The 12-year-old boy feared dead in an SUV crash that killed his parents and siblings reportedly begged neighbors to give him food because his parents were withholding it as a form of punishment.
Devonte Hart and two of his sisters remain missing after the bodies of his parents, Sarah and Jen, both 38; and siblings Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14; were both found in or near the SUV that had veered off the Pacific Coast Highway into the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles from the Hart family’s Washington state home.
When Devonte was 12, he become a media sensation after a photo of him in an embrace with a police officer at a Portland, Oregon, protest against police brutality went viral. As CrimeOnline previously reported, the Hart family was subject to harassment and scrutiny — including emailed death threats — after the image was widely circulated, and moved to Washington from Oregon to escape the public eye.
But trouble began before the family was thrust into the media spotlight: In 2010, Sarah Hart reportedly pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic abuse after her daughter revealed bruises on her torso at school. Sarah Hart reportedly admitted that she had lost control of her anger and spanked the girl while bending her over a bathtub. She was given a 90-day suspended sentence and a year of probation.
Last week, neighbors in Woodland, Washington, reportedly called Child Protective Services after a series of visits from Devonte claiming that his parents weren’t feeding him. Bruce and Dana DeKalb told The Oregonian that Devonte, now 15, said his parents were withholding food as punishment, and asked the DeKalbs to leave food near a fence separating the properties so that his parents wouldn’t know about it.
A neighbor from West Linn, Oregon, where the Harts previously lived, told The Oregonian that he had concerns about the family.
“Something just didn’t seem right. They were very isolated in the home,” Bill Groener told the newspaper, adding that he felt guilty because he didn’t call social services.
But others who knew the family said the children, all adopted, had an unconventional upbringing and were “truly cared for.”
“They weren’t plugged into the technology,” Zippy Lomax, a friend from Oregon, told the newspaper.
“They preferred to lay (around) and read books and hang out with their chickens.”
Lomax also said that the family frequently went on impromptu trips together, which may explain what they were doing in California.
“I’m sure they were going somewhere special and fun, as they often did,” she told The Oregonian.
Investigators are still searching for the three missing children, and authorities believe that Devonte and his sisters were in the car at the time of the crash.
[Feature image: Hart family/Associated Press]