Police now have reason to believe the deadly SUV crash involving the Hart family was intentional, with the parents at the center of child abuse claims just days before the crash.
Representatives from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) contacted Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart a number of times including the day their vehicle crashed in Mendocino County, Calif. on March 26. NBC News reports DSHS spokeswoman Norah West said Child Protective Services determined Markis, 19, Jeremiah and Abigail (14) were possible victims of child neglect or abuse.
The children along with Jen and Sarah were found dead in the vehicle. Three siblings Hannah, 16, Devonte, 15, and Sierra, 12, are feared dead with authorities still searching for their bodies. “Three children are still missing and could be in the ocean,” Assistant CHP Chief Greg Baarts told reporters. “We are trying to determine a timeline, path of travel, and if there were any stops.”
CHP also shared findings from the GMC Yukon’s on-board computer indicated the SUV stopped then began accelerating before hitting the rugged shorelines 70 feet below the highway. “Pure acceleration all the way,” said CHP spokesman Cal Robertson.
The most recent report of possible child abuse stemmed from the Hart’s neighbors Bruce and Dana DeKalb who called CPS after Devonte snuck over to their home begging for food. One of his sisters also went to the DeKalb’s last year asking for help. “They were all small,” Bruce DeKalb said. “The one girl, who was 12, looked like she was 7. Both of her teeth were missing, front teeth. She said that she wanted us to take her to Seattle and [her parents] weren’t treating her right and don’t make her go back.” He explained how the Harts “told us what we wanted to hear, life went on for another eight months, and here we are today.” As previously reported, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic assault in Minnesota for beating one of her daughters, who was 6-years-old at the time.
Devonte captured the hearts of the nation when a photo of him hugging a police officer went viral in 2014. His “free hugs” mission was one supported by Jen and Sarah who led a lifestyle focused on love, spirituality and peace. The family were often staples at festivals catering to the spiritually and creatively inclined like the Beloved festival and the gathering for The Goonies’ 30th anniversary in Astoria, Oregon. A video of Devonte hugging artist Xavier Rudd also caught a lot of attention after his viral photo.
“Just wanted to take a moment to personally thank you for capturing the video of my son, Devonte, with Xavier at Beloved,” Jen said at the time. “I was shooting still photos, so I was hoping that a quality video would arise at some point. This moment is forever etched on our hearts, and most likely anyone who was there to witness this raw human love. Devonte was wearing his ‘Free Hugs’ sign that he travels the country with. He’s hugged thousands, sharing his love for all. There is a long story behind the emotion and why this moment was so special for Devonte. Thank you for enabling everyone to live this moment again through your video. “
Police obtained a search warrant of family’s home in Woodland, WA. where they confiscated an iPhone and MacBook laptop. They’re also looking for bank statements and notes indicating any plans of suicide.