Ex-neighbor describes 'surreal' contact with family feared dead in Mendocino Coast crash
Hannah Hart came to her neighbors' door last summer, sometime around 1:30 a.m., wearing a blanket covered in brambles, saying she was running away.
She was missing her two front teeth and was severely undersized for a girl of 15 or 16.
She explained to her neighbors of about three months, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, of Woodland, Washington, that she was being abused at home, and wanted a ride to Seattle.
She wanted to know, Bruce DeKalb says now, “Could we save her?”
But it wasn't until months later, last Friday, in fact, after a week in which one of Hannah's three brothers came repeatedly to ask for food, that the DeKalbs made a call to Child Protective Services to report concerns they had wrestled with for months.
Before a social worker's visit that same afternoon, the entire Hart family - spouses Jennifer Jean and Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, and their six adopted kids - had picked up and disappeared, DeKalb, 62, said.
Monday, their family SUV was found at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff on the Mendocino Coast, 550 miles from home. The bodies of three siblings - Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, and Abigail Hart, both 14 - lay scattered on the rocks and in the rising surf, emergency responders said. Their mothers were in the wreckage of the GMC Yukon, overturned and crushed on the rugged, rocky shore, authorities said.
The CHP has said the investigation has not yielded any information about how the car got to the bottom of the cliff. Three other siblings remained missing Thursday - Hannah Hart, 16, among them - with each day increasing the likelihood they are dead and washed away. Also missing were Cierra Hart, 12, and Devonte Hart, 16, whose quest for something to feed him and his siblings appears to have triggered the deadly road trip that has since spawned investigations in at least two states.
“It's surreal,” said DeKalb, describing months of wondering and worrying about what was going on in the family that shared his driveway.
He said they were deterred from taking action immediately by the family's explanation their daughter had acted out after having a few bad days. The DeKalbs' own understanding that the children's origins - their birth families struggled with poverty, drug abuse, food insecurity and other issues - could have caused ongoing behavioral issues. Hannah's parents said she had lost her teeth in an accident and didn't want them fixed.
Dana DeKalb's father, informed of the matter months after Hannah Hart's aborted effort to flee home - did call the local Clark County Sheriff's Office and described her nighttime visit. But a sheriff's official who later called the DeKalbs said it did not appear any laws had been broken that would warrant the department's intervention, DeKalb said Thursday.
A family friend of the Harts said earlier this week that Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both raised in South Dakota, adopted their six African-American children while living Alexandria, Minnesota “with nothing but good intentions.”
The friend, who had known Jennifer Hart since childhood and spoke on condition of anonymity, said she and Sarah Hart were loving mothers who home schooled their children and took them on travel adventures - though people missed that “those trips coincided with visits from CPS,” the person said.
The family was still in Minnesota when one of their daughters, then 6 years old, 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.
A year or two later, the family moved to West Linn, Oregon, and, last March, to Woodland, next door to the DeKalbs, who have lived since 1996 on the adjoining, 2½-acre parcel.
Bruce DeKalb said a real estate agent told them “a nice family with children” was moving in next door, but they didn't see any children until three months later, the morning Hannah Hart turned up.
Her parents and siblings came looking for her almost immediately, and the next morning came as a group to offer apologies and turn over a letter signed “Hannah” that expressed remorse, though none of the children spoke and hung back behind their mothers, DeKalb said.
His wife wanted to call 911 that day. Bruce DeKalb went next door and visited briefly but did not see anything concrete.
The DeKalbs' daughter is an educator with expertise in special-needs children and infants born addicted to drugs, her father said, and they thought that might explain the family's reclusiveness and Hannah Hart's conduct.