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Hart family crash believed to be 'an intentional act'

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -

 

Initially, authorities feared an investigation into the crash in Mendocino County (California) that killed 5 members of the Hart family -- and left 3 children missing -- would reveal questions that would never be answered. Now, authorities have some of those answers as they're starting to piece together what exactly happened and why it did. 

On Sunday, a spokesperson with the California Highway Patrol told KOIN 6 News that a preliminary investigation shows the crash, which happened off a cliff in Westport, California, on March 26, was an "intentional act," and not the result of a traffic accident. 

Authorities said they believe there is intent because of air bag evidence and because there was no tire friction by the cliff's edge. 

Sarah and Jennifer Hart and 3 of their adopted children -- 19-year-old Markis, 14-year-old Jeremiah and 14-year-old Abigail -- were confirmed dead on Wednesday by Mendocino County (California) authorities. Three other children -- 15-year-old Devonte, 16-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Sierra -- are missing. But Sheriff Tom Allman said there is "every indication" all 6 children were inside the SUV at the time. 

Authorities are still searching for the 3 missing children. 

The CHP spokesperson told KOIN 6 News that the vehicle -- a 2003 GMC SUV -- came to a stop 70-feet from the edge-- approximately 5 feet off the highway -- before it accelerated and plunged off the cliff.

"It was pure acceleration from last break application until it hit the bottom of the ocean -- the edge of the ocean," said Greg Baarts with CHP.

The SUV's speedometer was also pinned at 90 mph, though it''s no guarantee the vehicle was going that fast during the crash. The crash may have caused that number.

Authorities are still investigating the crash. They said no suicide note was found during an executed search warrant at their Woodland, Washington, home. Authorities said they are also trying to figure out why the Hart's were in California. 

Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, recently moved to Woodland, Washington from West Linn, where they had lived since 2014. Jennifer was driving at the time of the crash.
In 2010 when they lived in Minnesota, Sarah Hart was arrested and later convicted of a gross misdemeanor for hitting one of the children, who was 6 at the time. She served a year on probation.

The court documents revealed a teacher noticed bruises on the child's back and stomach after the child said her mom had hit her. She also said her mom wouldn't give them lunch when they were grounded.

In talking with police, Sarah Hart said the kids always got food but admitted spanking her daughter the day before and that it got out of control.

The police report said "that her mom had put her in the bathtub and turned on cold water and then hit her...also stated that her mom had hit her with a fist. When asked what she had done to make her mom mad, (the child) said that she had a penny in her pocket and that this made her mom mad."

Detective Sgt. Larry Dailey of the Alexandria, Minnesota police told KOIN 6 News the Harts talked with the police on their own accord but left him with the impression they thought there was a lot being made over just regular parental discipline.

Later, the Harts left Minnesota and moved to Oregon, settling in West Linn. There, they homeschooled their children.

In late 2017, they moved to Woodland, where 2 of the children reached out to neighbors Bruce and Dana Dekalb.

"Their daughters telling us, 'Please, please, please,' begging us not to make her go back and that they were abusing her," Dana Dekalb said. "And then Devonte telling us he's being starved to death."

The Dekalbs called Child Protective Services, who visited the family 3 times in the days before the crash -- but never made contact with the Harts.

After news of the crash, the Dekalbs got a phone call from someone who said he knew the Harts from Minnesota.The friend told the Dekalbs he thought they had unfairly targeted the Harts, perhaps out of bigotry.

KOIN 6 News contacted that person -- who would only identify himself as "a close friend of the Hart family from Minnesota." He said the Harts were a wholesome, loving family who overcame a lot of adversity. If they were abusive, the friends would have known, he said. 

Asked if he knew Sarah had been convicted of domestic assault in Minnesota, the "close friend of the Hart family from Minnesota" said he just learned about it from media reports, but that everybody makes mistakes.

And, he added, those who knew the Harts will remember them as great people.


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