The moms who fatally veered off a California cliff with at least three of their six adopted kids were being investigated for starving their children before Monday’s crash — and one was previously convicted of domestic assault for hitting their little girl, according to new reports.
Cops say they still have no evidence Jennifer and Sarah Hart deliberately drove their SUV off the road — but have noted that there were no skid or brake marks where the vehicle went over. Three of the kids’ bodies had been found as of Thursday morning, while the others — including 15-year-old Devonte, whose image went viral after he was photographed tearfully hugging a white cop at a 2014 protest in Ferguson, Missouri — remain missing. The Harts’ Washington state neighbors say they’d recently called Child Protective Services after Devonte kept showing up at their house, claiming his parents “weren’t feeding them” and were “punishing them by withholding food” — and asked them to leave food by the fence so his parents wouldn’t know, the Oregonian reports.
Officials say they tried unsuccessfully to reach the family three times to investigate — but the neighbors say the family fled when a CPS worker showed up at their door Friday.
“The next morning when we saw that the vehicle was gone, and then Sunday morning when it still wasn’t there, we figured something was off,” Bruce DeKalb told local NBC affiliate KGW.
Last year, one of the Harts’ daughters also rang their doorbell at 1:30 a.m., accusing her moms of abuse.
She “was at our door in a blanket saying we needed to protect her,” DeKalb said. “She said that they were abusing her.”
It wasn’t the first time they’d faced charges of abuse: In 2011, when the family was living in Minnesota, Sarah pleaded guilty to domestic assault after their then-6-year-old daughter told her teacher she had “owies on her tummy.”
When the teacher lifted up the tot’s shirt, she saw the girl had bruises across her stomach and back, KATU reports. Sarah told police that she was spanking the child and “let her anger get out of control.”
“She took [the girl] into the bathroom and bent her over the edge of the bathtub,” the criminal complaint says.
Sarah received a three-month suspended jail sentence and a year of probation, according to the Oregonian.
The Harts later moved to Oregon and began homeschooling their brood, but relocated to rural Woodland, Wash., last year after Devonte’s viral image brought heavy media scrutiny on their family — including the 2011 abuse charges, the paper reports.
The kids rarely went outside, even in nice weather, a former Oregon neighbor said.
“Something just didn’t seem right. They were very isolated in the home,” Bill Groener told the Oregonian.
The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah and their kids Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, and Abigail, 14, were all found with the family’s vehicle when it was spotted off a coastal highway in Northern California on Monday.
Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12, remain missing along with Devonte.