Questions surface after family dies in California cliff plunge

Updated March 29, 2018 - 9:31 pm

SAN FRANCISCO — Nobody answered the door when a child-welfare worker went to the Washington state home of the big, free-spirited Hart family to investigate a neighbor’s complaint that the youngsters were going hungry.

Three days later, the Harts’ crumpled SUV was found at the bottom of a 100-foot seaside cliff in Northern California, all eight family members presumed dead in a mysterious wreck now under investigation. Five bodies have been recovered, but three children are still missing.

“There are a lot of unknowns on this,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. “Several of the questions that have been asked today will never be answered.”

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the crash and said there is no reason so far to believe it was intentional. But they also said there were no skid marks or signs the driver braked as the GMC Yukon crossed a flat dirt pull-off area, about 75 feet wide, and went over the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway.

The case has thrown a spotlight on at least one previous run-in with the law by the Harts, along with neighbors’ repeated concerns about the way the home-schooled youngsters were being treated.

Some family friends, though, say that doesn’t track with their knowledge of the parents, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, as a loving couple who promoted social justice and exposed their “remarkable” children to art, music and nature.

The brood was known as the Hart Tribe, a multiracial family of two women and six adopted children who grew their own food, took spontaneous road trips to camp and hike, and traveled to festivals and other events, offering free hugs and promoting unity.

One of the children, Devonte Hart, 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.

But 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.

Then, last week, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, next-door neighbors of the Harts in Woodland, Washington, called state child protective services on Friday 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.

By Saturday, the family’s SUV was gone from the driveway, said Bruce DeKalb.

The wreck was discovered by a passing motorist Monday afternoon. The 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.

A team on Thursday searched the rugged coastline for the three other children, also believed to have been in the SUV: Hannah Hart, 16, Sierra Hart, 12, and Devonte.

The same day, 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.

The DeKalbs also recounted that three months after the Harts moved into their house on 2 acres with a fenced pasture last May, one of the girls rang the DeKalbs’ doorbell at 1:30 a.m.

She “was at our door in a blanket saying we needed to protect her,” Bruce DeKalb said. “She said that they were abusing her.” The entire family came over to their house the next morning to apologize and explain it was a bad week, Dana DeKalb said.

The sheriff said investigators don’t know exactly when or how the SUV went over the cliff, situated alongside a spot commonly used by motorists to walk their pets. Allman appealed to anyone who might have seen the family to come forward.

Accident-reconstruction experts said investigators will look at such factors as the weather, road conditions and the possibility of brake failure, a blown tire or some other malfunction.

That model of Yukon was also presumably equipped with a black box recorder that would show its speed and use of the brakes, said Marcus Mazza, an engineer and accident-reconstruction expert with Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Robson Forensic.

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.”

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