The family of the 12-year-old boy who was the subject of an instantly-iconic photo in 2014 was overwhelmed by the attention they received after the image went viral, and relocated to try and start anew. But five members of the large family are now dead and three are missing following a mysterious SUV plunge off the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
As CrimeOnline previously reported, Devonte Hart’s adoptive parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children were killed in the accident this week; while Devonte, 15, and two of his sisters, ages 12 and 16, are still missing. Authorities fear they may have been killed in the crash.
When Devonte was 12 years old, he attended a demonstration in Portland protesting the police-involved killing of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. He carried a sign that read “free hugs,” which reportedly got the attention of a Portland police officer. Someone took a photo of the embrace, and it quickly went viral.
The Oregonian reports that Devonte’s family was troubled by the response to the viral photo. His mother Jennifer Hart said the family had received email death threats, and that her son was the subject of malicious internet gossip. Devonte himself was reportedly frustrated with the the response to the photo, which implied the officer was comforting him.
“I was trying to show peace, that there was a different way to handle it,” he said.
Before the fatal crash, the family had moved to Washington state to escape the scrutiny. Their neighbors told The Oregonian that they had called Child Protective Services out of concern that the Hart children had been neglected and abused. In the days leading up to the family’s sudden departure, Devonte reportedly went to the neighbor’s home asking for food.
In 2010, when the family was living in Minnesota, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault as the result of an incident involving one of her children.
The Harts appear to have left their home after Child Protective Services knocked on their door on Friday. CPS representatives reportedly went back on Monday and Tuesday, but the family was gone. Investigators who searched the home following the discovery of the fatal plunge reportedly found pets and personal belongings at the home, suggesting the Harts may have planned to return.
The cause or the exact timing of the crash is not known, and Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told CNN that investigators found no brake or skid marks at the scene, and that the passengers did not appear to be wearing their seatbelts.
“We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act,” Allman said.
“If this was an intentional act, I truly believe that both between the Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office we are going to come to that conclusion, and if we come to that conclusion you can be assured that that information will be released to the public.”
[Feature image: Portland police officer and Devonte Hart/Associated Press]