In the wake of a mysterious crash that authorities fear killed the entire Hart family, friends have paid tribute to their memory as neighbors voice concerns

By Harriet Sokmensuer
March 30, 2018 02:33 PM
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In the wake of a mysterious crash that authorities fear killed an entire family of eight, friends of the dead have been paying tribute to their memory as some neighbors voice previous child abuse concerns.

Five of the eight members of the Hart family — parents Jennifer and Sarah and three children — were discovered dead after their vehicle was found Monday at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff off the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California, authorities have said.

According to law enforcement in California, the family was in a 2003 GMC Yukon XL when they went into the water. Jennifer and Sarah, both 38, were in the front while it is believed their six children were in the back. None of the kids were wearing seat belts.

It remains unclear how or when the crash occurred or why the Harts, who lived in Washington, were traveling.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told reporters, “We have no evidence and reason to believe that this was an intentional attack. Certainly people are wondering what caused this.”

Investigators suspect everyone involved was killed, though three children remain missing.

The six Hart kids range in age from 12 to 19. Jennifer and Sarah were married, their friends and family said, according to authorities.

“I love you with all of my heart and soul Hart Tribe. I am still in shock of your sudden, tragic departure,” Kristina Pescatore, who appears to have known the family, wrote on Facebook. “Your smiles and immense loving presence radiates in my heart.”

Friends described Jennifer and Sarah as open-hearted moms.

“The children were some of the most joyful, beautiful children I have ever known,” Samantha Sinclair, of Portland, told the Oregonian. “Jen and Sarah wanted to provide a stable life for them.”

The family frequented festivals around Oregon and regularly went exploring together, according to the paper.

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The Hart family
| Credit: Facebook
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The site of the crash in Northern California that killed the Hart family
| Credit: AP/Shutterstock

They reportedly began adopting their children in 2006. At the time of the crash, the Harts lived in Woodland and had previously lived in Alexandria, Minnesota, and in Oregon.

In a Facebook post marking the ninth anniversary of three of the adoptions, Jennifer reportedly wrote: “I am a better human in every possible way for knowing these children. They have been my greatest teachers. Contrary to the common notion that we can’t choose our family, we absolutely can. We choose by loving — and that’s worth celebrating every damn day.”

“Jen and Sarah really were the kind of parents that I think the world desperately needs,” friend and photographer Zippy Lomax told local TV station KOIN.

“They were that really bright kind of presence,” Lomax said.

Another friend, Max Ribner, reportedly said, “They really found the goodness in everybody and I hope they we can all really learn a beautiful lesson from that and carry that legacy on.”

These descriptions are at odds with accounts from neighbors that the Hart parents displayed strange and even possibly abusive behavior.

Dana and Bruce DeKalb, of Woodland, said they became worried for the kids when one of them allegedly came over asking for food about a week ago, according to KOIN.

Dana said that one of the Hart boys would allegedly come over and ask for food because his mothers did not feed him and his siblings and wouldn’t let them play outside. “He was asking that we not tell his mom, to hide it [the food] and put it by the fence so he could get to it,” Dana told KOIN, alleging, “They were withholding food from him.”

Another morning, the couple said, a 12-year-old girl wandered over and asked for help.

“She wanted us to take her to Seattle because they weren’t treating her right,” Bruce claimed.

“‘Don’t make me go back,’ ” the girl told Bruce, he recalled. She appeared to be missing two front teeth and looked about 7 years old, according to the DeKalbs.

The couple claimed they did not know the family had six children because they never saw the kids play outside.

However, Zippy Lomax tells PEOPLE that Sarah and Jennifer took their children out to events as a family often and only in recent years, after a photograph of son Devonte went viral in 2014 and received racist backlash from some corners of the internet, did the couple try to become more insular to protect their kids.

Three days before the crash was reported, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services received a call reporting that the six Hart children appeared to be “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect,” Norah West, the department’s spokeswoman, tells PEOPLE.

The department sent an employee to the family’s home but was unable to make contact with them, West says. Social services workers returned on Monday and Tuesday.

The DeKalbs told local media they were the ones to report the suspected abuse to the state.

“I was trying to help them and protect them,” Dana said, adding, “That’s not how I thought it was going to end.”

Former neighbor Bill Groener, who lived near the family in West Linn, Oregon, told The Oregonian that the couple would keep their children inside even when the weather was nice.

“Something just didn’t seem right. They were very isolated in the home,” Groener told the paper, adding that he felt “guilty he never called [child] services.”

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Jennifer (left) and Sarah Hart
| Credit: Jen Hart/Facebook

Guilty of Domestic Abuse

Records obtained by PEOPLE show that while the Harts lived in Alexandria, Sarah was charged with hitting one of her daughters after a teacher found bruises on the child’s body.

In 2011, 6-year-old Abigail Hart told a teacher that she had “owies” on her “tummy” and back, court records state. When the teacher asked Abigail how she got the bruises on her stomach and back, she said, “Mom hit me.”

During police questioning, Sarah admitted to letting her “anger get out of control” and spanking her daughter the day before, according to the criminal complaint against her. But according to the Oregonian, it was Jennifer whom Abigail said had hit her.

Sarah admitted to taking her daughter into the bathroom, bending her over the edge of the bathtub and hitting her on the backside.

She 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.

In April 2011, she was sentenced to 90 days in jail — which was stayed — and one year of supervised probation, according to court documents.

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The Hart children
| Credit: Samantha Sinclair/Facebook

Friends of the couple have defended the family in interviews and social media posts. (PEOPLE’s efforts to reach relatives and neighbors of the Harts have been unsuccessful.)

“I never saw signs of mistreatment of your precious children and I acknowledge that we are all human and we all make mistakes,” Pescatore wrote on Facebook.

The friends who spoke with KOIN also said they saw no evidence of abuse, according to the station.

“There were no clues anywhere that something was wrong,” Lomax said, according to the Oregonian.

Sarah reportedly worked for a local Kohl’s. In a statement to news station KATU, the company said: “We are very saddened by this tragic event. … We extend our deepest sympathies to her family, friends and colleagues coping with this loss.”

The three children who are still missing have been identified as 15-year-old Devonte Hart, Hannah Hart, 15, and 12-year-old Sierra Hart, according to California authorities. Bodies of the other Hart children — Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and 14-year-old Abigail — were recovered by authorities and identified by relatives.

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The site of the crash in Northern California that killed the Hart family
| Credit: AP/Shutterstock

California Highway Patrol officials tell PEOPLE that investigators “don’t know” whether Jennifer intentionally drove the family’s SUV over the cliff.

However, authorities believe she pulled into a dirt turnout off of the side of the highway by the ocean before the vehicle continued through the lengthy stretch of land and directly off the cliff into the water.

“I don’t know if they were parked or if they continued to roll,” CHP Sgt. Christopher Dalin said at a news conference on Wednesday. “I don’t know if it rolled over the edge, if it launched over the edge. I won’t have any of that information until we get all of our data back, analyze it and we see what the evidence leads us to.”

Describing a “very confusing scene,” Sheriff Allman said Wednesday, “There were no skid marks, there were no brake marks or there was no indication why this vehicle traversed approximately 75 feet over a dirt pull-out and went into the Pacific Ocean.”

Anyone with information regarding the family’s last known whereabouts before the crash is urged to call 707-234-2100.