With a storm brewing off the coast of California, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office announced Thursday that the continuation of a large scale search and rescue effort for the three missing Hart children was postponed.
The search, which began Wednesday morning during low tide and included 74 volunteer searchers and 10 law enforcement personnel, was unsuccessful before the the storm rolled in. Neither the children nor any additional evidence were found, Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Captain Gregory L. Van Patten said in an April 5 press release.
California and Washington authorities now believe all eight members of the Hart family — who recently lived in West Linn — died when their SUV went off a cliff in northern California March 26.
Parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 39, and three of their children — 19-year old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart — were found dead at the scene of the crash, which took place near the coastal town of Westport. Three other children — 15-year-old Devonte Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 12-year-old Sierra Hart — are still considered missing, but feared dead.
In an affidavit for a search warrant of the Harts' Woodland, Washington home signed by a Clark County District Court judge March 29, Clark County Sheriff's Office Detective Craig Marler wrote of the three missing children that "it is feared they may have also been involved in the collision and presumed deceased." He added that "no one has come forward to indicate if the remaining family members have been accounted for" and the search warrant would help advance the search for the three children.
The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office announced in a press release April 3 that the search for the three children continued and a "large scale" search and rescue operation with 71 searchers would begin the morning of April 4 during low tide.
"The search area will focus from the Noyo Harbor to the MacKerricher State Park based upon ocean current and drift pattern analysis conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard," Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Captain Gregory L. Van Patten said in the release. "The search is anticipated to include aircraft, boat and land searchers."
Van Patten added that it was still unclear whether the other three children were in the vehicle when the crash took place.
"The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office is focused on search efforts as if they were inside the vehicle while the California Highway Patrol is focused on search efforts as if they were not inside the vehicle," Van Patten said. "At this point there is no obvious information to suggest either possibility."
California Highway Patrol also released an update on its investigation April 3, laying out a timeline of the family's journey through Oregon and California. CHP Public Information Officer Coordinator Cal Robertson wrote in a press release that the family was in the Newport, Oregon area on the morning of Saturday, March 24 before proceeding south on US 101 until they reached State Route 1 in Legget, California. They traveled south on State Route 1 before stopping in Fort Bragg, California on the evening of March 24.
The family stayed there until the night of Sunday, March 25, and Jennifer Hart was seen on a security camera at a Fort Bragg Safeway store. Robertson said further information about the family's whereabouts immediately prior to the crash is unknown.
CHP also announced in a press release April 2 that preliminary evidence indicated that the crash was not an accident. Investigators did not find tire friction marks, dirt prints from a tire or skid marks at the scene — any of which would have indicated that the vehicle lost control. Additionally, the on-board computer in the SUV showed its actions immediately before the crash.
"The vehicle was stopped on the dirt pull-off area approximately 70 feet from the cliff's edge before accelerating off the cliff," Robertson said. "At this distance, the vehicle would not have been able to get up to a significant speed prior to impact."
No one in the vehicle was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash.
A prior CHP statement about the vehicle's speedometer reading 90 miles per hour may have been misinterpreted, according to Robertson.
"The speedometer reading could have been affected by the impact, affected by the electrical charge or could have been unintentionally manipulated during recovery efforts," Robertson said. "A comprehensive vehicle inspection is currently underway at this time to determine the vehicle's speed."
That announcement Monday was in keeping with a note in the Clark County affidavit, which stated that CHP investigators believed a felony had been committed.
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services received a referral from Child Protective Services regarding the Hart Family March 23 — just a few days before the crash. According to WSDSHS Media Relations Manager Norah West, three separate attempts were made to contact the family.
"The now-deceased children were identified as potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect," West said in an email. "We attempted to make contact with the family in person on three occasions (3/23, 3/26 and 3/27) and were not able to reach them. We have not made any findings in this investigation and we had no prior history with this family."
A neighbor told KGW that he called CPS after one of the children told him that his parents withheld food as punishment.
Court records show that in 2011, Sarah Hart was charged in Alexandria, Minnesota for misdemeanor domestic assault and gross misdemeanor malicious punishment of a child. Hart was convicted on the domestic assault charge, but the child punishment charge was dismissed.
Clark County Sheriff's Office deputies also visited the home March 26 to do a welfare check, but no one was home, according to CCSO Sergeant Brent Waddell.
With the March 29 search warrant, CCSO hoped to find any evidence — including travel itinerary, bank records or cell phone records — that might point to why the family left Washington or where the missing children were. Ultimately, an Apple iPad and laptop were seized as evidence.
Waddell confirmed that no signs of violence or a suicide note were found during the search, but said he could not provide further details about what was seen at the home.