A boy whose tearful embrace with a police officer during a Black Lives Matter protest was captured in a viral photo four years ago is now missing after his family’s car was involved in a deadly crash off a California highway.
Devonte Hart, 15, was carrying a "free hugs" sign before he was pictured being comforted by a Portland, Ore., officer at a rally held November 2014 in response to the lack of charges filed against the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Crews are now searching for Devonte, along with his siblings, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 12-year-old Sierra Hart, after their family’s car plummeted off a cliff near Mendocino.
The missing children’s parents, Jennifer and Sarah, and their three other siblings were confirmed to have died in the crash, the cause of which Mendocino Sheriff officials say they are still working to determine.
“It was a very confusing scene because there were no skid marks, there were no brake marks, there was no indication of why this vehicle traversed approximately over 75 feet of a dirt pull out and went into the Pacific Ocean,” Sheriff Tom Allman said at a press conference Wednesday.
The couple, who lived in Washington state, had adopted six children, and authorities fear the entire family may have been killed when the SUV careened off the road and down a 100-foot cliff.
“We have every indication to believe that all six children were in there, however only three bodies have been recovered,” Allman said. “The best news that we can say is that three of these victims were left with friends and they were not even in the car at the time it went over the bay... Did we have six kids in the car or did we have three kids as it came on Highway 1? We don’t know the answer."
There were no known witnesses to the crash, officials said.
Emergency responders were alerted to a vehicle that somehow plunged from a pullout off a remote section of Highway 1 and had gone over the embankment about 3:38 p.m. Monday.
The SUV was found upside down in the water.
Jennifer Hart, 38, and Sarah Hart, 38, were found inside the vehicle, while their children, Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart and Abigail Hart, both 14, had been thrown from the car, Allman said.
The Harts lived in Woodland, Wash., where the children were reportedly home-schooled and engaged in political activism with their mothers.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart “were the kinds of parents this world desperately needs,” photographer and family friend Zippy Lomax told The Oregonian. “They loved their kids more than anything else."
The couple moved their family away from Portland after becoming overwhelmed by detractors of their same sex marriage and multiracial family after the photo of Devonte went viral.
“They got a lot of negativity from that, and they kind of closed off for a while, honestly,” Lomax said.
Child Protective Services recently visited the family’s home after a neighbor called concerned that Devonte had come to their home asking for food, according to The Associated Press.
CPS officials found no signs of trouble at the home, The AP reported.
It was not clear which direction the family was traveling, but investigators presume they were heading north when they went off the road.
The family’s belongings and pet were still at their Woodland home, suggesting their time in California was to be short.
Search and rescue is continuing its efforts in their search for the rest of the family, personal effects and debris. Allman noted "quite a bit of debris," including a purse, as so far been recovered at the site.
Authorities will need more information before a dive team can be dispatched into the rough waters.
“A body, when it goes in the water, does not stay still,” Allman said.
Allman appealed to the public, asking any persons to contact police if they may have seen the family at a restaurant, gas station, or hotel in hours before the crash was reported.
"We’re telling the public everything we know and we’re hoping that somebody in the public can tell us more information," he said.
Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Devonte Hart, Hannah Hart and Sierra Hart, or the whereabouts of the family prior to the crash is asked to call 707-463-4086.