The Washington state family of eight whose car plunged from a California cliff this week had once lived in Alexandria, Minn., where court records detail a parental beating of one of their six youngsters.
Sarah M. Hart and Jennifer E. Hart, both 38, and all of the children are presumed dead after their SUV plunged off a 100-foot cliff along a seaside California highway in a mysterious wreck discovered Monday, three days after child-welfare authorities were called to the Harts’ rural Washington state home to investigate possible abuse or neglect.
In 2010, when the married couple lived in Alexandria, Sarah was charged with malicious punishment of a child and domestic assault. Abigail Hart was 6 years old in November 2010 when she told a teacher at Woodland School in Alexandria that she had “owies” from when “Mom hit me,” according to the criminal complaint. The teacher lifted the girl’s shirt and saw bruises on the child’s chest and back, the charges continued.
The malicious punishment count, a gross misdemeanor, was dismissed in Minnesota’s Douglas County District Court in exchange for Sarah Hart’s guilty plea to the misdemeanor domestic assault charge. Her 90-day jail sentence in April 2011 was stayed, and she served a year’s probation.
According to the complaint and a police report, she told a detective and a county social worker that she had spanked the girl for lying and other misbehavior. She said she had Abigail lean forward over the edge of the tub and hit the girl, the complaint read. Hart said the bruising probably came from the tub’s edge.
“By Sarah’s own admission, she stated that the spanking got out of control and … was ‘too much,’ ” the police report read.
The report revealed that the girl told authorities she was hit with a fist as punishment for having “a penny in her pocket” that she found at school. The child said her head went under cold water at one point, and she “bonked her head on the tub,” the report added.
Police interviewed the other children and learned that both parents spanked all but one of the boys and that Jennifer Hart was the more frequent disciplinarian.
‘Seemed like nice girls’
Mike Fealy lived across the street from the Harts, and said the family moved into the Irving Street home in about 2007 and lived there for five or six years.
“We’d visit out in the yard, yell back and forth,” Healy said. “They seemed like nice girls.” He described the children as “well-behaved … maybe too well-behaved.”
He said Sarah Hart worked at the Herberger’s department store in town, while Jennifer Hart “stayed home with the kids and home-schooled them.”
The Portland Oregonian, the newspaper whose coverage area includes the Hart family’s home in Woodland, Wash., reported Wednesday that in 2011 the Harts took part in the Occupy Minneapolis demonstration against foreclosure practices and other economic and social problems.
The SUV’s 100-foot drop from a scenic Pacific Ocean cliff in Mendocino County killed both women and their children Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14. The bodies of the Harts’ three other children, Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15, and Sierra, 12, have yet to be found.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the crash, but Sheriff Tom Allman said Thursday that there is “no evidence and no reason to believe that this was an intentional act.”
At the same time, he said there were no skid marks and no sign the brakes were applied at the highway pull-off area where the vehicle went over.
The family gained attention after Devonte Hart was photographed during a 2014 protest in Portland over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Mo. The boy, holding a “Free Hugs” sign, stood crying. In another widely shared photo, a Portland officer and the boy embraced.
The Harts moved north 45 miles from West Linn, Ore., just south of Portland, to Woodland, Wash., in the spring of last year, partly because of the media coverage. Last week, child protective services opened an investigation and tried to reach the couple after a neighbor reported that one of the daughters spoke of being abused, while another child came over asking for food.
A court official in Minnesota said he could find no similar actions during the Hart family’s time in the state.