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A family’s SUV plunges off coastal cliff: tragic accident or intentional?

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The Hart family
(Associated Press)

At first, it seemed like a tragic accident. A vehicle filled with a family flies off a Northern California coastal cliff. There are no survivors.

But a week after the crash, so many questions have emerged. Why were there no brake or skid marks? What about the troubling allegations about the family? And where are the family’s three missing children?

Here is what we know about the Hart family:

How did the crash happen?

The deadly crash was reported a week ago off Highway 1, at Juan Creek in the small town of Westport.

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A passerby called authorities after noticing the wreckage from a pullout along the road. The SUV was overturned, about 100 feet down. The bodies of the parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, were found inside the car, and the bodies of three of their children were outside the vehicle.

“An entire family vanished, and perished during this tragedy,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said Wednesday. “We have every indication to believe that all six children were in there.”

The car’s engine was cold, and the water that had seeped into the car was warmer than the ocean, indicating that the vehicle had been there for several hours, Allman said.

“There was no indication of why this vehicle traversed approximately over 75 feet of a dirt pullout and went into the Pacific Ocean,” he said. Even so, he said, “We have no evidence and no reason to believe that this was an intentional act.”

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Recovery efforts on the first day lasted until after midnight.

The children’s bodies pulled from the wreckage were identified as those of Markis Hart, 19, and Jeremiah and Abigail Hart, both 14.

Missing are Devonte Hart, 15, Hannah Hart, 16; and Sierra Hart, 12.

RELATED: Crash that killed family of 8 on Mendocino Coast appears intentional, authorities say »

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Area of the crash
(Associated Press )

What about the missing children?

Authorities didn’t immediately learn about the three missing children.

Friends and relatives told authorities that there was no way the Harts would have traveled that far from their Washington state home without all of their children.

But since Monday’s discovery, searchers have fanned out across a roughly four-mile stretch of rugged coastline, combing the beach and scanning the water with binoculars, looking for the missing family members.

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The Coast Guard has also been looking.

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Police Sgt. Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart hug at a November 2014 rally in Portland, Ore., where people had gathered in support of protests in Ferguson, Mo.
(Associated Press )

Why was there suspicion about the crash?

For one thing, authorities said there were no skid marks at the site of the crash.

Then there were issues over the family’s background.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services said child welfare authorities attempted to contact Jennifer and Sarah Hart after receiving a complaint of potential child abuse or neglect on March 23, three days before the crash.

They tried to make contact the day of the crash but were unsuccessful.

One of the missing children had been in the news before. 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., over the shooting of an unarmed black youth.

Portland police told the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office this week that the family may have moved from their former home in West Linn, Ore., due to the intense media attention that followed. When investigators searched the Harts’ most recent home, in Woodland, Wash., they found family belongings, pets and some chickens, but not the the three missing children.

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Child welfare staff tried to make contact in person on Friday, Monday and Tuesday but found no one. The department had no prior history with the family, said spokeswoman Norah West.

“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 had come 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.

A search of court records found that in 2011, Sarah Hart was sentenced to 90 days in jail in 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.

Do authorities believe the crash was intentional?

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.

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.”


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