Driver in California Plunge That Killed Family Was Drunk, Officials Say

“It was pure acceleration from the last brake application until it hit the bottom of the cliff,” Greg Baarts, the acting assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol’s northern division, said at the time.


The Harts’ vehicle was recovered off Highway 1, near Westport, Calif., on March 26.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

Captain Carpenter in an email on Friday said the authorities were still looking at the crash as “a deliberate act,” adding that the presence of alcohol would be a consideration in the investigation’s final findings. “Until then, we are unable to speculate on the effect the alcohol may have played,” he said.

On March 26, investigators recovered the bodies of the parents inside the car and three children — Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14 — outside the car. The authorities were still searching for the other three children: Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15; and Sierra, 15.

A body identified as African-American and female was found floating near the crash site on April 7. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said it may be Hannah or Sierra. An autopsy was conducted on Tuesday but the results may not be known for weeks, the office said.

No one in the vehicle, a GMC Yukon, was wearing a seatbelt, Captain Carpenter said on Friday. He also said that before the crash, the family had stopped in Naselle, Wash., about a 90-minute drive northwest of Woodland, Wash., where they lived. Officials were not yet sure why.

Just days before the crash, the mothers had been reported to the state over allegations of abuse or neglect, according to a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

The department tried to contact the family at their home the day that it received the complaint, March 23, but were unsuccessful. It tried again on the day of the crash and once more the day after that.

In 2014, the family gained some fame when a photograph of a tearful Devonte, who is black, embracing a white police officer at a protest against police violence drew widespread attention.

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Body Found Off California Coast May Be Teenager From S.U.V. Plunge

While ocean conditions and stormy weather had frustrated search and recovery efforts, the resulting churn of water near the coast may actually have helped to reveal the body.

“It is not uncommon after a significant storm, such as the one passing through the north state currently, to bring items to the surface or wash onto the beach,” the sheriff’s office said.

In addition to the two girls, Devonte, a 15-year-old boy, is also missing. The three children found dead at the scene were: Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14.

Days earlier, child welfare workers tried to reach the Harts after reports of alleged abuse or neglect at their home in Woodland, Wash.

In 2008, Hannah, then 6 years old, told the authorities in Minnesota that Jennifer Hart had beaten her with a belt, according to a Sunday report in The Oregonian. And in a 2011 court filing, Sarah Hart admitted to spanking one of the children, adding that marks on the child’s stomach were most likely caused by being bent over the edge of a bathtub while being spanked.

Despite those and other reports stretching back about a decade, the couple evaded serious consequences, apparently benefiting from a lack of communication among the authorities across states, according to The Oregonian.

Last week, the authorities in California said that the wreck may have been intentional, citing the fact that the vehicle had stopped on a dirt pullout before accelerating 70 feet to the cliff’s edge.

“It was pure acceleration from the last brake application until it hit the bottom of the cliff,” Greg Baarts, the acting assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol’s northern division, told reporters at the time.


Sgt. Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart at a rally in Portland, Ore., in 2014. Devonte was one of three children missing after his family’s vehicle plummeted off a cliff in California.

Johnny Huu Nguyen, via Associated Press

The Hart family was first thrust into the spotlight in 2014, thanks to a widely shared photograph of Devonte, who is black, tearfully hugging a white police officer at a protest against police violence.

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Family’s S.U.V. Plunges Off Cliff, and Death Toll Is Feared to Be 8

“We have every indication to believe that all six children were in there, however only three bodies have been recovered,” said Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County. “We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act. Certainly people are wondering what caused this.”

Still, the authorities did not discount the possibility that some of the children may have been staying with friends.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Sheriff Allman conceded that many questions remain: When did the “accident,” as he called it, occur? Why did the S.U.V. drive across at least 75 feet of dirt before plummeting into the ocean? Why weren’t there skid marks? Sheriff Allman said his office knew of no witnesses.

In the meantime, troubling reports about the family have emerged.

Washington State Child Protective Services learned on Friday of allegations of abuse against the Harts and tried to make contact with them that day, but no one answered when its employees visited their home, Norah West, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, said on Wednesday.

Ms. West said that Child Protective Services had opened the inquiry because of “allegations of abuse or neglect in the home.”

She said the children’s agency made two subsequent attempts to establish contact with the family, visiting the home again on Monday and Tuesday, but was unsuccessful. A spokesman for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department in Washington State said he was not aware of any previous interactions with the family.

A neighbor of the Harts in Woodland, Wash., Dana DeKalb, told the NBC affiliate KGW that Devonte, the child from the 2014 photograph, had recently begun venturing over to her home to ask for food, sometimes several times a day.

According to Ms. DeKalb, Devonte said his mothers sometimes withheld food from the children as punishment and disallowed them from going outside.

Ms. DeKalb said she was the one who brought the family to the attention of Child Protective Services. She told KGW that when an employee from the children’s agency visited on Friday, the Harts refused to answer the door, and that the family left only hours later. Ms. DeKalb did not immediately respond to a telephone message on Wednesday night.

Publicly available records show that Sarah Hart had lived in Minnesota for years before eventually moving to West Linn, Ore., and finally Woodland, Wash. Court records show that a woman with her name and age was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault in Minnesota in 2011.

The crash was discovered Monday afternoon by a passer-by who had used a pullout along the road and seen a vehicle off the embankment on the rocky shoreline. Deputies were sent to that area, called Juan Creek, along Highway 1, more than 500 miles from the Harts’ home.


Investigators with the California Highway Patrol at the scene where a couple and their children plunged off Highway 1 in an S.U.V.

Chris Calder/Fort Bragg Advocate-News & The Mendocino Beacon, via Associated Press

Investigators soon found the vehicle and the bodies, identifying the two adults as Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, of Woodland Wash. By Wednesday, coroner’s officials had identified the bodies of the three children: Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14. The authorities say the three missing children are: Devonte, 15; Hannah, 16; and Sierra, 12.

In 2014, Devonte was photographed at a demonstration in Portland, Ore., one of many protests across the country of a grand jury’s decision not to bring criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Devonte, who was then 12, had been holding a “Free Hugs” sign, and a police officer, Sgt. Bret Barnum, approached him to ask why he was crying.

The photograph of the two embracing, which was first published by The Oregonian, ricocheted around social media and was featured by major news media outlets.

In an interview at the time with The Oregonian, Sergeant Barnum said the boy told him that he was sad “about the protests, kind of about national events.”

“I just kind of sighed,” he recalled, “and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Correction: March 29, 2018

An earlier version of a home screen headline referring to this article overstated what was known about the crash. Although all eight family members are feared dead, that has not been confirmed, as the article noted.

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