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Boy in viral hug photo missing after family's car plunges off cliff

The boy who made headlines when he was photographed hugging an officer during a 2014 protest against police brutality...

Posted: Mar 29, 2018 6:50 PM
Updated: Mar 29, 2018 6:50 PM

The boy who made headlines when he was photographed hugging an officer during a 2014 protest against police brutality is missing after his family's SUV plunged 100 feet off a coastal highway in California, officials said Wednesday.

The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, of Washington, and three of their six children, were found Monday in and around the vehicle, which landed on its roof in the Pacific Ocean, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

Their three other children, including 15-year-old Devonte, are missing.

Devonte, who is black, earned national attention when a photo of him at age 12 went viral. In the image, tears stream down his face as he embraces a white officer in the middle of a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, related to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Devonte had been holding a sign offering "Free Hugs."

Investigators, including the Coast Guard, are still looking for the bodies of Devonte and his sisters Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12. The circumstances of the crash remain unclear.

A welfare check Tuesday at the family's home showed signs that the family's trip was temporary, said Sgt. Brent Waddell of Clark County, Washington. Deputies gained entry to the residence and found pets, as well as conditions that would dictate that their trip was temporary, he said.

The California Highway Patrol received 911 calls Monday about a vehicle that went over the side of Highway 1 in a remote section of Mendocino County, about 180 miles north of San Francisco, Sgt. Erich Paarsch told reporters Wednesday. A passerby noticed the SUV at the bottom of the cliff.

Emergency responders found the vehicle on its roof with the two women, both 38, inside the car, Paarsch said. Outside the car, they found the bodies of Markis Hart, 19, and Jeremiah Hart and Abigail Hart, both 14.

The relatives were not wearing seat belts, Allman said.

Who were the Harts?

The family had most recently lived in Woodland, Washington.

Child Protective Services had tried to visit the family on Friday, then tried twice more on Monday and Tuesday, to no avail, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The agency was trying to get in touch after the "now deceased children were identified as potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect," according to a statement from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

"We have not made any findings in this investigation and we had no prior history with this family. We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations," the department stated.

Sarah Hart had pleaded guilty to domestic assault, a misdemeanor, involving one of the children in a 2010 incident, in Douglas County, Minnesota, according to court records.

The child had told an elementary school teacher of pain on her back and stomach, which was discovered to be bruises. Hart told police that she had spanked the child over behavioral issues. She was sentenced to community service and one year of probation.

One of the family's neighbors in Washington, Bill Groener, described the children as "wonderful" and said they were home-schooled and kept in the house most of the time.

"I thought it was strange that I didn't see the kids a lot," he told CNN. "The weird thing was that the kids kind of seemed repressed and not communicative."

Family friends had a different perspective on the couple, describing them to CNN affiliate KOIN as loving parents who gave the kids everything they had and radiated positivity.

California trip goes awry

Allman, the sheriff, pleaded with the public for any information about the family's whereabouts.

"We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act," Allman said of the wreck. "If this was an intentional act, I truly believe that both between the highway patrol and the sheriff's office, we are going to come to that conclusion. And if we come to that conclusion, you can be assured that that information will be released to the public."

There is every indication that all six children were in the SUV, Allman said, though he said it's possible the three missing children may have been left with friends.

A complicating factor is that investigators don't know when the SUV plunged over the cliff, the sheriff said. The vehicle was in the water for at least several hours before it was discovered, he said, based on the water found inside the SUV and in the wheel well.

The vehicle had to have traveled 75 to 100 feet on a dirt "turn-out" next to the highway before it went off the edge, he said. A turn-out is a place where cars and motor homes can park and people can walk their dogs. There is a dirt berm at the spot but no guardrail.

There were no skid or brake marks, Allman said. It's not clear whether the SUV might have rolled or launched over the edge, said Sgt. Christopher Dalin of the highway patrol.

The viral photo of teen

In the famous photo with Devonte is Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum, who approached the boy and extended his hand because he saw Devonte crying. The two talked about life, travel and summer vacations before he asked Devonte for a hug, Barnum said at the time.

The Mendocino Sheriff's Office reached out to authorities in Oregon regarding the case, officials said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 592750

Reported Deaths: 7376
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1226641731
Ramsey51369875
Dakota45906452
Anoka41713438
Washington26899283
Stearns22238222
St. Louis17758304
Scott17275124
Wright16034140
Olmsted1324298
Sherburne1170887
Carver1049145
Clay815792
Rice8056107
Blue Earth750441
Crow Wing665089
Kandiyohi655783
Chisago599751
Otter Tail574978
Benton570297
Goodhue478072
Douglas467875
Mower465732
Winona454550
Itasca437556
McLeod423659
Isanti421364
Morrison419260
Nobles407748
Beltrami395559
Steele388315
Polk384168
Becker380253
Lyon360651
Carlton345254
Freeborn341729
Pine328622
Nicollet326143
Brown305440
Mille Lacs304553
Le Sueur291723
Todd282132
Cass272828
Meeker256340
Waseca236222
Martin230632
Roseau209019
Wabasha20533
Hubbard189341
Dodge18493
Renville180243
Redwood174337
Houston171816
Cottonwood164923
Fillmore156310
Wadena155922
Pennington153619
Faribault152319
Chippewa152238
Kanabec144626
Sibley143510
Aitkin134936
Watonwan13279
Rock128219
Jackson121812
Pipestone115426
Yellow Medicine114120
Pope11026
Murray10639
Swift105218
Stevens91311
Marshall88117
Clearwater86816
Koochiching83315
Wilkin81512
Lake81119
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5768
Mahnomen5499
Norman5399
Unassigned50093
Kittson48622
Red Lake3967
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3253
Cook1640

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 367061

Reported Deaths: 5938
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57642625
Linn20869335
Scott20044241
Black Hawk15813308
Woodbury15132228
Johnson1448383
Dubuque13374208
Dallas1118298
Pottawattamie11122168
Story1061748
Warren577988
Clinton555693
Cerro Gordo540389
Sioux514474
Webster512293
Marshall483075
Muscatine481199
Des Moines457166
Wapello4301122
Buena Vista424840
Jasper419272
Plymouth401280
Lee375855
Marion362575
Jones298957
Henry291837
Carroll285952
Bremer284560
Crawford266140
Boone264834
Benton256655
Washington253750
Dickinson248443
Mahaska230351
Jackson222142
Clay215625
Kossuth215364
Tama209771
Delaware209641
Winneshiek196934
Page192722
Buchanan191332
Cedar190023
Hardin185643
Fayette185141
Wright184637
Hamilton179949
Harrison179673
Clayton169556
Butler164934
Madison162319
Mills162222
Floyd160942
Cherokee158938
Lyon158041
Poweshiek154734
Allamakee151451
Iowa148824
Hancock148234
Winnebago142431
Calhoun138513
Cass138554
Grundy136333
Emmet134340
Jefferson132435
Shelby131037
Sac130319
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose127949
Mitchell126342
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120521
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100124
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Keokuk95931
Monroe95129
Ida90335
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83024
Monona82730
Osceola78716
Greene77710
Lucas77223
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