The complex story behind the family-of-eight whose car plunged off a cliff last week.

Video by CNN

It is a terrible tragedy. Last week, it was reported that parents Sarah and Jennifer Hart and their six children were all believed dead after their SUV plunged off a cliff in California.

Police are now saying that the car may have been intentionally driven over the cliff.

The bodies of the parents and three of the children – Markis, 19, and Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14 – were found at the crash site, a rocky shore of the Pacific Ocean. The other three children – Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12 – are presumed dead, but their bodies haven’t been found.

Hart Family cropped
A photo of the Hart family and their eight children. Image: Facebook.

According to the California Highway Patrol, who analysed the car’s onboard computer, the SUV stopped on a scenic pullout off Highway 1, then accelerated about 20 metres to the edge of the cliff. No skid marks were found.

“It was pure acceleration from the last brake application until it hit the bottom of the cliff,” California Highway Patrol spokesperson Greg Baarts told reporters.

Police have been searching the family’s home in Washington state for any clues as to whether the crash may have been intentional. They are also continuing to search for the three missing children.

Friends of the family are in shock.

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“There were no clues anywhere that something was wrong,” photographer Zippy Lomax told The Oregonian.

Jennifer and Sarah were married, and Sarah had changed her surname from Gengler to Hart. In 2006, the couple, then living in Minnesota, adopted three siblings – Markis, Abigail and Hannah.

In 2009, they adopted a second set of siblings – Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra. Jennifer posted on Facebook about the day she picked up Jeremiah and his siblings.

“Sarah and I walked out to the playground at the CPS building, and without hesitation, he let go of the social worker’s hand and walked right up to me,” she wrote.

“Jeremiah wrapped his tiny arms around my legs and didn't let go.”

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Another family friend, Max Ribner, says the Harts’ adopted children came from “hard backgrounds”.

“They transformed these kids’ lives,” he told US media.

But there were troubles. In 2010, police investigated the couple after a report from Abigail’s teacher. Abigail had complained of pain and her teacher had discovered bruising.

According to a police report, Sarah said Abigail had been “lying out of control” and she and Jennifer had recently resorted to spanking their children.  Sarah said she had bent her daughter over the bathtub and “swatted” her repeatedly.

“Sarah again stated she had lost her temper, mostly due to lying, and that she had lost her control,” the police report says.

Sarah pleaded guilty to misdemeanour domestic violence. She received a 90-day suspended jail sentence.

Not long afterwards, the family moved to Oregon. They were activists, and in 2014, they attended a protest against police brutality, following the shooting of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown. It was there that a photo of Devonte was taken that became famous.

Devonte was carrying a sign that said “free hugs”. A police officer, Sgt Bret Barnum, saw him crying and called him over for a chat.

“Really, all I could do was apologise... And I just kind of sighed and said, ‘I’m sorry,’” Barnum told The Oregonian.

Barnum, himself a dad of two, asked Devonte for a hug. Neither knew they were being photographed, or that the image would be shared around the world.

Jennifer and Sarah later told the story in a Facebook post.

“My son has a heart of a gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society. It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother.”

However, the experience wasn’t necessarily a positive one for the Harts. Some media commentators attacked the photo, one calling it “a blatant lie”. The family received death threats.

#DevonteHart ❤️❤️????????

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Friends believe the intense media scrutiny may have led to the family moving again – this time, to a house in the woods in Washington state. The children were home-schooled by one parent while the other worked.
Lomax says the kids were bookworms who never spent time on electronic devices. They kept chickens and had their own dance parties.

Another family friend, nurse Samantha Sinclair, says their home was filled with books, music and healthy food.

“Jen and Sarah were providing a hilarious, joyful life for these kids,” she told The Washington Post.

But neighbours have told a different story. Bruce DeKalb, who lives near the Harts’ house, says that just a few months after the family moved in, Hannah pounded on his door, after having jumped out of an upstairs window and run through the woods.

“That kid was totally losing her mind, just rattled to the bone,” DeKalb told The Washington Post.

He and his wife Dana considered calling Child Protective Services, but didn’t.

Then last month, DeKalb says Devonte came to his house and asked for food, saying his parents weren’t feeding him. Devonte kept coming back, and at one point, asked the couple if they had called Child Protective Services.

DeKalb made the call, and says he saw a CPS employee knock on the Harts’ door.

Sometime within the next day, the family got into their SUV and drove off. They went to California, where their vehicle would later be found at the bottom of a cliff.

Now, a shocked community is waiting for answers. The investigation continues.

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