WESTPORT, Calif. – A body was recovered along the California Coast on Saturday, near the site of a crash that claimed the lives of at least five members of a Woodland, Washington family.
Shortly before 2 p.m. Saturday, a couple vacationing along the coast reported a possible body floating in the surf near Juan Creek, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office said.
“The area is in the immediate vicinity of the recent Hart Family crash,” the sheriff's office said in a news release.
The Hart family’s SUV was found on March 26 at the bottom of a cliff off Highway 1 near Westport. Five bodies were found with the vehicle. That included the parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and three of their adopted children: 19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart.
The Hart family. From left, Hannah Hart, Abigail Hart, Sierra Hart, Jeremiah Hart, Jennifer Hart, Devonte Hart, Markis Hart and Sarah Hart.
Courtesy of Medocino County
However, the bodies of three children, 15-year-old Sierra Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 15-year-old Devonte Hart, were not found. While they are considered missing, investigators believe they were also in the SUV at the time of the crash, which they believe was intentional.
Drone video: California crash scene
The body found on Saturday appeared to be that of an African-American female but her age and a positive identity could not be determined, the sheriff’s office said. An autopsy will be conducted on Tuesday.
Investigators are looking into the possibility that the body may be one of the two missing Hart girls but the sheriff’s office said identification will most likely be done through DNA testing, which could take weeks.
A search for the three children was postponed on Friday due to difficult weather conditions. The sheriff’s office said they would resume searching for the children once conditions allowed.
Authorities received reports of child welfare concerns in three different states involving the Hart family prior to the family’s fatal crash, records and interviews show.
Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to charges of domestic assault in 2011, after police in Minnesota said she hit one of her daughters. The Oregonian reported that the school district in Minnesota said Sarah and Jennifer Hart pulled their children out of school after the incident and began home-schooling them.
In 2013, a former friend of the Hart family told child welfare officials in Oregon in 2013 that Jennifer and Sarah Hart deprived the kids of food as punishment.
Argyropoulos said she was told after she made the report that Oregon officials had interviewed the children but it was apparent that each child had been coached by their mothers on what to say. She said she was told there was nothing more the Oregon Department of Human Services could do because there was not enough evidence to make a case.
On Friday, March 23, Bruce DeKalb and his wife, next-door neighbors to the Hart family, called child protective services and reported that 15-year-old Devonte Hart had come over to their home multiple times asking for food. He asked if they would hide food for him and his siblings.
Devonte, who captured the hearts of America in November 2014 when a photo of him hugging a police officer during a Ferguson-related rally in Portland went viral, told DeKalb and his wife that his parents withheld food as punishment.
In this Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014 photo, Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum, left, and Devonte Hart, 12, hug at a rally in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Johnny Nguyen via MSNBC.com via Associated Press)
“It was upsetting,” DeKalb said. “We were trying to make sense of it. We played it out for nearly a week, then we decided there was no end to it, so we probably needed to get professional help."
Child Protective Services in Washington confirmed they opened an investigation into the Hart family on March 23.
On Tuesday, the California Highway Patrol outlined the Hart family's travel route from Washington to California prior to the fatal crash.
Authorities said the Hart family arrived in Fort Bragg, California, on the night of Saturday, March 24, and were there until Sunday night, the day before their SUV was found. A surveillance image from a Safeway in Fort Bragg shows Jennifer Hart purchasing bananas and other groceries on Sunday morning at 8:05 a.m.
Jennifer Hart is seen in this Safeway surveillance image in Fort Bragg, Calif., on Sunday, March 25, 2018. (Photo: California Highway Patrol)
The family was in or near Newport, Oregon at around 8:15 a.m. on Saturday morning. They traveled from there to State Route 1 in Legget, California, and continued to travel south along SR 1 until they reached the Fort Bragg area around 8 p.m. Saturday, where they remained until about 9 p.m. Sunday.
On Sunday, April 1, CHP said the Hart family SUV's on-board computer shows that the vehicle stopped at a gravel pullout and then accelerated over the cliff, a distance of about 70 feet. A CHP spokesperson described it as: "Pure acceleration all the way."
A comprehensive inspection of the SUV is currently underway, CHP said.
On Wednesday, March 28, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said investigators were perplexed by the scene at the top of the cliff. “It was a very confusing scene because there were no skid marks, there were no brake marks," Allman said.
Alameda County Sheriff's Office
A search warrant was conducted at the family's home in Woodland on Thursday, March 29. According to CHP, a box on the front of the search warrant that asks if a felony was committed was checked. In order to apply for a search warrant in California, certain criteria has to be met, one of which is whether a felony may have been committed.
"It is safe to report that a felony may have been committed in this case," CHP Acting Chief Greg Baarts said Sunday.
Baarts said items were retrieved from the home during the search, including computers, credit cards and bank statements. During a Sunday night teleconference with media, CHP said there was no note left behind and no obvious indicator in the Hart's home to explain what happened.
Authorities said the home was "neat and in order" with "no obvious signs of violence."
The Hart home in Woodland, Wash.
Animal control seized one cat, several chickens and ducks from the home, the Clark County Animal Control told KGW on Thursday. The arriving officer said it appeared two dogs also lived at the home but were not present.
Anyone who came in contact with the Hart family or has any information regarding the time leading up to the crash is asked to call the California Highway Patrol, Ukiah area office at 707-467-4000 or the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office at 707-463-4086.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
© 2018 KGW
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Publish date : 2018-04-07 23:30:53