Boy in viral photo hugging police officer feared dead in mysterious SUV plunge over coastal highway cliff

A boy who gained national attention during police brutality protests in 2014 is missing after five members of his family were killed when an SUV they were riding in plunged off the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

CNN reports that Devonte Hart’s adoptive parents and three of his siblings were found dead in or around the vehicle that landed upside-down in the Pacific Ocean: Jennifer and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children were killed; while Devonte, 15, and two of his sisters are still missing.

In 2014, Devonte attended a Portland-based protest over the fatal police-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, that year. Devonte was reportedly carrying a sign that said “Free Hugs” and was in tears when a Portland police officer approached the teen for a conversation, and the two embraced.

Mendocino Sheriff’s Office reportedly contacted authorities in Oregon following the crash, but authorities there said that the family had moved to Washington due to “intense media coverage.”

Neighbors of the Harts in Woodland, Washington, told the Oregonian that Devonte had come over to their home asking for food on multiple occasions; they also indicated they had contact with one of his sisters, who said she didn’t want to go home. The neighbors told reporters in a video interview that they had recently contacted Child Protective Services out of concern for the six children.

A representative from CPS told CNN that social workers had visited the home on Friday, Monday, and Tuesday, but were unable to make contact with the family. The representative confirmed that CPS had responded to reports indicating that the children were being abused and/or neglected.

“We have not made any findings in this investigation and we had no prior history with this family. We are working with all involved law enforcement agencies on their respective investigations,” the department said in a statement.

CNN reports that the Clark County Sheriff searched the Woodland home and found that the family had left pets and many of their personal belongings inside the home. It is not clear why the Harts were in California at the time of the fatal crash, and authorities are not certain exactly when they SUV went off the road and into the ocean.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told CNN that his department is working to piece together the movements of the family during the 24 hours before the crash, and is asking the public for help.

“We have no evidence and no reason to believe this was an intentional act,” Allman said, while noting that no skid marks or brake marks were found at the site of the crash. The passengers were not wearing their seatbelts.

“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: In this Nov. 25, 2014, file photo provided by Johnny Nguyen, Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum, left, and Devonte Hart, 12, hug at a rally in Portland, Ore., where people had gathered in support of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Authorities have said two women and three children were killed Monday, March 26, 2018, when their SUV fell from a cliff along Pacific Coast Highway in Mendocino County. Hart is one of the three other children still missing after the vehicle fell off a cliff. He had gained fame when this picture of him hugging the white police officer during the protest went viral. (Johnny Huu Nguyen via AP, File)]