By GENE JOHNSON and PHUONG LE, Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — Investigators are looking into “red flags” in a Washington state family’s past in hopes of explaining why their SUV went off a 100-foot cliff in an apparent suicide plunge.
The wreck was discovered last week on the rocks along the coast near Mendocino, California, a few days after child welfare authorities began investigating whether the children were being abused or neglected.
The Hart family’s two moms and three of their six adopted children were found dead; the three others are missing and presumed dead, possibly washed out to sea.
On Sunday, authorities announced that data from the vehicle’s software suggested the crash was deliberate.
The SUV had stopped at a pull-off area, then sped straight off the cliff, Capt. Greg Baarts of the California Highway Patrol said. Baarts said that as far as he knew, investigators had not found a suicide note.
In interviews with friends and relatives, “there have been red flags,” the investigator said. He did not elaborate.
But days before the wreck was discovered, neighbors called Washington state child-welfare authorities to say one of the youngsters had been coming to their house almost daily asking for something to eat and complaining that his parents were withholding food as punishment.
Also, well before the crash, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children.
And in 2013, social service authorities in Oregon, where the Harts lived at the time, contacted the West Linn Police Department about them, police said Monday.
They referred questions to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which cited privacy laws in refusing to confirm or deny the agency was involved.
Investigators last week obtained a search warrant for the family’s home in Woodland and looked for itineraries, bank and phone records, credit card receipts, journals or other documents that might shed light on the case.
The large, multiracial brood, led by Sarah and Jennifer Hart, both 38, grew their own food, went on road trips and took part in activist causes. The children ranged in age from 12 to 19.
Family friend Max Ribner said Monday he was not ready to believe the crash was intentional.
“As much love as they put in the world, there were times when it was challenging for them to be a family with six kids and hold the energy of what they put out,” Ribner said. “I don’t think people realize what it takes to be a mother, raise six kids, many of whom came from hard backgrounds.”
Associated Press writer Michelle A. Monroe contributed to this report.