(AP) — Searchers in boats and aircraft scoured the Northern California coast Wednesday for three missing children whose parents and three siblings died when their SUV plunged off a scenic highway onto rocks in the ocean below.
“We have every indication to believe that all six children were in there,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allmon said, appealing for help retracing where the family had been before the vehicle was found Monday. “We know that an entire family vanished and perished during this tragedy.”
One of the missing children was an African-American boy who gained widespread attention when he was photographed hugging a white officer during a 2014 protest over a fatal police shooting of a black man.
The California Highway Patrol has not determined why the vehicle went off the overlook on a particularly rugged part of coastline. A specialized team of accident investigators was trying to figure that out, Allmon said.
“There were no skid marks, there were no brake marks” at the roadside turnout where the vehicle went over, the sheriff said, adding that investigators have no reason to believe the crash was intentional.
Married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their six children ranging in age from 19 to 12 most recently lived in Woodland, Washington, a small city outside Portland, Oregon, and recently had a visit from Child Protective Services, Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Brent Waddell told The Associated Press.
He said the sheriff’s office later entered the house and found no obvious signs of trouble or violence. It appeared the family planned a short trip because they left behind a pet, chickens and most of their belongings.
Sarah Hart had pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota in 2011. Her plea also led to the dismissal of a charge of malicious punishment of a child, online court records say.
The women, both 39, and their children Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14; and Abigail Hart, 14, died when their SUV plunged 100 feet (31 meters) from an ocean overlook on the Pacific Coast Highway about 150 miles (241 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
Hannah Hart, 16; Devonte Hart, 15; and Sierra Hart, 12, have not been found.
Bill Groener, 67, was a next-door neighbor of the family when they lived in West Linn, Oregon, and described the siblings as foster children.
“They were friendly enough. The kids were all home-schooled. They stayed indoors most of the time, even in really nice weather,” Groener told AP.
He said the family didn’t eat sugar, raised their own vegetables, had animals and went on camping trips.
“There was enough positive there to kind of counteract the feeling that something maybe wasn’t quite right,” Groener said.
He said they were neighbors for about two years and that “privacy was a big thing for them.”
The family got attention after Devonte Hart was photographed during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri.
The boy, holding a “Free Hugs” sign, stood crying out of sadness over the events.
A Portland officer saw his sign and asked if he could have a hug, and an emotional Hart embraced him in a picture that was widely shared.
Zippy Lomax, a Portland photographer who knew the family, told the Oregonian/Oregonlive.com that the reaction overwhelmed the Harts, with negative attention focused on the multiracial family with lesbian parents.
“They kind of closed off for a while, honestly,” Lomax told the newspaper.
She said the Harts frequently traveled to festivals and shows and that “Jen and Sarah were the kind of parents this world desperately needs.”
“I’m sure they were going somewhere special and fun,” Lomax told the newspaper.
Dubois reported from Portland, Oregon. Associated Press writers Tom James in Woodland, Washington, and Phuong Le in Seattle also contributed.