The California sheriff investigating the fatal car crash off a California cliff that police believe killed a couple and their six children said the tragedy was a crime — and not an accident.
“I’m to the point where I no longer am calling this an accident; I’m calling it a crime,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said during an appearance on HLN’s Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield.
Allman also confirmed who was driving the Hart’s SUV when it plunged 100 feet off a cliff, landing upside down on the jagged rocks below the Pacific Coast Highway: Jennifer, who can be seen in surveillance footage from the morning before the crash purchasing bananas for her kids.
Allman told Banfield investigators still have a number of questions about the crash, including whether everyone inside was alive when the vehicle hit the precipice.
The March 26 crash killed both parents, who were 38, and their adopted children Markis, 19, and Abigail and Jeremiah, both 14. Three of the couple’s six children — Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and 12-year-old Sierra Hart — remain unaccounted for but police believe they are dead.
Authorities suspect the missing Hart children were likely ejected from the SUV after it launched over the edge and that their bodies were possibly carried out to sea.
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Allman told Banfield Wednesday police are still hopeful eyewitnesses who may have seen the Harts as they drove will come forward.
A cell phone recovered close to the crash site is being analyzed to see if it belonged to any of the Harts.
“We are rushing to find out what we can,” Allman explained, noting search teams have been scouring the coastline looking for the bodies of the three missing children. Someone reported seeing clothing floating in the ocean just south of the crash scene, Allman said.
Car Was Stopped Before It Sped Off Cliff: Data
Police first suggested Sunday that the crash may have been a deliberate act after they recovered evidence from the SUV’s software.
Capt. Greg Baarts with the California Highway Patrol’s Northern Division told reporters at a press conference Sunday the Harts’ SUV was stopped at a flat, dirt pull-off area before it sped off the steep rocky face and plunged down toward the water.
Baarts also cited the lack of skid marks near the cliff’s edge — indicating that the car did not attempt to brake — as evidence that the crash may have been intentional.
But friends of the family do not believe the parents would have intentionally killed their kids.
County officials in Washington searched the Hart home and seized an iPad and a laptop among other items. Police have yet to recover a suicide note.
Previous Abuse in Family
As the investigation continues, a previous admission of abuse against Sarah has come to light. In 2011, Sarah pleaded guilty to an abuse charge, admitting to taking her daughter into the bathroom, bending her over the edge of the bathtub and hitting her on the backside.
Sarah was originally charged with domestic assault and malicious punishment, according to court records. She agreed to plead guilty to the domestic assault charge and the malicious punishment charge was dropped.
She was sentenced to 90 days in jail — which was stayed — and one year of supervised probation, according to court documents.
Three days before the crash was reported, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services received a call alleging the Hart children appeared to be “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect,” Norah West, the department’s spokeswoman, told PEOPLE.
The state’s DSHS tried unsuccessfully to contact the family on three occasions, the first time on March 23. They tried again March 26 and March 27, not knowing the family had perished in the crash.
Neighbors told KATU News they saw the family leave on Friday, March 23 — shortly after a Child Protective Services worker visited their home.