Two lesbian moms and their six kids are presumed dead after their SUV went over a cliff in Mendocino County, California, and fell into a rocky part of the Pacific Ocean.
“We know that an entire family vanished and perished during this tragedy,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. He is asking for help in putting together what happened that led to the car being found on Monday.
Sarah and Jennifer Hart, along with their children Jeremiah, 14, Abigail, 14, and Markis, 19, were found dead in their SUV. The other three children – Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12 – are missing and police say they have “every reason to believe” that they were in the SUV but that they fell out because they weren’t wearing seat belts.
Police do not know the details of the accident or how the car went over the cliff. “There were no skid marks. There were no break marks,” Allman said. “There was no indication of why this vehicle traversed approximately over 75 feet off a dirt pullout and went into the Pacific Ocean.”
Sarah and Jennifer were two white, married women who adopted six African American children. Their friends said that they were loving parents who promoted social justice, often taking their entire family to protests.
In 2014, a photo of their son Devonte hugging Portland Police Sergeant Bret Barnum went viral. The family was at a demonstration against a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
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Photographer Johnny Nguyen, who took the photo, said, “From a photographer standpoint, you look at the scene. It’s powerful. A white American cop hugging a black American boy.”
Two years later, the family was called on stage at a Bernie Sanders rally in Vancouver, Washington.
“They were really radiant, warm, adventurous inspiring people. They were always on some grand adventure, and the kids were living this life that was kind of like this dream,” family friend Zippy Lomax said.
“The family was this very self-supporting unit that was impossible to miss. When they showed up to an event, they made an impression. They shattered a lot of norms and they did not shy away from controversy or adversity.”
The family had recently moved from Oregon to rural southwest Washington after the media attention the photo received. Neighbors say they kept to themselves, homeschooling the kids and growing their own vegetables.
But there was a history of domestic violence in the family. In 2011, Sarah plead guilty to domestic assault after one of their daughters showed up at school with bruises, court records show.
Neighbors Bruce and Dana DeKalb say that one of the daughters showed up at their door last year at night asking for protection. “She said that they were abusing her,” Bruce said.
The moms explained what happened to them and the DeKalbs say they believed them.
Then a few weeks ago, Devonte showed up at the DeKalbs’ house asking for food. He said his moms were “punishing them by withholding food.”
The DeKalbs gave him food for a little while, but last Friday they called child services.
The child services agency tried to contact the family several times since last Friday but wasn’t able to speak to them. Some time after they knocked on the family’s door, neighbors say that the family car disappeared.
“The next morning, when we saw that the vehicle was gone, and then Sunday morning, when it still wasn’t there…” Bruce said.
“We knew there was something weird, because they never go anywhere,” Dana said.
The agency has had no prior dealings with the Harts.
Family friend Max Ribner says that the reported abuse doesn’t square with what he knew about the family.
“They are beautiful examples of opening arms to strangers, helping youth, supporting racial equality. They brought so much joy to the world. They represented a legacy of love.”
Police don’t know why the family went to California, but friends say they often went on spontaneous adventures.