A recent tragic story focused attention on a viral photo that showed a child embracing a cop during demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, in 2014. Devonte Hart, 15, is believed to have been in his family vehicle went it hurtled off a coastal highway in northern California on March 26, killing three adopted siblings and the two women who adopted them. Devonte Hart, who was in the viral photo, is missing.

Late on March 28, authorities continued to examine the scene of the crash and the ocean for the remains of the children who are believed to have been in the SUV that plunged off Route 1 near the town of Westport. The 2003 GMC vehicle fell some 100 feet and landed on his roof on a large boulder on the Pacific shoreline.

Credit: Johnny Nyugen, The Oregonian

According to the California Highway Patrol, the three children who were killed were not strapped in their seat belts and subsequently "came out" of the vehicle at some point. However, the two women were found inside wearing their safety restraints. The driver has been identified as Jennifer Jean Hart (38), while the other woman was Sarah Margaret Hart, also 38. The Hart children identified as among the dead were Abigail, 14, Jeremiah, 14, and Markis, 19.

Missing are Devonte, Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12. The six children were adopted by the same-sex married partners. Just days before the incident, authorities in Washington State had tried to visit the family on multiple occasions to investigate reports of abuse and neglect of the children. 

On March 28, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said at a press conference on March 27 that investigators have "every indication to believe" that all six children were in the vehicle at the time it dropped off into the blue. While Sheriff Allman said, "We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act," he added that there are no marks of skidding or braking that would provide evidence as to why the vehicle flew off the cliff. An investigation is still unfolding. Allman asked for tips from the public in order to trace the family’s steps of the preceding days. However, on Monday, the sheriff's office confirmed that the Hart's SUV accelerated once it left the highway and traveled 70 feet before plunging into the sea. No suicide note was found at the family home in Washington State.

Divers could not search the surf after the Harts' vehicle was found due to water turbidity and strong currents. No trace of Devonte and his siblings has been found yet. The Mendocino sheriff's office said that it does not yet have 100 percent certainty that the three children were in the vehicle at the time of the incident, but no word about them has been received.

It was in 2014 that a photograph of the weeping Devonte, hugging Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum was widely circulated. Originally published by The Oregonian/Oregon Live, it reached No. 1 on the social-sharing website Reddit and received consider attention on Facebook. The photograph was taken during a Black Lives Matter rally in Portland that followed national controversy over the shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  

The two women and their children were regulars at Oregon shows and festivals, including the Beloved festival in Tidewater. They later were onstage with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a 2016 political rally.

Young Devonte was known for wearing a sign offering “Free hugs,” which prompted the embrace of the cop in Portland. Devonte gave hugs to other strangers, according to those who remembered him. Friends asserted that after the photo of Devonte appeared, the two lesbian women were subjected to hate speech. 

Court records, however, portray a family in crisis. Neighbors in northern Clark County, Washington, called on authorities when the Hart children requested food. Local media reported that Devonte had gone to neighbors at least a dozen times to request food, alleging that his adoptive mothers withheld food as punishment. He asked the neighbors to leave food at a shared fence so that the women would not know about it. 

When a Clark County deputy accompanied Cowlitz County Child Protective Services to the Hart home on March 23, no one answered the door, according to Sgt. Brent Waddell, a Clark County Sheriff's Office spokesman, as reported by the The Oregonian/OregonLive. The Harts and the SUV were gone the next day.

Also, Minnesota court records indicate that Sarah Hart received a 90-day suspended jail sentence and a year of probation in 2011 after her six-year-old daughter arrived at school with bruises. The little girl reported to a teacher, "Mom hit me." The Hart women left Minnesota and re-located to Oregon and then to Woodland, Washington State. 

Freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen took the photo of Devonte at the Black Lives Matter rally in 2014. Sgt. Barnum saw Devonte holding his “Free hugs” sign and called him over. They shook hands. Devonte told the officer that he was crying because of national events, said Barnum. Devonte gave him a hug. Photographer Nguyen also accepted a hug from Devonte. 


 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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