A tourist couple vacationing near the Northern California coast where the Hart family’s SUV went careering over a cliff spotted a body floating in the surf not far from the crash site on Saturday afternoon.
According to the Washington Post, a third person pulled the body onto the beach, and authorities responded, recovering it. The body—described only as an African-American woman or girl—has not yet been identified.
Nonetheless, it is believed that the recovery could be the first significant breakthrough in the case, which still left three children missing after almost two weeks of investigation and searching.
Late last month, the car crash shocked the nation after the family SUV was found at the bottom of the cliff off the Pacific Coast Highway.
Jennifer Hart, who was determined to be driving, and her wife, Sarah Hart, were both found dead, along with three of their adopted children: Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14. Three other children—Devonte, 15; Hannah, 16; and Sierra, 12—were not found but are feared to be dead. DNA testing will determine whether the body recovered is Hannah’s or Sierra’s, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office noted.
Shortly after the crash, damning information about the couple, who were both white, started to surface. The women had been under investigation by the police and child-protective services in the three states where they had lived. In the end, it was also determined that the plunge over the cliff was no accident, prompting further questions about what led up to the crash.
But a tale of long-standing abuse has slowly started to unravel.
Before the family left Washington state, where they were living last, and ended up in California, child services acknowledged that it had begun investigating the couple for “alleged abuse or neglect.” Officials tried to make contact with the couple but were unable to reach them. About three days later, the family vehicle was found at the bottom of the cliff.
Then there came reports of abuse dating back several years, to the time when the family lived in Minnesota. There, documents reveal that one of the young girls came to school with bruises on her back and stomach. Sarah Hart told officials that she lost her temper with the child and spanked her. She was convicted of domestic assault but got off with a 90-day suspended jail sentence. However, as the Post notes, quoting The Oregonian, Abigail Hart had told police that it was Jennifer Hart who had struck her.
Fast-forward to when the Harts moved to Oregon: Child-welfare officials were made aware of potential abuse or neglect, but nothing came of the investigation. From there, the family moved to the state of Washington, where neighbors recounted stories of Devonte Hart begging for food, saying that his parents weren’t feeding him.
At one point, another daughter, Hannah, came running to the neighbor’s home at 1:30 a.m. missing some of her front teeth. The neighbors thought that the 16-year-old was only 7 and described her as being “rattled to the bone.”
Authorities have searched the family home but have not confirmed whether they found any motive or any other clues about what may have led to the crash. Officers say that no suicide notes have been recovered.