April 02, 2018 02:06 PM

The mysterious crash that authorities believe killed an entire family of eight may have been intentional and not an accident, investigators said on Sunday night.

Five of the eight members of the Hart family — parents Jennifer and Sarah and three of their 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.

The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah, both 38, were still in their SUV as were kids Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, and 14-year-old Abigail, according to first responders. Sarah and Jennifer were married, according to their family and friends, authorities told PEOPLE.

Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and 12-year-old Sierra Hart  remain unaccounted for and are feared dead.

None of the children were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash, according to authorities.

While key questions have persisted for days after the crash was discovered last week, California authorities said at a news conference on Sunday that they now believe the Harts’ vehicle may have purposefully accelerated off the cliff along the highway. Officials cited information pulled from the SUV’s software.

At the news conference, Capt. Greg Baarts with the California Highway Patrol’s Northern Division told reporters that the 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 explained on Sunday that the computer information, combined with the lack of skid marks, led investigators to believe that the fatal crash was intentional.

He said authorities did not find any suicide notes at the scene or in the family’s home in Washington, several hundred miles north. County officials in Washington are reportedly searching the Hart home as Baarts said the case may involve a felony.

Authorities did not comment Sunday on a possible motive or a link — if one exists — to previous child abuse allegations in the family’s past. (Friends of the Harts have said they saw no evidence of abuse before the crash.)

According to law enforcement, the family was in a 2003 GMC Yukon XL when they went into the water. Jennifer and Sarah were in the front while it is believed their six children were in the back.

“I can fairly say that several of the questions that have been asked today [will] never be answered,” Mendocino County, California, Sheriff Tom Allman previously said. “It was un-witnessed, we don’t know what happened.”

The Hart family
The site of the crash in Northern California that killed the Hart family

 

The Hart children
Samantha Sinclair/Facebook

Allegations of Abuse

The Harts were killed just days after child services officials in Washington were alerted to “alleged abuse or neglect” in the home. Neighbors have also voiced child abuse concerns and Sarah pleaded guilty in 2011 to hitting daughter Abigail while disciplining her.

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

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, the state’s DSHS said it tried unsuccessfully to contact the family on three occasions, the first time on March 23. The crash site was discovered three days later.

According to the DSHS, officials there tried again to contact the family on March 26 as well as the following day, not knowing they were already dead.

“We have not made any findings in this investigation,” the agency said in a statement. “We had no prior history with this family. We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations.”

Meanwhile, friends of the Harts have painted a drastically different portrait of their life together, describing Jennifer and Sarah as open-hearted parents capable of great love.

“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.”

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.”

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

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