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CHP: SUV crash that went off Mendocino Coast cliff appears intentional

A crash that killed a Washington state family after their SUV plunged over a cliff along a remote section of the Mendocino Coast appears to have been intentional, authorities said Sunday night.

The 2003 GMC Yukon XL stopped at a gravel pullout on Highway 1 north of the town of Westport about 70 feet from the edge of the cliff before going over, said Greg Baarts, acting assistant chief for the northern division of the CHP.

“There was acceleration all the way up until it impacted the ocean floor,” Baarts said.

The wreckage was spotted on March 26 by a passing motorist.

Police have found no brake or skid marks that would indicate that the car carrying Jennifer Jean Hart, her wife, Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, and their children experienced problems on the roadway. There also was no collision with any nearby embankments.

“There is no evidence it went (off) at an angle. It appears it went straight off (the cliff),” Baarts said.

The bodies of the Harts and three of their six adopted children were discovered at the crash site.

The other kids - Devonte Hart, 15, Hannah Hart, 16, and Cierra Hart, 12 - remain missing, although authorities say it's increasingly likely they died in the crash.

Authorities continued looking for the missing kids this weekend, extending the aerial search into Sonoma County because of ocean currents, Mendocino County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Van Patten said.

“The murkiness of the water makes it very difficult for anything to be seen,” he said.

Autopsies, including blood alcohol and toxicology analysis, have been conducted on the five killed, but those results will not be known for another month, Van Patten said.

CHP investigators are working with sheriff's officials in Mendocino County and Clark County, Washington, to trace the whereabouts of the family prior to the crash.

The parents have come under increased scrutiny, especially after Child Protective Services in Clark County attempted to visit the family on March 23 after their next-door neighbor called police to report signs of child abuse and neglect.

The neighbor, Bruce DeKalb, said a social worker visited the home but could not locate the family.

Sarah Hart had a 2011 conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence involving one of her daughters in Alexandria, Minnesota, where she and her wife spent many years and adopted their children.

The girl, then 6, turned up at school with her abdomen and back bruised after she'd been bent over the side of a bathtub and struck, according to Minnesota District Court documents unearthed in the wake of the crash.

Sarah Hart took responsibility for the incident, saying she “let her anger get out of control,” and was later given a year probation for misdemeanor domestic violence, according to court records.

The family a year or two later moved to West Linn, Oregon, and, last March, to Woodland, next door to the DeKalbs.

Fox Portland affiliate KPTV this weekend reported police obtained a warrant to search the Harts' house for items such as a travel itinerary, bank and cell phone records, credit card statements, journals and possible suicide notes.

Baarts said no suicide notes have been found at the home.

Investigators do not yet know how fast the SUV was going as it left the roadway, although the speedometer was “pinned” at 90 mph when the car was discovered on the rocky shoreline, Baarts said.

“I can tell you it was not going 90 mph,” Baarts said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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