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Crews search Mendocino County coast for missing children days after body washes ashore

The SUV carrying the Hart family accelerated straight off a scenic California cliff, and authorities say the deadly wreck may have been intentional.
The SUV carrying the Hart family accelerated straight off a scenic California cliff, and authorities say the deadly wreck may have been intentional.
(Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office)

A team of search and rescue workers will comb the Mendocino County coastline Monday in hopes of finding any of the missing Hart children or physical evidence tied to their family’s crash last month, sheriff’s officials said.

Just two days ago, a couple vacationing along the coast found a body floating in the surf that appeared to be of an African American girl and who authorities said could be one of the missing children.

On March 26, Washington state couple Sarah and Jennifer Hart and three of their children were killed when their car fell 100 feet off a remote stretch of Highway 1 in Mendocino County into the Pacific Ocean. Investigators pulled five bodies from the wreckage, but haven’t been able to find the couple’s three other children — who they believe were also in the car.

The three children who were confirmed to be in the crash were Markis Hart, 19, and his 14-year-old siblings Jeremiah and Abigail Hart. Still considered missing – but likely killed in the crash – are Devonte Hart, 15, Hannah Hart, 16, and Sierra Hart, 15.

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With a low tide expected all day Monday, sheriff’s officials said these are “the best conditions for searchers” to scour the coastline for signs of the children.

Ten search and rescue workers will explore the vicinity of the crash site while a California Highway Patrol helicopter will assist from the air.

Besides the discovery of the body on Saturday – whose identity could take weeks to confirm if authorities have to rely on DNA – there have been no other signs of the children, officials said.

“It is not uncommon after a significant storm such as the one passing through the north state currently, to bring items to the surface or wash onto the beach,” said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney in a statement.

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The two women, who were married, were found dead inside the car. The three children were found outside, officials said.

California Highway Patrol officials say the fatal plunge appears to have been intentional, based on the lack of skid marks and the fact that the vehicle was at a full stop before accelerating off the cliff. Though the investigation is in its preliminary stages, it appears the SUV had stopped about 70 feet from the cliff’s edge, then sped off it, according to the CHP.

Last week, investigators released a timeline 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 Leggett. They made it to Fort Bragg about 8 that evening, and stayed there and in the Cleone area until 9 p.m. March 25.

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

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian and Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.

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