It’s been about a week since an SUV—believed to be carrying all eight members of a Washington state family—plummeted over a cliff in Mendocino County, Calif., and authorities are now apparently close to getting at least some answers about what happened to Devonte Hart and his family. It is now believed that the fatal incident was intentional.
During a conference call with reporters, a spokesperson with the California Highway Patrol confirmed that the vehicle’s onboard computer showed that the family’s SUV stopped before accelerating over the cliff, dropping about 70 feet.
“Pure acceleration all the way,” the spokesperson said, according to NBC News.
Cal Robertson, a spokesman for the CHP, noted that the speedometer showed a reading of about 90 mph at the time of the crash, but he hedged, saying that the instrument could have been moved during impact or could have accidentally been manipulated during the investigation.
“Certainly, that does not mean the vehicle was going that fast,” Robertson said Sunday night.
The California Highway Patrol and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office are still investigating the crash that killed Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, and three of their children, Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14. Three more of their children, including Devonte Hart—whose image went viral after a photo was snapped of him hugging a cop during protests over Michael Brown’s Ferguson, Mo., police-shooting death—are still missing, feared dead.
Although authorities have found no suicide note, the absence of skid marks at the scene, plus data from airbag controllers and other information, has led them to believe that the plunge over the cliff was intentional. It is not clear who was driving the vehicle before it went over the cliff.
“Three children are still missing and could be in the ocean,” Assistant CHP Chief Greg Baarts said. “We are trying to determine a timeline, path of travel, and if there were any stops.”
Baarts told NBC that authorities in California were “tirelessly searching for the missing children along the coastline,” including Hart children Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12, Devante’s sisters, while authorities in both California and Washington state were “conducting interviews and attempting to establish a timeline and routes of travel in an effort to rule out any other possibilities.”
As authorities investigate the crash, more and more terrifying details have come to light. Child-protective services had visited the family’s home in Woodland, Wash., at least three times before the crash March 26.
Court records show that in 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge in Douglas County, Minn., a plea that led to the dismissal of a charge of malicious punishment of a child. She claimed that she “let her anger get out of control” while spanking her then 6-year-old daughter.
More recently, Devonte had told his neighbor that his parents were “punishing them by withholding food,” apparently even asking her to leave food in a box by the fence for him.
The state’s Department of Social and Health Services said in a statement that the children killed in the accident would be identified as “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect.”
Authorities in the meantime obtained a search warrant to retrieve computers, credit cards, bank statements and other items in order to try to determine a probable cause in what Baarts says may have been a felony.