April 6, 2018 / 12:00 PM / 8 months ago

Missing children likely 'swept away' after California SUV wreck

(Reuters) - Three children missing for more than a week were likely inside the vehicle their mother drove off a California cliff and their bodies probably washed into the Pacific Ocean, police said on Thursday.

Interviews with relatives and friends suggest all six of the family’s children were inside the sports utility vehicle when it plunged off a coastal cliff on March 26, in what is thought to have been an intentional crash, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

The bodies of driver Jennifer Hart, 38, Sarah Hart, 38, a married white couple, and three of their African-American adopted children were recovered after the crash.

Police have searched for the missing children along a coastal highway in the hope they might still be alive, but investigators believe it is increasingly likely they were swept into the ocean after their GMC Yukon fell 100 feet (30 meters) onto seashore rocks.

The crash occurred three days after child welfare services opened an investigation into allegations of potential abuse or neglect of the children at their home in Woodland, Washington.

“Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office investigators believe the missing children were inside the vehicle at the time of incident,” the statement said. “Information obtained through interviews with family and friends indicated it was rare for the family to be apart, especially while traveling.”

This testimony, together with the other children’s bodies being recovered outside of the vehicle “supports the possibility that the missing children were swept away from the crash scene by the Pacific Ocean,” police said.

The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

County Sheriff Tom Allman on Wednesday said he considered the crash a crime, based on evidence that Hart stopped the family SUV about 70 feet from the cliff at a scenic viewpoint some 180 miles (290 kms) north of San Francisco, before deliberately driving it over the edge.

Police have yet to ascertain whether a struggle took place between Hart and her partner or whether all the children were alive at the time of the incident, Allman told HLN on Wednesday.

The missing children include 15-year-old Devonte Hart, who gained notoriety in 2014 after being photographed hugging a white police officer at a protest after the fatal police shooting of a young black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish

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