(CNN) — A Washington family was killed after their SUV plunged 100 feet off a coastal highway in California, landing on its roof in the Pacific Ocean, officials said Wednesday.
The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and three of their six children, were found Monday in and around the vehicle, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. Their three other children are missing.
Among the missing children is 15-year-old Devonte, who made national headlines in 2014 when he appeared in a photo taken during a Ferguson-related protest in Portland, Oregon.
Investigators, including the Coast Guard, are still looking for the bodies of Devonte and his sisters Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12.
The circumstances around the crash remain unclear.
The California Highway Patrol received 911 calls Monday about a vehicle that went over the side of Highway 1 in a remote section of Mendocino County, about 180 miles north of San Francisco, Sgt. Erich Paarsch told reporters Wednesday. A passerby happened to see the SUV at the bottom of the cliff.
Emergency responders found the vehicle on its roof with the two women, both 38, inside the car, Paarsch said. Outside the car, they found the bodies of Markis Hart, 19, and Jeremiah Hart and Abigail Hart, both 14.
The family was not wearing seat belts, according to Allman.
Who were the Harts?
The family had most recently lived in Woodland, Washington.
On Friday, Child Protective Services had attempted to visit the family and tried two more times on Monday and Tuesday, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The agency was trying to get in touch after the “now deceased children were identified as potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect,” according to a statement from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
Despite three attempts, CPS wasn’t able to reach them.
“We have not made any findings in this investigation and we had no prior history with this family. We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations,” the department stated.
One of the parents, Sarah Hart, had pleaded guilty to domestic assault, a misdemeanor, involving one of the children in a 2010 incident, in Douglas County, Minnesota, according to court records. The child had told an elementary school teacher of pain on her back and stomach, which was discovered to be bruises. Hart told police that she had spanked the child over behavioral issues. She was sentenced to community service and one year probation.
One of their neighbors in Washington, Bill Groener, described the children as “wonderful” and said they were homeschooled and kept in the house most of the time.
“I thought it was strange that I didn’t see the kids a lot,” he told CNN.
“The weird thing was that the kids kind of seemed repressed and not communicative.”
Family friends had a different perspective on the couple, describing them to CNN affiliate KOIN as loving parents who gave the kids everything they had and radiated positivity.
California trip goes awry
Allman pleaded with the public for any information about the family’s whereabouts 24 hours before the crash.
“We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act,” Allman said. “If this was an intentional act, I truly believe that both between the Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office we are going to come to that conclusion, and if we come to that conclusion you can be assured that that information will be released to the public.”
The local sheriff’s office in Clark County, Washington, searched the home and said it appeared the family may have been on a temporary trip because there were many belongings inside, along with a pet and some chickens.
Allman said there is every indication that all six children were in the SUV, though he said there is a possibility the three missing children could have been left with friends.
A complicating factor is that investigators don’t know when the SUV plunged over the cliff, the sheriff said. The vehicle was in the water for at least several hours before it was discovered, he said, based on the water found inside the SUV and in the wheel well.
The vehicle had to travel about 75 to 100 feet on a dirt “turn-out” next to the highway before it went off the edge, he said. The turn-out is a place where cars and motor homes can park and people can walk their dogs. There is a dirt berm at the spot but no guardrail.
There were no skid or brake marks, Allman said. It’s not clear whether the SUV might have rolled or launched over the edge, CHP Sgt. Christopher Dalin said.
The viral photo of teen
The famous photo of Devonte from 2014 showed him with tears streaming down his face as he embraced a white police officer in the middle of a demonstration over the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
He was holding a sign offering “free hugs” when Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum approached and extended his hand because he saw Devonte crying. Barnum said the two talked about life, travel and summer vacations before he asked Devonte for a hug. The photo went viral.
Mendocino Sheriff’s Office reached out to authorities in Oregon regarding the case, and said it “learned the family, due to intense media coverage” had moved out of the state.
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