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Parents and siblings of Devonte Hart, a 15-year-old who went viral in 2014 for being captured tearfully hugging a police officer during a Portland protest, have been confirmed dead. Authorities fear the boy has died as well.
On Monday, the SUV of Jennifer and Sarah Hart was found flipped over on the shoreline along the Pacific Coast Highway in the Juan Creek area of California, the bodies of the Hart parents and three of their six adopted children—Markis, 1; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14—accounted for at the crash.
While Devonte and two of his other siblings—Hannah, 16; and Sierra, 12—have not been found, law enforcement said they have “every indication to believe” that all six children were in the car, the New York Times reported Thursday. Authorities didn’t discount the possibility that the children were staying with friends.
The Times report describes the cliff as 100 feet high. Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County said at a news conference Wednesday that questions remain, such as when the accident occurred, why the SUV drove a full 75 feet before plunging, and why there weren’t skid marks at the scene. Allman said authorities have no evidence to believe the accident was intentional, however.
The report of the family members’ deaths comes amid news that a neighbor of the Hart family reported them to Washington State Child Protective Services (CPS) on Friday with allegations of potential child abuse and neglect. The agency attempted to visit the family on Friday, but the family refused to open the door, and left hours later, Dana DeKalb, the neighbor, told a local NBC affiliate. CPS continued to try and contact the family on Monday and Tuesday.
DeKalb told reporters that Devonte frequently went to her house to ask for food, sometimes multiple times a day. She said the boy had told her his parents didn’t feed him so to withhold food as punishment, and that the children weren’t allowed outside. DeKalb had also told another local news outlet that one of the children tried to run away last fall.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the CPS visit happened in response to reports of food being withheld in the home. CPS told the outlet it has no prior history with the family.
The outlet also reported that Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to domestic assault charges in 2011 after Minnesota police said she hit one of her daughters. A teacher had noticed that the girl, 6 years old at the time, had bruises on her stomach and back, and called the police, who then wrote down the girl’s statement that her mother had hit her. After detectives followed up with Sarah and Jennifer, Sarah admitted to having started spanking one of her daughters for behavioral issues. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail but wasn’t required to serve time after completing her probation.
Remember Devonte Hart, the kid who took this photo hugging the cop? His adopted parents were a white female couple named Sarah & Jennifer Hart.These women had an open child protection case against them.This week they drove off a cliff killing themselves & their adopted Black kids pic.twitter.com/QX2Q9QnYvk— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) March 29, 2018
The Harts, a white same-sex couple, had adopted Devonte and two of his biological siblings seven years prior to his viral 2014 photo, according to a post from the American Society for the Positive Care of Children.
The post detailed him as “young boy who was born into a life of drugs, extreme poverty, danger and destined for a bleak future” who had already defied stereotypes at the age of 12. For his 11th and 12th birthdays, he had asked to raise money for charity and had been filmed giving free hugs months before his emotional moment with a police officer went viral.
Devonte’s viral hug with a police officer took place in November 2014, during a protest against a grand jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson, who had fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that year. Devonte had been holding a “Free Hugs” sign when Sgt. Bret Barnum approached him, asking why he was crying.
In a now-deleted Facebook post detailing the encounter, the Hart parents wrote the incident was “uncomfortable at first,” but that once Devonte told the officer he was crying because of police brutality not being taken seriously, the officer said, “Yes, I know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” and asked for a hug. The moment was captured by freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen, and became known as the “hug shared around the world.”
However, friends of the Hart parents told the Oregonian that after the photo went viral, the Harts received death threats and avoided going out in public. As a result, they backed away from activism and moved to a rural part of Washington state.
“It put Devonte in the crosshairs of a lot of people, so to speak,” said Samantha Sinclair, a retired nurse in Portland who met the Hart family through mutual friends. “It was such a beautiful photo, but not everyone saw it that way.”
Devonte later said that he was “frustrated” with the idea that the photo captured the officer “comforting” him, and said he instead “was trying to show peace, that there was a different way to handle it.” The following May, after the Furgeson protest, Devonte and his family stepped out for the first time since to protest with free hugs during May Day demonstrations.
Here's a new photo of Devonte that he IS happy with: pic.twitter.com/THjVdCzyLS— Melissa Binder (@binderpdx) May 2, 2015
“It’s healing because I let all the attention bring me down,” Jennifer Hart said at the time.
Update 6:50pm CT, April 13: The driver of the vehicle that plunged off the California coastline, killing the Harts and at least three of their six adopted children, was “drunk” at the time of the crash, according to the Associated Press.
CBS News reported that authorities believe the crash was intentional and have determined that the driver pulled over to the side of the highway, 70 feet from the edge of the cliff, and stopped before it accelerated and fell 100 feet into the Pacific Ocean below.
Last week, Alexandra Argyropoulos, a former friend of the Harts, told AP that in 2013 she told Oregon child welfare officials that the couple had been depriving their children of food as punishment. In a statement, Argyropoulos said she “witnessed what I felt to be controlling emotional abuse and cruel punishment.”
Samantha Grasso is a former IRL staff writer for the Daily Dot with a reporting emphasis on immigration. Her work has appeared on Los Angeles Magazine, Death And Taxes, Revelist, Texts From Last Night, Austin Monthly, and she has previously contributed to Texas Monthly.