‘Tribe’ of Devonte Hart family friends continues to defend mothers amid evidence of abuse, murder-suicide

The family members killed when their SUV went over a cliff in Northern California last week belonged to a “huge, huge tribe of friends,” a tribe that seems largely unwilling to face the mounting evidence that Sarah and Jennifer Hart were likely abusive parents, and that one of them may have killed at least three of their children in an apparent murder-suicide.

“If you had asked me two weeks ago I would have just ranted and raved and told you how wonderful and perfect they are,” said Arlain Ingeldew, who knew the Harts as fellow members of a community she described as a group of hundreds of people drawn together by music, who attended the same festivals. Arlain said that she would often camp alongside the Hart family at Harmony Park, an outdoor event venue next to Lake Geneva in southern Minnesota.

CrimeOnline has reached out to several people believed to be part of this so-called community, of which little is known, and only Arlain agreed to speak.

“The festivals we go to are all about the music and art and loving nature and loving each other,” she said. “And harmony.”

Arlain said she feels like she is in the minority in the community of friends for following, and taking seriously, reports indicating trouble in the family before last week’s tragedy. But she understands why people who knew the Harts may be in denial.

“They were just a blessing. It’s unbelievable what happened here,” she said. “So many of us are flabbergasted.”

Arlain said that while she did not consider herself to be a close friend of the Harts, she frequently spent time with them at these musical gatherings and never saw anything that concerned her. She said the children seemed happy and well cared-for, and were always well behaved. She stayed in touch with the family on social media after they moved from Minnesota, where she lives.

“I would say [Jennifer and Sarah] were equal partners, madly in love, in love with life, in love with the children,” Arlain said.

“They were just idolized for being the perfect family.”

Arlain knew the children best when they were younger — before the Hart family moved to Oregon and then Washington state, where they were living when the family’s SUV went over a cliff in Northern California on March 26.

On Wednesday, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman confirmed that Jennifer Hart was driving the vehicle.

“I’m to the point where I no longer am calling this an accident; I’m calling it a crime,” Allman said on HLN’s “Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield.”

Jennifer Hart, 38; her wife Sarah Margaret Hart, 38; and their adopted children Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14; and Abigail Hart, 14, were all killed. Authorities are still searching for three more adopted children, Devonte Hart, 15; Sierra Hart, 12; and Hannah Hart; 16.

A Portland police officer embraces Devonte Hart at a police brutality demonstration in 2014. Associated Press

Devonte gained national attention in 2014 when he was photographed in a tearful embrace with Sgt. Bret Barnum of the Portland Police Department, during a demonstration in the city to support the anti-police brutality protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The photo went viral, interpreted by many at the time as a positive, soothing image of peace and racial harmony following the police-involved fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Today, in light of the apparent murder-suicide and multiple reports of abuse and neglect, Dante’s tears suggest an altogether different message.

A relative of Sgt. Barnum’s told CrimeOnline last week that the officer had reached out to the family after his photograph with Devonte became a media fixture. But according to that relative, the Harts rebuffed his attempts to meet with them. CrimeOnline learned this week that police responded to a Department of Human Services referral about the Hart family in 2013, when they were living in West Linn, Oregon. Child Protective Services also visited their subsequent home in Woodland, Washington, three days before the fatal plunge. And Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic abuse in 2011, after her daughter told authorities that her mother had hit her, held her head underwater, and denied her food as punishment.

CrimeOnline has repeatedly asked Sgt. Barnum to further elaborate on his contact or attempted contact with the family, but he has declined. Moments after we sent another email request on Wednesday, CrimeOnline received a message from the Portland Police Department’s Public Information Officer. It reads in part:

I spoke with Sergeant Bret Barnum this morning and he informed me he continues to be contacted with requests to speak about the tragic events involving the Hart family over the preceding week.  Sergeant Barnum is extremely saddened about the news and stated he will not speak publicly regarding the Hart family.

In a subsequent phone call, the Public Information Officer directed any inquiries about the Hart family to the investigating agencies, the California Highway Patrol and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, and confirmed that his department was not actively searching for any family members in Portland. Earlier this week, a California Highway Patrol officer said that authorities were keeping open the possibility that Devonte and his sisters were still alive, and said there was a chance some of them could have been with friends in the Portland area.

Based on social media posts, it appears that many of the family’s friends are sharing a counter-narrative to police and media reports strongly indicating the children were victimized, possibly for years, by one or both of their mothers. Several of Sarah Hart’s Facebook friends have posted memorial tribute photos to the family, with little or no reference in the original posts or the comments to the abuse allegations or the determination that Jennifer intentionally drove the SUV off a cliff.

As CrimeOnline previously reported, Jennifer Hart uploaded a video to her YouTube channel of Devonte and three other children performing the song, “We are So Provided For,” by the artist Nahko. At the end of the video, Devonte says to the camera, “Happy Thanksgiving, Nahko,” and another child says, “We are grateful for you.”

According to all available information, Nahko was a close friend of the Hart family. He did not respond to CrimeOnline‘s request for an interview. But as researcher Kristin Rawls pointed out, Nahko has been posting messages defending Jennifer and Sarah Hart on Twitter, and making a claim about the circumstances of their adoption that contradicts media reports that the six adopted siblings include two trios of biological siblings. In another instance, he tweeted the hashtag, #defendtheHarts.

The details of the adoptions remain largely unknown, and the adoption records are currently sealed in Texas. It is unclear how and why Jennifer and Sarah Hart adopted the children from Texas when they were living in Minnesota at the time.

Arlain told CrimeOnline that Jen and Sara told her their children all came from “rough beginnings,” apparently involving abuse and parental drug use. When asked if she had ever heard any of the Hart children speak about their biological parents or their early childhood before the adoptions, Arlain said “only the parents talked about it, never the children.”

“I don’t know anything about it except what I heard from the parents.”

Arlain said she is holding out hope, like so many following this tragic and increasingly disturbing story, the Devonte and his sisters Hannah and Sierra might still be found alive.

“I would really like answers,” she said. “I keep hoping, maybe they got out.'”

 

 

[Feature image: This March 20, 2016, file photo shows Hart family of Woodland, Wash., at a Bernie Sanders rally in Vancouver, Wash. The SUV carrying the Hart family accelerated straight off a scenic California cliff and authorities said the deadly wreck may have been intentional.(Tristan Fortsch/KATU News via AP, File)]