SAN FRANCISCO (CBSMiami/CNN) – A boy who made headlines when he was photographed hugging an officer during a 2014 protest against police brutality is missing after his family’s SUV plunged 100 feet off a coastal highway in northern California.
The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, of Washington, and three of their six adopted children, were found Monday in and around the vehicle, which landed on its roof in the Pacific Ocean. Their three other children, including 15-year-old Devonte, are missing.
Devonte, who is black, earned national attention when a photo of him at age 12 went viral. In the image, tears stream down his face as he embraces a white officer in the middle of a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, related to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Devonte had been holding a sign offering “Free Hugs.”
Investigators, including the Coast Guard, are still looking for the bodies of Devonte and his sisters Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12.
The circumstances of the crash remain unclear.
The California Highway Patrol received 911 calls Monday about a vehicle that went over the side of Highway 1 in a remote section of Mendocino County, about 180 miles north of San Francisco. A passerby noticed the SUV at the bottom of the cliff.
Emergency responders found the vehicle on its roof with the two women, both 38, inside the car. Outside the car, they found the bodies of Markis Hart, 19, and Jeremiah Hart and Abigail Hart, both 14.
The relatives were not wearing seat belts.
Who Were The Harts?
The family had most recently lived in Woodland, Washington.
Child Protective Services had tried to visit the family on Friday, then tried twice more on Monday and Tuesday, to no avail, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The agency was trying to get in touch after the “now deceased children were identified as potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect,” according to a statement from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
“We have not made any findings in this investigation and we had no prior history with this family. We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations,” the department stated.
In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in Minnesota to domestic assault. According to court records, a teacher saw bruises on the couple’s six-year-old daughter. The girl told the teacher, “mom hit me.” Hart allegedly admitted to police that she “let her anger get out of control.” She was sentenced to community service and one year of probation.
Bruce and Dana Dekalb, who lived next door to the family, said they worried about the kids.
“They portrayed as a happy little family yet their daughter is telling us please please please begging us not to go back they’re abusing her and then Devonte coming over here and telling us he’s being starved to death,” said Dana Dekalb.
Dana Dekalb said she called child protective services on Friday.
“I was trying to help them and protect them (crying) and this is the result,” she said.
California Trip Goes Awry
A day before the crash, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman had pleaded with the public for any information about the family’s whereabouts.
“We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act,” Allman said of the wreck. “If this was an intentional act, I truly believe that both between the highway patrol and the sheriff’s office, we are going to come to that conclusion. And if we come to that conclusion, you can be assured that that information will be released to the public.”
The sheriff’s office in Clark County, Washington, searched the family’s home and said it appeared they may have been on a temporary trip because there were many belongings inside, along with a pet and some chickens.
There is every indication that all six children were in the SUV, Allman said, though he said it’s possible the three missing children may have been left with friends.
A complicating factor is that investigators don’t know when the SUV plunged over the cliff, the sheriff said. The vehicle was in the water for at least several hours before it was discovered, he said, based on the water found inside the SUV and in the wheel well.
The vehicle had to have traveled 75 to 100 feet on a dirt “turn-out” next to the highway before it went off the edge, he said. A turn-out is a place where cars and motor homes can park and people can walk their dogs. There is a dirt berm at the spot but no guardrail.
There were no skid or brake marks, Allman said. It’s not clear whether the SUV might have rolled or launched over the edge, said Sgt. Christopher Dalin of the highway patrol.