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Ex-neighbor describes 'surreal' contact with family feared dead in Mendocino Coast crash

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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.

They kept a watchful eye, he said, though the children rarely came outside. Sarah Hart worked at Kohl’s in Vancouver, but Jennifer Hart stayed home, almost always, and the family made it clear they wanted privacy, he said.

Only Devonte, who had snagged the nation’s notice with a viral photo of him hugging a white police officer at a Portland Black Lives Matter rally, occasionally came outside to feed the family’s chickens, rake leaves or take the trash barrel down the driveway. He never spoke, even when they tried to engage him, DeKalb said.

Until earlier this month.

During the week before the crash, Devonte, clearly hurried and undercover, came to the DeKalbs’ house seeking food, saying he was being punished and not being fed. He came up to three times a day over the next week, sometimes asking for food for his siblings and begging the DeKalbs to get six packs of tortillas and six jars of peanut butter and put them in a box hidden near the fence between the two properties so his siblings could sneak and get it.

He told them not to call authorities, but they finally decided his behavior was a cry for help.

When a Child Protective Services worker turned up at the Hart home March 23, it appeared no one answered the door. She waited several minutes before driving away.

By the next morning, the Harts were gone.

DeKalb said the house Thursday was swarming with law enforcement investigators serving a search warrant and looking for information that might explain what happened.

Someone already had taken away the cat and the chickens left behind, he said.

According to Washington media reports, Clark County sheriff’s deputies were searching for bills, credit card receipts, cellphone records or anything else to help them learn why the family left.

Brent Waddell, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, told local media it did not appear the family left hastily and the home appeared to be “neat and in order.”

Thursday in Mendocino County, 15 search-and-rescue volunteers, aided by Mendocino County sheriff’s officials and a dog trained to detect human remains, scoured the shoreline in hopes of finding the three missing children.

Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said the ocean current was moving southwest, toward the town of Westport, so the search was focused there.

“We’re looking for debris. Obviously we’re looking for bodies and any other indications, clues or things left from the vehicle,” Barney said. “Technically, if there are bodies in the ocean, they could come up anywhere, but right now the currents look like they’re moving south.”

Sheriff’s officials reviewed most of the footage shot Thursday from two Alameda County sheriff’s drones and did not find anything of interest, according to Barney.

He said Mendocino County Sheriff’s officials are also investigating the crash with the California Highway Patrol and the major crimes unit out of Clark County, Washington.

Authorities have been hoping someone who may have seen the family on the North Coast will come forward.

But “most of the indications we have so far, from people who know the family think that the kids will probably be with them — that the whole family will be together,” Barney said.

Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB, and Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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