The sheriff of Mendocino County believes a crime was committed in connection with a Woodland family’s deadly crash off a cliff on the California coastline.
Sheriff Tom Allman updated FOX 12 on the investigation into the Hart family Thursday.
A major search effort was launched in the Westport area Wednesday, during low tide conditions and ahead of a storm, but few definitive clues were found.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart, along with at least three of their adopted children, died in a crash there on March 26.
Allman said his department is actively working four separate investigations involving the Hart family, including what caused their SUV to crash, was it intentional, were the children alive as the SUV went off the cliff and where are their other three children.
“If they are in the ocean, will they be found? I feel very comfortable they’ll be found,” Allman said of the missing children.
Deputies have posted fliers at area businesses asking for help locating the missing Hart kids. However, deputies said evidence supports the possibility that the missing children were swept away by the ocean at the crash scene.
“There is no sign of the other three children at the crash scene, but, as we’ve said, there’s also no indication whatsoever that they were anywhere else except inside that GMC Yukon,” Allman said.
On Thursday, FOX 12 also learned new information about where, and how, the children’s bodies were found by first responders.
A spokesperson for the Westport Fire Department said the four-member crew that responded to the crash site originally found only two of the Hart children’s bodies on the rocks.
The body of a third child was discovered a short time later. It was partially submerged in water along the beach, adding to the suspicion that the bodies of the three remaining missing children may have also been thrown from the vehicle and swept out to sea.
Deputies also confirmed Thursday that Jennifer and Sarah Hart were not wearing seat belts at the time of the crash, correcting earlier information released by investigators.
“I’m leaning to say that this is more of a crime than it is a crash,” Allman told FOX 12.
Allman said a first responder found the SUV’s engine cold after the crash, and water that had gathered in wheel wells was warmer than the ocean temperature. He believes the SUV sat upside down and in the sun for some time before it was spotted by a passing driver.
A timeline released by detectives this week showed the Harts were in Newport, Oregon on March 24. Jennifer Hart was caught on camera at a Safeway store in Fort Bragg, California the following day.
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services opened a Child Protective Services investigation of the family on March 23, as the agency reported the children were identified as potential victims of abuse or neglect.
Anyone with additional information is encouraged to contact the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center at 707-463-4086 or the anonymous tip line at 707-234-2100.
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