Body found in ocean near site of Hart family crash

DNA will determine if it is Hannah or Sierra Hart

By NICOLE CHAVEZ AND TINA BURNSIDE, CNN
Mendocino County Sheriff's Office via CNN

An SUV plunged off a cliff, killing at least five members of a Washington family in what investigators suspect may have been an intentional crash.

(CNN) - Authorities recovered a body near the Northern California site where an SUV plunged off a cliff last month, killing at least five members of a family and leaving three siblings missing.

Vacationers saw a body floating in the Pacific Ocean surf Saturday, days after the search for the missing Hart children was suspended due to expected heavy rain.

In a statement, the Mendocino County Sheriff's office said the body appears to be that of an African-American female.

Investigators could not immediately determine the age or identity of the body but said they are investigating whether it's one of the children still missing after the crash.

"Positive identification will most likely be done by DNA analysis, a process that can take several weeks," the Sherriff's Office said.

An autopsy is planned for Tuesday.

'I'm calling it a crime'

Authorities believe the mysterious crash may have been intentional. The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart were found March 26 inside their car at the rocky shoreline below a cliff.

The bodies of three of their children-- Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14 -- were found nearby but three additional children were missing.

Investigators have said they believe the missing children -- Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12 -- were inside the vehicle at the time of crash.

They could have also been swept away by seawater because no one in the SUV was wearing a seatbelt, officials said.

Family and friends of the Harts told detectives the family traveled together and was rarely apart, the sheriff's office said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has described the crash as "a crime."

Data from the vehicle's software air bag module suggests the car accelerated off the road and no skid marks were spotted in the area, officials said.

"I'm to the point where I no longer am calling this an accident," Allman told HLN.

Family's troubling past

The family's history provides vital clues as to why Allman said he is investigating the case as a crime.

A look at the Hart's past reveals a complicated picture of a couple with six adopted children, allegations of child abuse and an investigation from Child Protective Services.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart had adopted all six children and recently lived in Woodland, Washington.

In 2010, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault involving one of the children, according to Douglas County court records.

She told police she had spanked the child over the edge of the bathtub because of the child's behavior. She was sentenced to community service and one year of probation.

Three days before the crash, neighbors had called Child Protective Services after two disturbing encounters with the children.

"One of the girls came to the door at 1:30 in the morning and said that she needed help and the parents were not treating her properly, and (she) wanted us to protect her," neighbor Bruce DeKalb said.

They couldn't make contact with the family after several attempts.

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.

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