Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, and their children Markis, 19, Abigail, 14, and Jeremiah, 14, of Woodland, Washington were killed when their SUV plunged 100 feet off a California cliff on Monday.
Three other children, Hannah, 16, Sierra, 12, and 15-year-old Devonte, who was the subject of a viral photo last year which showed him embracing a Portland police officer, are still missing and presumed dead.
The crash occurred days after authorities in Washington tried to visit the family home multiple times after receiving reports of abuse and neglect concerning the children.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said officials have “every indication to believe” all six children were in the vehicle when it went off the cliff.
“We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act,” Allman said. He also said there are no skid marks or brake marks indicating why the vehicle went off the cliff. He said an investigation is ongoing.
The sheriff appealed for the public’s help in retracing where the family had been in recent days.
Dana and Bruce Dekalb, who were neighbors of the Harts, reported the family to Child Protective Services, they said, because some of the children, including Devonte, had come to them asking for food and telling them they didn’t want to go home.
Clark County sheriff’s deputies returned to visit the home Tuesday, after they received a request from California authorities to check on the home. They told California authorities it appeared the family left on a temporary trip. No one was there, but animals and family belongings were still at the home.
One of the mothers pleaded guilty to charges of domestic assault in 2011, after police in Minnesota said Sarah Hart hit one of her daughters.
A teacher initially called police after seeing bruises on the 6-year-old girl’s stomach and back. According to court documents, the girl later told a detective and social worker that her mother hit her, leaving bruises.
Detectives followed up with Sarah and Jennifer Hart. According to the criminal complaint, Sarah admitted to a detective they had recently started spanking one of her daughters to deal with her behavior. She said she brought her daughter into a bathroom, bent her over a tub and hit the girl.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation.