A mysterious crash that killed at least five family members when an SUV raced off a scenic Northern California cliff and slammed onto rocks along the Pacific Ocean below was intentional and criminal, authorities say.
“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 Wednesday on HLN’s Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield.
The wreck was discovered by a passing motorist on March 26, although officials say they are not certain the crash occurred that day. The bodies of married couple Jennifer and Sara Hart, both 38, were found in the 2003 GMC Yukon with their seatbelts on.
The bodies of three of the couple’s six adopted children — Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, and Abigail, 14 — also were found in the car but were not wearing seatbelts.
Three children — Hannah, 16, Devonte, 15 and Sierra, 12 — remain missing, and a massive search of the area was underway. Officers and volunteers were searching miles of shoreline aided by boats and helicopters, a Coast Guard current drift analysis as their guide.
But Allman said it remains “unclear” whether the missing children were in the vehicle, and authorities were leaving all options open. Grainy video from March 25 appeared to show Jennifer Hart at a business in Fort Bragg, about 20 miles from the crash site, authorities said.
The family last lived in Washington state and before that in Oregon.
“Right now, we have to leave open the possibility they could be in Washington or Oregon or elsewhere in California,” Sheriff Lt. Shannon Barney told the New York Daily News. “There is always that possibility.”
One of the missing children is Devonte Hart, an African-American boy who drew the national spotlight in November 2014 when a photo went viral of him hugging a police officer during a Ferguson-related protest in Portland, Ore.
The vehicle’s software indicated the SUV stopped at a scenic pull-over area, then roared at speeds of up to 90 mph before plunging more than 100 feet into the Pacific Ocean, according to Greg Baarts, acting assistant chief for the California Highway Patrol’s Northern Division.
The crash came as the couple faced another in a series of child abuse investigations. The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services said CPS opened an investigation into the Hart family March 23 after being notified by a neighbor who said at least one child had claimed the parents were withholding food as punishment.