SAN FRANCISCO – No one answered the door when a child-welfare worker went to the state of Washington is the home of the great, free-spirited Heart family to investigate a neighbor’s complaint that the young people were going hungry.
Three days later, the Hearts’ crumpled SUV was found at the bottom of a 100-foot seaside cliff in Northern California, all eight of the family members of presumed death in a mysterious wreck now examined.
“There are a lot of unknowns on this,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. “A number of the questions that have been asked today will never be answered.”
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the crash, and said: there is no reason so far to believe that it was intentional. But they also said that there are no skid marks or signs of the driver braked as the GMC Yukon on a flat dirt pull-off area, about 75 feet wide, and went over the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway.
The case has cast a spotlight on at least one previous run-in with the law by the Hearts, together with the neighbours ‘ repeated concerns about the way in which the home-educated young people were treated.
Some friends of the family, though, say that not keeping up with their knowledge of the parents, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, as a loving couple that promoted social justice and expose their ‘special’ children to art, music, and nature.
The bread was known as the Heart Tribe, a multicultural family of two women and six children who are adopted who grew their own food, took spontaneous road trips to camping and hiking, and traveled to festivals and other events, with free hugs and the promotion of unity.
One of the children, Devonte Hart, drew national attention after the black youngster was photographed in tears, hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over the deadly police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Devonte was holding a “Free Hugs” sign.
But well, before the wreck, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to domestic assault charges in Douglas County, Minnesota, telling authorities “she let her anger get out of hand”, while a beating of her 6-year-old adopted daughter, court records show.
Then, last week, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, neighbors of the Hearts in a Forest, Washington, called state child protective services on Friday, because Devonte, now 15, had come to their house almost every day for a week, the demand for food.
Dana DeKalb said Devonte told her that his parents were “to punish them by withholding food.” The boy asked her to eat in a box by the fence for him, ” she said.
Social service authorities, an investigation started, and a state caseworker went to the home last Friday, but not everyone is at home, state officials said. The agency had no history with the family, said Norah West, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social and health services.
On Saturday, the family SUV was gone from the driveway, said Bruce DeKalb.
The wreck was discovered by a passing motorist Monday afternoon. The women, both 38, were found dead in the SUV, while three of their children — Markis Heart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail, Heart -, 14 — were discovered outside of the vehicle.
A-team on Thursday continued to search the rugged coastline for the three other children, also believed to have been in the SUV: Hannah Hart, 16, Sierra Hart, 12, and Devonte.
The DeKalbs are also told that three months after the Hearts moved into their house on 2 acres with a fenced pasture, the last one of the girls went to the DeKalbs’ doorbell at 1:30 pm
“She was at our door in a blanket and say that we need to protect her,” Bruce DeKalb said. “She said that she was abusing her.” The whole family went to their house the next morning to apologize and explain it was a bad week, Dana DeKalb said.
The sheriff said the researchers don’t know exactly how or when the SUV went over the cliff, located next to a place often used by motorists to walk with their pets. Allman appeal to anyone who would have seen that the family to come forward.
Accident reconstruction experts said that researchers look at factors such as the weather, road conditions and the possibility of a brake failure, a blown tire or some other malfunction.
That model of the Yukon was also probably equipped with a black box recorder that would show that the speed and the use of the brakes, said Marcus Mazza, an engineer and accident reconstruction expert with Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Robson Forensic.
Friend of the family Max Ribner took issue with the notion it was anything other than a tragic accident. The couple took the six children, many of whom come from hard backgrounds,” he said. “They transformed these children’s lives.”
“This is a tragic accident of a magnitude that cannot be measured,” said Zippy Lomax, a photographer who knew the Hearts. “They were really brilliant, warm, adventurous, inspiring people. They were always on some grand adventure, and the children were still living a life that was a kind of a dream.”
Le reported from Seattle. Associated Press Writer Tom James contribution of West Linn, Oregon.