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Crash that killed Hart family on Mendocino Coast appears intentional, authorities say

Crash that killed Hart family on Mendocino Coast appears intentional, authorities say
Authorities said the crash that killed the Hart family appears to have been intentional, according to media reports. (Mendocino County Sheriff's Office)

The crash that killed a Washington couple and at least three of their six children when their SUV plunged off a cliff in a remote stretch of the Mendocino Coast appears to have been intentional, authorities said.

Investigators who recovered the vehicle from the rocky shoreline say its speedometer was "pinned" at 90 mph, according to court documents cited by KPTV in Oregon.

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Capt. Greg Baarts of the California Highway Patrol told the Associated Press that data pulled from the vehicle's software suggest it was stopped at a dirt pull-off before it accelerated off the cliff on Monday.

Baarts told K5 News that authorities believe "that the crash was intentional," but cautioned that the finding was based on preliminary information.

KPTV reported that a search warrant was served at the home of the married couple, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, on Thursday. Investigators were seeking travel plans, bank records, cellphone records, credit card billing statements, bank receipts, notes, journals and possible suicide notes, according to the station.

Authorities with the Highway Patrol, who will determine the cause of the crash, could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Mendocino County Sheriff's Lt. Shannon Barney, whose agency is leading the search for the missing children, said Sunday that it's "too early" to reach any conclusions.

"Much work still needs to be done so anyone concluding foul play or an intentional act is coming to a premature conclusion," he said. "These investigations take time, and for the sake of all involved we need to be diligent in our investigation."

The crash raised questions when it was reported Monday afternoon by a passerby who noticed the wreckage from a dirt pullout along Highway 1 at Juan Creek in the small town of Westport.

There were no skid marks or brake marks, the couple's children had recently been identified by child welfare authorities as possible victims of abuse and neglect, and three of them were missing from the scene of the crash.

"It was a very confusing scene," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told reporters two days after the discovery. "There was no indication of why this vehicle traversed approximately over 75 feet of a dirt pullout and went into the Pacific Ocean."

The two women were found dead inside the car. The bodies of three children were outside the vehicle. Those pulled from the wreckage were identified as Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14; and Abigail Hart, 14.

One of the missing children, 15-year-old Devonte Hart, had a moment of fame in 2014, after he was photographed hugging a Portland, Ore., police sergeant at a protest related to unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Missing along with Devonte are Hannah Hart, 16; and Sierra Hart, 12.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services said child welfare authorities received a complaint of potential child abuse or neglect on March 23, three days before the crash.

They tried to make contact in person that day, and twice thereafter, but found no one. The department had no prior history with the family, spokeswoman Norah West said.

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"We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations," West said in an email.

The Harts' neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, told ABC News that they had called authorities in part because they were concerned one of the children was going hungry.

The DeKalbs said they called child welfare services Friday after Devonte went to their house repeatedly that week asking for food. Another child, they said, had once rung their doorbell at 1:30 a.m., wrapped in a blanket, asking for protection from abuse.

Court records show Sarah Hart was sentenced in 2011 to 90 days in jail after she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of domestic assault in Minnesota. One gross misdemeanor count of malicious punishment of a child was dismissed in the case.

The case stemmed from an incident in 2010, when her daughter, 6 at the time, showed up to school with bruises on her stomach and back. When a teacher asked what happened, the girl said, "Mom hit me," according to Minnesota court records.

During an interview with investigators, Sarah Hart admitted that she "let her anger get out of control" when she punished the child by spanking, records show.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Twitter: @AleneTchek

UPDATES:

9:15 p.m.: This article was updated to include Associated Press reporting about data from the vehicle's software.

This article was originally published at 5:50 p.m.

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