Possible sighting of mother before deadly SUV crash
MENDOCINO, Calif. - Authorities are investigating whether a surveillance video from Fort Bragg, California, shows a woman the day before her family's sport utility vehicle was found at the bottom off a cliff along the Pacific Coast at a scenic viewpoint.
Mendocino County Sheriff Lt. Shannon Barney told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Tuesday the woman in the video looks like Jennifer Hart but that the footage is "very grainy."
Sarah and Jennifer Hart of Woodland, Wash., were found dead at the crash scene March 26 along with three of their adopted children.
Three of their other children are missing, but investigators believe they were in the car at the time of the crash. Authorities have said the crash was probably deliberate.
One of the missing children is 15-year-old Devonte Hart, a black youngster who drew national attention after he was photographed in tears while hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest.
The discovery of the Fort Bragg surveillance video comes a day after investigators said they were examining "red flags" in the Hart family's past in hopes of explaining why their SUV went off the 100-foot cliff.
The wreckage was discovered on rocks along the coast near Mendocino, California, a few days after child welfare authorities in Washington began investigating whether the children were being abused or neglected.
Long before the crash, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children. And last month, concerned neighbors in Woodland, Washington, contacted child welfare authorities, saying the children may have been going hungry.
Court documents obtained by KOMO's Portland sister station, KATU-TV, say one of the adopted daughters of Sarah and Jennifer Hart told authorities her mother hit her using a belt back in 2008, while the family was living in Minnesota. When confronted, Sarah and Jennifer told authorities the girl fell down the stairs.
Police said Monday that social service authorities in Oregon contacted the West Linn Police Department about the family in 2013 while they were living in the area.
The questions were referred to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which cited privacy laws in refusing to confirm or deny the agency was involved.
On Sunday, authorities announced that data from the vehicle's software suggested the crash was deliberate.
The SUV had stopped at a pull-off area then sped straight off the cliff, Capt. Greg Baarts of the California Highway Patrol said. Baarts said that as far as he knew, investigators had not found a suicide note.
In interviews with friends and relatives, "there have been red flags," Baarts said. He did not elaborate.
Days before the wreck was discovered, neighbors called Washington state child-welfare authorities to say one of the youngsters had been coming to their house almost daily asking for something to eat and complaining that his parents were withholding food as punishment.
Investigators last week obtained a search warrant for the family's home in Woodland and looked for itineraries, bank and phone records, credit card receipts, journals or other documents that might shed light on the case.
The large, multiracial family, led by Sarah and Jennifer Hart, both 38, grew their own food, went on road trips and took part in activist causes.
The three children found at the crash scene were Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14. There was no sign of Hannah Hart, 16; Sierra Hart, 12; and Devonte Hart, 15.