Body pulled from surf could be child from Mendocino crash, authorities say

Authorities say they may have found one of the missing children who likely plunged off a Northern California cliff in a fatal car crash that officials suspect was intentional.

A Washington state couple and three of their children were killed March 26 when their car fell 100 feet into a remote creek in Mendocino County. Investigators pulled five bodies from the wreckage, but haven‘t been able to find the couple‘s other three children – who they believe were also in the car.

On Saturday, a couple vacationing along the Mendocino County coast spotted a body floating in the surf close to the site of the crash, authorities say.

The body appears to be that of a black girl, but further tests will confirm if it‘s one of the missing children, Mendocino County Sheriff‘s Lt. Shannon Barney said in a statement. DNA tests could take several weeks, Barney said.

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The three missing children are 15-year-old Devonte Hart, who had a moment of fame in 2014 after he was photographed hugging a Portland, Ore., police sergeant at a protest related to unrest in Ferguson, Mo; Hannah Hart, 16; and Sierra Hart, 12.

There was no sign of the other two children, authorities say.

“It is not uncommon after a significant storm such as the one passing through the north state currently, to bring items to the surface or wash onto the beach,” Barney said in a statement.

Authorities believe the missing children were in the car with their parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, and their siblings, Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, and Abigail, 14, when their GMC Yukon dropped onto the rocky Mendocino County shore off Highway 1 near Juan Creek.

The two women, who were married, were found dead inside the car. The three children were found outside, officials said.

California Highway Patrol officials say the fatal plunge appears to have been intentional, based on the lack of skid marks and the fact that the vehicle was at a full stop before accelerating off the cliff. Although the investigation is in its preliminary stages, it appears the SUV had stopped about 70 feet from the cliff‘s edge, then sped off it, according to the CHP.

Earlier this week, investigators released a timeline of the family‘s movements after March 23, when their neighbors in Woodland, Wash., reported the parents to social workers with allegations of possible child neglect.

About 8:15 a.m. the following morning, the family was in the area of Newport, Ore. Investigators believe they continued south along U.S. 101 until they reached California 1 in Legget. They made it to Fort Bragg about 8 that evening, and stayed there and in the Cleone area until 9 p.m. March 25.

“I no longer am calling this an accident, I‘m calling it a crime,” Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said in an interview Wednesday on HLN‘s Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield.

(Staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.)