Devonte Hart family crash: Deceptions, missed signals preceded deaths

Deadly Hart crash stands out for experts who study family annihilators

Since 2008, long before their SUV sped off a scenic California cliff, red flags followed Jennifer and Sarah Hart.

There were their adopted children's bruised bodies and later the sight of their teenage daughter with missing front teeth. There were the accounts of the kids themselves, told in police reports and by people who interacted with them in Oregon, Washington and Minnesota.

In at least two instances, there were beatings with belts or a closed first. There were outbursts by the parents at home and in public.

There was a late-night visit by one child asking her new neighbors to protect her.

And then there were the apparent lies. About which parent had struck Abigail in a fit of anger. About the actual age of Hannah. About Devonte getting pulled out of public schools he wasn't enrolled in. 

The moms had always been able to pivot from the troubles. They pulled their children out of public school — twice. They severed relationships. They hit the road for fresh starts.

But before the fatal plunge last month, which killed the couple and at least three of their kids, and which authorities believe was intentional, the Hart children's home life raised concerns and prompted calls to authorities in every state they lived.

Signs of physical and emotional abuse observed by friends, neighbors and teachers resulted in nearly 10 years of contacts with child welfare workers and police. 

Despite the mounting string of incidents, no law enforcement, school district or social services agency ever interceded to the point of stopping the abuse. The parents appear to have been aided by limited communication between state agencies and the fact that no central nationwide registry exists for child abuse or child welfare reports.

And shortly after the last attempted intervention came, the family was on the road — again. Where they were headed this time — and why — may never be known.

In the end, the Hart family's idyllic public image eclipsed a decade of deceit.

***

Raised in rural South Dakota, Jennifer and Sarah met as students at Northern State University. They later moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, about 130 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

The white couple adopted six black children from foster care in southeast Texas. Markis, Hannah and Abigail came in September 2006, then Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra in February 2009.

Friends remember a loving and free-spirited family. They attended music festivals and participated in Earth Day events. They explored the outdoors on long, and sometimes spontaneous, road trips. 

A commitment to social justice issues led to national attention in 2014 when Devonte, then 12, was photographed in an emotional embrace with a Portland policeman during a "Black Lives Matter" demonstration.

"Jen and Sarah were the kinds of parents this world desperately needs," said photographer Zippy Lomax, who met them in 2013. "They loved their kids more than anything else."

But signs of trouble began to surface early on. In September 2008, five months before their second adoption was finalized, Hannah Hart, who was then 6, told authorities her mother Jennifer had beaten her with a belt after a teacher noticed bruising on her arm, an Alexandria police report shows.

Both mothers told a police sergeant and social worker they had no idea how Hannah got the bruise but said she had recently fallen down the stairs in their home. Police closed the case without pursuing criminal charges, records show.

No one can explain how they were able to adopt three more children after the abuse allegation.

The suspected incident likely occurred during a trial visit by Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra to the Hart family home, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The trial would have been monitored by a Minnesota agency that submitted a home study to Texas officials for final approval, the paper said.

Two years later, in November 2010, a second Hart child arrived at school with bruises on her stomach and back. A teacher contacted social services and police.

Abigail, then also 6, told authorities her mother struck her repeatedly with a closed fist, submerged her head under cold water and withheld meals from her for misbehaving, according to a police report.

Though the girl said Jennifer Hart was the one who hit her, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault. Her parents claimed Abigail lied and misidentified which mother hit her. Sarah received a 90-day suspended jail sentence and a year of probation, court records show.

Reports compiled by a social worker in both cases are private and remain sealed, said Laurie Bonds, director of Douglas County Social Services. But each case did prompt the parents to pull their children out of Alexandria public schools, the second time for good, records show.  

Public schools in Minnesota are not required to notify any other government agencies when children are removed from public schools to be homeschooled, regardless of whether there has been an allegation or conviction of abuse, Bonds said.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart never mentioned the abuse cases, those who knew them told The Oregonian/OregonLive. Calls to family in South Dakota since the crash have not been returned. Both moms were estranged from their parents, friends and law enforcement sources said.  

Friends said the mothers regularly spoke of difficulties they faced as lesbian women with multiracial family in Alexandria, a conservative town of 13,000 people. They often said their children suffered a multitude of early childhood behavioral and developmental issues that made parenting a challenge.   

On at least one occasion, Jennifer Hart spoke of the problems she dealt with in Alexandria with total strangers.

"She shared the struggles of living there," said Brian Lee, who lives in Garrison, North Dakota.

Lee and his wife met Jennifer Hart and all six kids the day after Christmas in 2012 while driving through Montana. Jennifer and the children had just been in a roll-over accident in their GMC Yukon along an icy stretch near Missoula.   

Lee learned the Harts, whom they met in a gas station, were heading to Oregon to see Sarah, who had recently moved here to look for work.

He and his wife rented a trailer and gave the family a ride to Spokane. Jennifer Hart spoke for nearly the entire three-hour drive, he said.

"She said they needed a fresh, new start," Lee told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Soon after, the family put down roots at a rented two-story home in West Linn. Sarah worked at Kohl's. Jennifer homeschooled the children. They never registered with the Clackamas Education Service District.

The parents also received more than $2,000 a month from the state of Texas to help care for their children, the News-Express reported.

***

Any sense of tranquility didn't last. That summer, Oregon child welfare workers were alerted to potential abuse or neglect, West Linn police records show.

Alexandra Argyropoulos, a friend whom the Harts met on Facebook and later visited twice in the Bay Area, said she had witnessed what she felt to be emotional abuse and cruel punishment by the parents.

She said the authorities told her the children had been interviewed and were likely coached in their responses. The Oregon Department of Human Services could do nothing more. There was not enough evidence to make a case.

It was another report of abuse, and another incident where no intervention occurred. No connection was made to previous reports. And it was another situation where child protective services made no connection to homeschooling and isolation.

The family severed ties with Argyropoulos, she said.

"Those kids were pure magic," Argyropoulos told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "Besides their twisted mothers, our system let them down."

The next month the family was at Beloved, a festival centered around music, art and mysticism in Tidewater. Many recall seeing or meeting the unique family, known affectionately as The Hart Tribe. One video captures Devonte, wearing an animal costume and a "Free Hugs" sign, climb on stage and embrace the performer Xavier Rudd.

The little boy burst into tears. A captivated crowd erupted with cheers and applause.

One former friend at the festival said she saw a different side of the Hart family that weekend. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled how she had spent a day with Devonte and Sierra.

Their parents grew enraged when the group returned with food the friend had bought for the two children. Sarah, the woman said, violently grabbed Sierra, severely bruising her.

"It left a mark around her wrist for days," the friend said, in a detailed email exchange with The Oregonian/OregonLive. "Red turned to blue and yellow. She was in trouble for not sharing with everyone and [she was] called selfish." 

The woman said Sierra later told her she would likely be grounded, and she often got in trouble for speaking with people her parents didn't know well. As someone who experienced an abusive upbringing, the friend said she recognized Sierra's fear.

"They seemed completely incapable of dealing with normal childlike behavior," said the woman, who later moved from the Pacific Northwest.  

As they settled into their new environment, the family regularly attended concerts, events and festivals in the Portland area and throughout the Northwest. Their children wrote and recorded songs with music artists. They volunteered with the homeless and raised money for charities, friends said.

Then came the 2014 viral photo of Devonte taken during a protest in Portland after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The photo shows the tear-streaked boy, with his "Free Hugs" sign, embracing Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum on Nov. 25 of that year.

The image spread as the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction, its slogan becoming a rallying cry against police brutality in protests across the country.

Jennifer Hart said the national and international attention attracted threats against family. She told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a 2014 interview that the family avoided going out in public for fear that Devonte would be recognized.

There is no record of the family, which made more than a dozen neighborhood complaints to police in Minnesota, ever reporting threats to law enforcement.

But they said the fallout from the event led to their eventual move to rural Clark County last year, said Joe Carbajal, a Vancouver real estate broker.

"They just got so much attention after that picture was taken, they just needed to get away from that," said Carbajal, who grew close to the Harts over a four-month search for a home.

They settled on a 2-acre, remote property in Woodland. Photos posted to social media by Jennifer show the kids nestled with books in a reading nook. Birdwatching. Playing in the snow.

***

Next-door neighbors Bruce and Dana DeKalb recounted that three months after the family moved in last May, one of the girls rang their doorbell in the middle of the night.

It was Hannah Hart, who "was at our door in a blanket saying we needed to protect her," Bruce DeKalb said.

She had jumped out the family's second-story window and was covered in weeds, DeKalb said. Though a teenager, she looked to be about 7 years old and was missing her front teeth.

"She said that they were abusing her," said Bruce DeKalb.

The family came by the next morning, he said in an interview. The moms said Hannah was going through a tough time. They said she was 12 years old, DeKalb recalled.

Hannah was actually 16.

The moms also mentioned they had taken Devonte out of school after the viral photo because he was being bullied. But the truth is that Devonte, like his siblings, never attended public schools in Oregon or Washington.

After learning of the incident, Dana DeKalb's father called authorities, she said. She and her husband received a phone call from a Clark County sheriff's deputy.

"He informed Dana there was not a lot that could be done," Bruce DeKalb said.

The DeKalbs finally decided to call child protective services last month after Devonte came to their home more than a dozen times to ask for peanut butter, tortillas and other food for him and his siblings. The boy told his neighbors his parents were withholding meals from them as punishment, Dana DeKalb said.

A child welfare worker showed up at the Hart family home March 23, but nobody answered the door. The worker left.

By early the next morning, the family was in Newport. By 8 p.m., they were in Fort Bragg, California, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office.

On March 26, their family's SUV was discovered at the bottom of a cliff off of Route 1. The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah, both 38 years old, were found inside the vehicle. Three of their children -- Markis, 19, Abigail, 14, and Jeremiah, 14 – were thrown from the vehicle and found dead.

The other three children — Devonte, 15, Hannah 16, and Sierra, 15 — are still missing, but authorities suspect they were also in the vehicle. The body of what appeared to be a black female was found in the surf near the crash site Saturday

Investigators believe the car, driven by Jennifer Hart, accelerated off the edge of a pullout. There were no skid marks.

After learning of the crash, Lee, who gave Jennifer Hart and her kids the lift from Montana, said he had a sinking feeling. He went and got his wife.

"I just turned to her and said, 'I don't think this was an accident.'"

Staff writers Molly Young, Kale Williams, Elliott Njus and Jim Ryan contributed to this report. 

-- Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
[email protected]
503-294-7632 || @shanedkavanaugh


ADVERTISEMENT


Source link : http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2018/04/devonte_hart_family_crash_dece.html
Author :
Publish date : 2018-04-08 13:55:46
share on: