intentional, California Highway Patrol officials said Sunday night.
Information pulled from the SUV’s software shows the vehicle was stopped at a flat, dirt pull-off area before it accelerated straight off the cliff, said Capt. Greg Baarts with the CHP Northern Division.
Baarts said the electronic information combined with the lack of skid marks or signs the driver braked led authorities to believe it was intentional.
Authorities don’t know exactly when the wreck took place. A passing motorist discovered the wreck Monday, three days after social service authorities opened an investigation apparently prompted by a neighbor’s complaint that the children were being deprived of food.
Five members of the Hart family were found dead. The search continued for three more children believed to have been in the vehicle when it went over a scenic coastal overlook and landed on rocks in the Pacific Ocean below. The missing children may have been washed out to sea, authorities say.
“This specific location is very difficult to search because the ocean currents and tides are strong, it’s unpredictable, and the murkiness of the water makes it difficult to see,” said Capt. Greg Van Patten, a spokesman for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. “We can’t get divers into that area.”
Known as the Hart Tribe, the multiracial family of two married women — Sarah and Jennifer Hart — and six adopted children took spontaneous road trips to camp and hike and traveled to festivals and other events, offering hugs and promoting unity.
Authorities believe at least one felony was committed but Van Patten declined to specify.
Well before the wreck, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Douglas County, Minnesota, telling authorities “she let her anger get out of control” while spanking her 6-year-old adoptive daughter, court records show.
The two women, both 38, were found dead inside the SUV, while three of their children — Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14 — were discovered outside the vehicle. Searchers were looking for Hannah Hart, 16; Sierra Hart, 12; and Devonte Hart.
Devonte drew national attention after the black youngster was photographed in tears, hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over the deadly police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Devonte was holding a “Free Hugs” sign.
Two weeks ago, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, next-door neighbors of the Harts, called state child protective services because Devonte, now 15, had been coming over to their house almost every day for a week, asking for food.
Dana DeKalb said Devonte told her his parents were “punishing them by withholding food.” The boy asked her to leave food in a box by the fence for him, she said.
Social service authorities opened an investigation, and a state caseworker went to the house last Friday but didn’t find anyone home, state officials said. The agency had no prior history with the family, said Norah West, a spokeswoman with the Department of Social and Health Services.
On Thursday, authorities in Washington state combed through the family’s home for information. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office said deputies were looking for bills, receipts or anything else to shed light on why the family left and other circumstances related to the trip, KGW-TV reported.
“To the best of my knowledge, there was not a suicide note found at the residence,” Baarts said.
Family friend Max Ribner took issue with the notion it was something other than a tragic accident. The couple adopted the six children, many of whom came from “hard backgrounds,” he said. “They transformed these kids’ lives.”
“This is a tragic accident of a magnitude that cannot be measured,” said Zippy Lomax, a photographer who knew the Harts. “They were really radiant, warm, adventurous, inspiring people. They were always on some grand adventure, and the kids were living this life that was kind of like this dream.”
Associated Press writer Michelle A. Monroe contributed to this report.