Military and Police

After Hart Family of Eight Plunge Off California Coast Cliff, Many Questions Remain

By now most of you have heard something about the “Hart family tragedy.” Apparently, while on an impromptu family road trip last month, the Hart parents and their six adopted kids veered off the roadway, careened off a cliff, and crashed into the Pacific Ocean below. Both parents and three of the children have been confirmed dead. The three other children remain missing and are presumed dead. Preliminary investigations by authorities indicate the crash was intentional.

On March 26, 2018 the parents, Jennifer, the driver, and Sarah Hart, both 38, were driving southbound in their GMC Yukon, along the Mendocino Coast near Fort Bragg, California. They were on Route 1, about 570 miles from their home in Woodland, Washington. The family had recently moved to Washington State from West Linn, Oregon. According to KOIN, authorities believe the evidence shows all six children were in the vehicle at the time of the crash.

Their children, adopted from two biological families, included Markis (19), Jeremiah (14), Abigail (14), all of whom were found dead at the scene, and Devonte (15), Hannah (16), and Sierra (12), who remain missing.

Mendocino, California coastal cliff where Hart family SUV plummeted into the Pacific Ocean(Credit: Facebook/Mendocinosportsplus)

Authorities investigating the crash believe Jennifer drove the vehicle from the roadway and stopped about five feet off the highway. Then she sped toward the edge, and the vehicle plunged off the cliff, plummeting into the Pacific Ocean. There were no signs of tire friction from using the brakes before the vehicle arrived at the cliff, indicating the SUV accelerated the entire distance.

KOIN is reporting that Greg Baarts, with the California Highway Patrol (CHP), said, “It was pure acceleration from last break [sic] application until it hit the bottom of the ocean — the edge of the ocean.”

(Credit: Facebook/The Oregonian)

According to Fox News, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told its affiliate, Fox12 Oregon, “I’m leaning to say that this is more of a crime than it is a crash.”

At this time. There appears to be no information on why the family was in California. However, the “ping” log from a recently discovered cellphone shows some of the family’s route through Oregon and California. And while authorities have determined driving off the cliff was intentional, they still have questions remaining as to why. People who knew the Harts having contradictory views of the family is not helping matters.

According to news reports, some of the Harts’ friends, from Minnesota and Oregon, gushed about them as people who “meant a lot to the community,” claiming they were charismatic and “the kind of parents…the world desperately needs.”

To the contrary, Alexandra Argyropoulos, described as a former family friend, told the Associated Press she’d warned child welfare officials in Oregon about the Hart parents denying food to their children. This is consistent with other reports about the treatment of the Hart children by their parents.

For example, the Harts’ most recent neighbors in Woodland, Dana and Bruce Dekalb, also tell a different story than those lauding the Harts. One that, like Argyropoulos’ account, is more in line with the outcome of this tragedy.

The Dekalbs reported obvious warning signs that there was trouble in the Hart home. In fact, they told reporters, “Since the day that they moved in, we didn’t even know they had 6 kids until an incident.” They also said one of the children came over and asked for food about a week ago. They said the child wanted only a little food at first but increasingly asked more and more often.

Further, the Dekalbs claim the child told them his parents were not feeding him, and he did not want them to tell his parents. They said the boy asked them to hide the food near the fence separating their properties, so he could get it more easily. Dana said Devonte told her he was being starved to death.

Incidentally, Devonte Hart gained notoriety during a Portland, Oregon rally to support the Ferguson, Missouri protests. Devonte wore a homemade sign which read, “Free Hugs.” Portland Police Sergeant Bret Barnum called him over and requested a hug. A photograph of the two embracing went viral.

Then-12-year-old Devonte Hart, who was previously holding a sign stating “Free Hugs” is seen embracing Portland, Oregon police Sgt. Bret Barnum on Nov. 25, 2014. (Credit: Johnny Nguyen via Facebook/Back The Blue – Documentary)

The Dekalbs reported other strange behavior such as a girl, covered in blackberry thistle, asking for help, afraid to go home. They said another girl told them her parents weren’t treating her well and asked the Dekalbs to take her to Seattle, telling them not to “make her go back.” The Dekalbs reported all the children appeared thin and small, in particular a 12-year-old girl, missing two front teeth, looking around seven years old.

The Dekalbs called Child Protective Services (CPS) on Friday, March 23, which sent investigators to the Harts’ home. The neighbors said they knew the Harts were home at the time of the visit. They said that on Saturday, March 24, the Harts’ car was gone. Dana said she didn’t know how others who knew the couple and their children could miss such obvious problems. She said, “I gleaned that quickly without hardly any interface.”

Bruce said his wife was crying all morning after finding out about the crash, because their call to CPS may have contributed to what happened to the Harts. Dana said her motivation was only to help the family. “That’s not how I thought it was going to end,” she said. They added that they are praying searchers will find the three missing children alive.

Mrs. Dekalb’s conflicted feelings are understandable. However, reports from the Harts’ former state of Minnesota seem to bolster her and her husband’s concerns. In 2010, Sarah Hart was convicted of assaulting one of their children, a six-year-old girl. This was a gross misdemeanor for which she served a one-year probation sentence.

Apparently, a teacher reported seeing bruises on the six-year-old’s torso and back. Also, according to court documents, the child told investigators that her mom placed her in the tub, turned on the cold water, and hit her with her fist. The girl responded to a question about why she’d been punished, saying she’d had a penny in her pocket which “made her mom mad.”

According to KOIN, Alexandria (MN) Police Department Detective-Sergeant Larry Daily said the Harts gave him the impression they believed the assault investigation was a lot of fuss over a parent’s ordinary discipline.

The Harts later moved to West Linn, Oregon, where they said they home-schooled their children. But the Clackamas Education Services District reported the Harts had not filed a declaration of intent to home-school.

Devonte Hart clearly had plenty of heart, and openly expressed adoration for law enforcement. (Credit: Facebook/Black in the Day)

A search warrant served on the Harts’ residence in Woodland turned up no suicide note, clouding a possible motive. Authorities still don’t know why the family went to California. But that’s not the only unanswered question. Since the family left so soon after the CPS visit, it may be presumed whatever transpired during that meeting may have played a role in the family’s departure the next day.

Police are investigating cell phone and surveillance video from along the route they believe the family traveled. Investigators think the Harts drove to Newport, Oregon on US-101 and then to Legget, California, where they then took Highway 1. From there, they drove on Hwy 1 to Fort Bragg, California, arriving on Saturday evening, March 24t. The family stayed there for about 24 hours. A surveillance photo, released to the media by police, shows Jennifer Hart in a Fort Bragg Safeway at about 8:05 a.m. on Sunday, March 25.

From about 9 p.m. Sunday until a tourist visiting from Germany located the Harts’ Yukon on March 26, investigators have no information as to the Harts’ whereabouts.

Other questions are hanging in the air. Questions like, since police determined the vehicle went off the cliff intentionally, could the crash have resulted from a suicide pact between the two moms? Reports said the SUV made no brake marks from where it began accelerating all the way to the cliff’s edge.

But there were no mentions that the vehicle had swerved either, as would have happened if someone had fought for control of the car, which it seems should have been the case. Had Jennifer or Sarah, or both, drugged the kids before committing a multiple murder-suicide? Had Jennifer, who was reportedly driving, drugged Sarah as well as the children before driving the Hart family off the ledge?

The Hart family. (Credit: Facebook/Never Forget Me)

Some of these questions may be answered soon, others may take a while. Investigators are awaiting autopsies and toxicology reports. Still, other mysteries may remain unanswered forever. To look at the photographs of this publicly happy family, but one that was ostensibly plagued with misery, shows us the diverse, mercurial elements that comprise human nature.

The investigation may eventually show us where the system may have broken down and how some of their friends could have gotten the Harts so wrong. Some of the answers may also provide a bit of solace to the neighbors who, sadly, seem to have gotten it right about the family. Though, right now, being right is precious little consolation.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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