On the surface, Devonte Hart and his family appeared to be in a loving embrace, but underlying accounts of abuse and torture have been uncovered following the family’s tragic death.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart were found dead Monday (Mar. 26) in Northern California when their car veered off a cliff and onto the Pacific Ocean shoreline. Three of their adopted children (19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart) were also found in the crashed vehicle. Police presumed their other three children 15-year-old Devonte Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 12-year-old Sierra Hart, also died in the incident.
In a press conference to reporters, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allmon said they haven’t suspected any foul play despite finding no “skid marks, no brake marks” on the road. “We have no reason to believe, no evidence and no reason to believe, that this was an intentional act,” he said via The New York Times.
Devonte Hart’s name rings a bell to many. At the age of 12, he became a viral sensation after hugging a police officer in Portland, where a rally was held in support over the shooting of Michael Brown. Devonte was holding a “Free Hugs” sign when the officer requested one.
The photo received worldwide attention and mixed reactions with the family receiving death threats. “I was trying to show peace, that there was a different way to handle it,” Devonte said at the time.
#BREAKING: Remember this famous photo from @Oregonian ? Neighbors say Devonte Hart’s adopted mothers were killed in Monday’s crash in CA. Jennifer and Sarah Hart had 6 kids. Police found 3 in crash, still searching for other 3. We don’t names yet of the kids found dead. pic.twitter.com/7yWSEKmIUs
— Maggie Vespa KGW (@Maggie_Vespa) March 28, 2018
But details of physical and emotional abuse have loomed over the family for years. KATU reports Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge during the family’s time in Douglas County, Minnesota in 2011. The incident involved one of her daughters showed up to school with bruises on her back and stomach after Sarah beat her over edge of a bathtub. She was six-years-old at the time.
“Sarah immediately took responsibility for the spanking that occurred the previous day,” the criminal court complaint read. Sarah was received a 90-day suspended jail sentence and a year of probation. Child Protective Services, identified the children as “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect.”
The family, which previously lived in Oregon, moved to Woodland, Wash., where the abuse continued. Bruce and Dana DeKalb, who were neighbors of the Hart family told KATU they called CPS a week ago when Devonte snuck over to the home, begging for food. Other children also came to the home asking for food several times a day since Jen and Sarah would keep food from them as a form of punishment. One of their daughters also ran away from home last fall.
A CPS worker arrived at the home on Friday (Mar. 23), but there was no answer at the door. After the worker left, the family got in their vehicle and left. “Absolutely I think I was a lifeline. And yeah, I don’t think it was my fault certainly. I just, wow, it’s not how I thought it was gonna end. I thought it was gonna end in a beautiful life for them,” Dana DeKalb told reporters.
Neighbors of Devonte Hart’s family called authorities after the kids asked them for food. pic.twitter.com/MjWWECBzSA
— The Oregonian (@Oregonian) March 29, 2018
Friends of Sarah and Jen Hart had positive accounts of the family, including the couple’s treatment of the children. Zippy Lomax told Oregon Live she’d normally see the family at spiritual and ethereal events and everything seemed normal. “They weren’t plugged into the technology,” she said. “They preferred to lay (around) and read books and hang out with their chickens. Jen and Sarah were the kinds of parents this world desperately needs. They loved their kids more than anything else.”
The investigation into the crash will carry on with authorities searching for the bodies of Devonte, Hannah and Sierra.