Hart family in Newport, Fort Bragg before Mendocino cliff crash

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Hart family was in the Newport area around 8:15 a.m. March 24, about 2 days before their GMC Yukon went over a cliff and into the Pacific Ocean, killing 5 people and leaving 3 more missing.

Cell phone pings placed them in the Newport area, KOIN 6 News learned.

Investigators from the California Highway Patrol and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said they determined the family traveled south on US-101 from Newport until they got to Highway 1 in Legget, California. 

They stayed on Highway 1 until they got to Fort Bragg around 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24, and stayed there until about 9 p.m. Sunday.

Jennifer Hart was spotted at 8:05 a.m. on March 25 at a Safeway in Fort Bragg, and investigators released that surveillance photo.

But investigators do not have any further information about where they were between then and the time their SUV was spotted by a German tourist on Monday, March 26.

Other-sighting

Jennifer Hart may have been seen in surveillance video from Fort Bragg, California a day before the family’s SUV plunged off a cliff — killing Jennifer, her wife Sarah and 3 of their children.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to KOIN 6 News Tuesday that they’re investigating whether the woman shown in the video is Jennifer, however, they said the footage is grainy — making it difficult to tell.

The possible sighting in Fort Bragg is about 20 miles from where the crash happened. Authorities plan to canvass that area — including other businesses — in hopes they can find out if the whole family was together, which could help narrow the search for the 3 missing children.

On Wednesday, crews are expected to search about 20 miles of the shoreline from the crash site to the Fort Bragg area.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, were found dead March 26 at the bottom of a California cliff. Their 3 adopted children — 19-year-old Markis, 14-year-old Jeremiah and 14-year-old Abigail — were also found dead near the SUV.

The couple’s 3 other children — 15-year-old Devonte, 16-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Sierra — are still missing. But Sheriff Tom Allman said there is “every indication” all 6 children were inside the SUV at the time.

Authorities said on Sunday that they believe the crash was an “intentional act” because of air bag evidence and because there was no tire friction by the cliff’s edge. 

The California Highway Patrol spokesperson told KOIN 6 News that the vehicle — a 2003 GMC SUV — came to a stop 70-feet from the edge– approximately 5 feet off the highway — before it accelerated and plunged off the cliff.

“It was pure acceleration from last break application until it hit the bottom of the ocean — the edge of the ocean,” said Greg Baarts with CHP.

The SUV’s speedometer was also pinned at 90 mph, though it”s no guarantee the vehicle was going that fast during the crash. The crash may have caused that number.

Authorities are still investigating the crash.

Authorities searched the Hart home in Woodland, Washington on Thursday, March 29 and said no suicide note was found. They’re also trying to figure out why the Harts were in California.

KOIN 6 News also learned that the West Linn Police Department was contacted about the Harts in 2013, but they said the case was forwarded to DHS, who couldn’t confirm or deny that fact.

Jennifer and Sarah recently moved to Woodland with their children from West Linn, where they had lived since 2014. In 2010 when they lived in Minnesota, Sarah Hart was arrested and later convicted of a gross misdemeanor for hitting one of the children, who was 6 at the time. She served a year on probation.

The court documents revealed a teacher noticed bruises on the child’s back and stomach after the child said her mom had hit her. She also said her mom wouldn’t give them lunch when they were grounded.

In talking with police, Sarah Hart said the kids always got food but admitted spanking her daughter the day before and that it got out of control.

The police report said “that her mom had put her in the bathtub and turned on cold water and then hit her…also stated that her mom had hit her with a fist. When asked what she had done to make her mom mad, (the child) said that she had a penny in her pocket and that this made her mom mad.”

Detective Sgt. Larry Dailey of the Alexandria, Minnesota police told KOIN 6 News the Harts talked with the police on their own accord but left him with the impression they thought there was a lot being made over just regular parental discipline.

Later, the Harts left Minnesota and moved to Oregon, settling in West Linn. There, they homeschooled their children. However, Clackamas Education Services District said they have no records of the Hart family filing a declaration of intent to homeschool their children.

In late 2017, they moved to Woodland, where 2 of the children reached out to neighbors Bruce and Dana Dekalb.

“Their daughters telling us, ‘Please, please, please,’ begging us not to make her go back and that they were abusing her,” Dana Dekalb said. “And then Devonte telling us he’s being starved to death.”

The Dekalbs called Child Protective Services, who visited the family 3 times in the days before the crash — but never made contact with the Harts.

After news of the crash, the Dekalbs got a phone call from someone who said he knew the Harts from Minnesota.The friend told the Dekalbs he thought they had unfairly targeted the Harts, perhaps out of bigotry.

KOIN 6 News contacted that person — who would only identify himself as “a close friend of the Hart family from Minnesota.” He said the Harts were a wholesome, loving family who overcame a lot of adversity. If they were abusive, the friends would have known, he said. 

Asked if he knew Sarah had been convicted of domestic assault in Minnesota, the “close friend of the Hart family from Minnesota” said he just learned about it from media reports, but that everybody makes mistakes.

And, he added, those who knew the Harts will remember them as great people.

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