New details released Monday suggest that Jennifer Hart, the woman behind the wheel of an SUV that drove off the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, intentionally pointed the vehicle toward the ocean before hitting the accelerator.
The preliminary investigation revealed that the 2003 GMC Yukon continued to accelerate until the vehicle tumbled over the cliff – sending Hart, her wife and their 6 adopted children to their deaths, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Authorities now believe the apparent suicide plunge may have a more sinister backstory, as investigators search for a possible motive.
“At this point we think a felony was committed,” Officer Olegario Marin, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol’s Ukiah office, told the paper on Monday. “We’re investigating all aspects of the incident and believe it was possibly an intentional act.”
Marin said investigators are learning more about the crash each day, but noted there’s still a lot of unknowns and it could “take months to get all the (crash) data and process everything.”
Authorities discovered the wreckage of the Washington state family’s vehicle last week on the rocks along the coast near Mendocino, California – just days after the child welfare authorities in their home state began investigating whether the children were being abused or neglected.
Known as the Hart Tribe, the multiracial family of two married women – Sarah and Jennifer Hart, both 38 – and six adopted children took spontaneous road trips to camp, hike and travel to various events, offering hugs and promoting unity.
The Hart family's two moms, and three of the six adopted children were found dead. The three others have yet to be found and are presumed dead.
Last month, concerned neighbors of the Harts had called protective services over concerns that the children may have been going hungry.
Police said Monday that social service authorities in Oregon contacted the West Linn Police Department about the family in 2013 while they were living in the area. The questions were referred to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which refused to confirm or deny the agency’s involvement due to privacy laws.
“At this point we think a felony was committed. We’re investigating all aspects of the incident and believe it was possibly an intentional act.”
In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota, in which she claimed was just a spanking to one of her children.
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," Baarts said. He did not elaborate.
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.
One of the children, 15-year-old Devonte Hart, drew national attention when the black youngster was photographed hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over the deadly police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Devonte was holding a “Free Hugs” sign.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.