Search and rescue teams are looking for 15-year-old Devonte Hart as well as his siblings, 16-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Sierra, after the SUV their family was traveling in went off a cliff in Northern California on Monday.
According to ABC News, five people—Devonte’s parents, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, and three other siblings: 19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart—were confirmed dead in the crash, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol said in a joint press conference Wednesday afternoon.
Authorities described the scene as “confusing” because there were no brake or skid marks before the car flew off the cliff and fell 75 feet into the Pacific Ocean. The victims were not wearing their seat belts. Authorities also noted that they had every reason to believe that all six children—who had been adopted—were in the SUV at the time of the incident.
Investigators are still trying to figure out exactly how and when the crash occurred, as there were no witnesses. The engine of the vehicle was cold by the time first responders arrived at the scene.
There was apparently no evidence left in the SUV, but police are still looking for gas or hotel receipts in order to get a better timeline of what happened. Authorities added that there was “no reason to believe” that the crash was “an intentional act.”
However, according to KATU, child-protective services visited the family’s home in Woodland, Wash., a Portland suburb, at least three times before the crash Monday.
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. No other details were immediately available about the case, KATU notes.
CPS told the news station that the children were identified as “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect.”
Bruce and Dana DeKalb, who live near the family in Woodland, told the station that they had called CPS last week after one of the children came over to the house asking for food, several times a day.
A CPS worker visited the family’s home Friday, but no one answered. However, when that worker left, Dana DeKalb told the station that the entire family came out of the house, loaded into the SUV and drove off.
CPS officials noted that they went back to the family home on March 26 and March 27 but were unable to reach the family.
Dana DeKalb said that she believed the children reached out to her for help for a reason.
“Absolutely I think I was a lifeline. And yeah, I don’t think it was my fault certainly. I just, wow, it’s not how I thought it was gonna end. I thought it was gonna end in a beautiful life for them,” she said, adding that one of the Hart’s children tried to run away last fall.
A photo of Devonte went viral back in 2014. The photo, taken on Nov. 25, 2014, showed the young boy hugging a white police officer as tears flooded his face during protests in Portland, Ore., over the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer and a grand jury’s refusal to indict the officer involved.
Devonte was 12 at the time and had been carrying a sign that said “free hugs.” The Portland officer took him up on his offer, asking to “get one of those,” and the moment was captured by freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen.