A massive search effort by authorities Wednesday failed to turn up any trace of three children still missing after their family’s fatal crash last week off a Mendocino coast cliff.
More than 70 people from eight public safety agencies combed Mendocino County, focusing on a wide swath of coastline from the crash site north of Westport to the tip of Point Arena in the south. Searchers were looking for signs of Hannah Hart, 16, Devonte Hart, 16, and Cierra Hart, 12, still missing more than a week after the bodies of their three adoptive siblings and 38-year-old mothers Jen and Sarah Hart were pulled from their SUV’s wreckage at the base of a 100-foot cliff.
“We did not find anything of significant value,” Mendocino County sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said at the end of the daylong search, a final push before a large storm is expected to makes landfall early Thursday bringing rain, wind and large swells that could hamper searchers’ abilities to spot any clues to the whereabouts of the missing children.
The land and sea search with CHP aircraft assisting from above, was based on ocean current and drift pattern analysis done by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We’ve accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish, but we didn’t find what we were looking for,” Barney said.
Cellphone data, including from one pulled from the crash site, has yet to be analyzed, he said, though investigators are hoping it might offer additional clues about the Hart family’s actions in the days and hours leading up to the crash.
One coastal homeowner Wednesday reported seeing a seal or sea lion playing with what appeared to be an item of clothing, but when Mendocino County sheriff’s divers searched the area, they didn’t find anything, Barney said.
“Sometimes the storm will actually churn up the ocean floor, so we might get something after that,” Barney said.
Waves along the coast Wednesday crested at 2 to 3 feet, but swells were expected to grow to 7 feet by Friday and double in height to 14 feet by Saturday, said Matthew Kidwell, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
The Hart family’s fatal crash, now called “intentional” by authorities, came at the end of a string of three domestic violence allegations and one conviction that followed the family of eight from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest, with the latest claim coming to light Wednesday with the release of an Alexandria, Minnesota police report from September 2008. In that report, then 6-year-old Hannah Hart told a police officer and a social services caseworker that a bruise on her left arm was the result of Jen Hart striking her with a belt. When authorities questioned Jen and Sarah Hart about the bruise, they dismissed the belt allegation, saying instead the mark was likely the result of Hannah falling down a set of stairs days before.
In a statement to the Associated Press, a former friend who filed a 2013 child abuse claim against the Harts while living in West Linn, Oregon said, “My heart is completely broken. The current system failed to protect these children from their abusers.”
The friend, Alexandra Argyropoulos, said she alerted authorities to what she thought was “controlling emotional abuse and cruel punishment,” but was told that because of a lack of evidence, there was nothing the Oregon Department of Human Services could do.
Coffey Park Chronicles
As part of an ongoing series, The Press Democrat is following the residents and recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire. Read all of the stories here.