Hart family sighted in Fort Bragg prior to fatal Mendocino Coast crash
Cellphone records, surveillance footage and a statement from a possible witness have led authorities to believe a Washington state family visited Fort Bragg the day before its SUV was found at the base of a Mendocino coast cliff, authorities said Tuesday.
The information offers the latest clue to the Hart family's whereabouts before the wreckage of its 2003 GMC Yukon XL was spotted about 20 miles north of the small Mendocino County town March 26.
More than a week after the bodies of mothers Jen and Sarah Hart, and three of their six adoptive children were pulled from the ocean 550 miles from their Washington state home, three of the children are still missing, though authorities increasingly believe they were in the car when it plunged from the Highway 1 pullout.
Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14, were found near the wreckage. Still missing are Hannah Hart, 16, Devonte Hart, 15, and Cierra Hart, 12.
Crash investigators suspect Jen Hart, 38, intentionally drove off the cliff. They have highlighted the absence of tire friction marks, dirt tire prints or skid marks, and cite data from the SUV's onboard computer that recorded the car came to a dead stop before accelerating for 70 feet and plunging to the rocky shoreline below.
Cellphone pings showed the family traveled through Newport, Oregon about 8:15 a.m. March 24, the day after a Washington State Department of Social and Health Services caseworker attempted to make contact with the Harts in response to a neighbor's report of child abuse or neglect. By the next morning, the family was gone, neighbors said.
From Newport, Oregon, the family drove south on Highway 101 all day until cellphone pings indicate they reached Legget in Mendocino County, and turned onto Highway 1, the CHP said. Authorities believe they reached Fort Bragg about 8 p.m. March 24. Surveillance footage from a Fort Bragg Safeway showed Jen Hart purchasing bananas about 8:15 a.m. the next morning. CHP Officer Cal Robertson, a spokesman for the agency's northern division, said the family left town at 9 p.m.
A Fort Bragg man told authorities he thought he saw the family at a knickknack shop along the highway, though he can't recall the exact date or time, and can't say for sure whether all eight members of the Hart family were there.
“He's fairly convinced it was the family,” said Mendocino County sheriff's Lt. Shannon Barney.
Also Tuesday, a representative from the Minnesota school district where the Hart children were enrolled prior to the family's move to the Pacific Northwest confirmed the six children were pulled from school immediately after Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to abusing one of her daughters.
“The leave date ... indicates all six children left prior to the end of the school year for a home-school setting,” said Jill Johnson, spokeswoman for Alexandria Public Schools.
The children would never re-enter public schooling.
Sarah Hart's Minnesota conviction was among the first in a string of domestic violence cases that followed the Harts from Minnesota to Oregon and then to Washington, including a July 2013 incident when Oregon police filed a report. The matter was referred to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which handles child protective services cases and declined to comment. Details of that report were not publicly available.
A storm expected to enter the area Thursday has prompted a more concerted search for the three remaining children. Early Wednesday, more than 70 volunteer searchers and law enforcement officers plan to comb the ocean, beaches and cliff bases from the crash site south toward Fort Bragg.
“Rain is coming in Thursday,” Barney said. “We're trying to get this done.”
You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or email@example.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@rossmannreport.