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New details emerge about Hart family’s last days before mysterious crash

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Security video shows Jennifer Hart buying groceries in Fort Bragg, Calif., before, authorities say, she drove off a cliff on a remote stretch of the Mendocino Coast, killing herself, her wife and at least three of their six children.
(Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office)

The security footage showed Jennifer Hart checking out at a Safeway in Fort Bragg, Calif., a cluster of bananas on the counter.

Sometime in the next day or so, the woman accelerated off a cliff about 20 miles north on the California coast, killing herself, her wife and at least three of their six children.

A photo from the security camera offers a glimpse into the whereabouts of the Hart family before their SUV was found crushed along the rocky shoreline of a remote stretch of the Mendocino Coast on March 26 in a mysterious crash that investigators now say was intentional.

“I no longer am calling this an accident, I’m calling it a crime,” Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said in an interview Wednesday on HLN’s Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield.

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Investigators released a more complete timeline this week of the family’s movements after March 23, when their neighbors in Woodland, Wash., reported the parents to social workers with allegations of possible child neglect.

About 8:15 a.m. the following morning, the family was in the area of Newport, Ore. Investigators believe they continued south along U.S. 101 until they reached California 1 in Legget. They made it to Fort Bragg about 8 p.m. that evening, and stayed there and in the Cleone area until 9 p.m. March 25.

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The Hart family.
(Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office )

But questions still remain. Three of the children — Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and Sierra Hart, 12 — are still missing. Devonte had a brush with fame when he was photographed in 2014 tearfully hugging a police sergeant in Oregon at a protest amid unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

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Investigators implored anyone who may have seen the family along their route to come forward with information.

“It’d take much more than one tank of gas to get from Portland down to my county,” Allman said. “I know they stopped somewhere.”

The crash raised questions when it was reported by a passer-by who noticed the wreckage about 100 feet below a dirt pullout along California 1 at Juan Creek in the small town of Westport.

The bodies of the parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, were found in the car; the bodies of three of their children were outside the vehicle.

There were no skid marks or other signs of braking, and investigators said it appeared that the SUV had stopped about 70 feet from the cliff’s edge, then sped off it.

When the dead were identified, troubling allegations emerged from neighbors about the family’s life at home. Bruce and Dana DeKalb have told reporters that Devonte went to their house repeatedly that week asking for food. Another child, they said, had once rung their doorbell in the middle of the night wrapped in a blanket asking for help.

Social workers tried to reach the family that day, and twice thereafter, but found no one.

More than 80 searchers spread out along the coast Wednesday to look for the three missing siblings. Based on an analysis of ocean current and drift patterns, searchers are focusing on the area from Noyo Harbor to MacKerricher State Park. They still can’t say for sure whether the missing siblings were in the car when it crashed.

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Allman said investigators are looking at whether a wet cell phone found alongside the road belonged to the family. Divers also investigated a report of clothes in the ocean.

“We’re rushing to find out what we can,” Allman said.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AleneTchek


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