Boy in viral hug photo missing after family’s SUV plunges off California cliff

- in World News


Devonte Hart first grabbed attention in the “hug felt ’round the world.”

The black youth, with tears streaming down his face, was captured in a viral photo in November 2014 clinging to the shoulders of a white police officer at a protest in Portland, Oregon, a few months after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

It became an emblematic moment during national rallies that rocked 

But now, police in Northern California say Devonte and his family are at the center of a mysterious accident, and they need the public’s help.

Devonte,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]15, and two of his sisters remained missing Thursday — three days after the SUV they were riding in with their parents and three other siblings plunged off a cliff on Highway 1 in Mendocino County, police said.

A passer-by reported seeing the 2003 GMC SUV upside down off an embankment. Police said the car fell about 100 feet, landing on the rugged shoreline along the Pacific Ocean.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has retrieved the bodies of Devonte’s parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, as well as his siblings Markis,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]19, Jeremiah,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]14, and Abigail,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]14.

Devonte and two other sisters — Hannah,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]16, and Sierra,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]12[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]— have not been located, but were believed to have been inside the SUV.

A special team of accident investigators is trying to figure out why the car flew off a dirt turnout in a part of the cliffside where many tourists stop for photos, Sheriff Tom Allman said Wednesday.

“We have no evidence and no reason to believe that this was an intentional act,” he said. But he noted that the scene was confusing because “there were no skid marks, there were no brake marks” at the turnout.

Investigators said the U.S. Coast Guard along with a helicopter and small plane were helping to search for Devonte, Hannah and Sierra.

The family was from Woodland, Washington, a rural community about 500 miles north of the accident site, and it was unclear why they were traveling in California. Police in Clark County, Washington, said they had entered the Hart home and determined that no one was still there.

“It appeared the family may have left for a temporary trip as there were many family belongings still in the home as well as a pet and some chickens,” the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said. citing the Clark County officers.

travel and were always “going somewhere special.”

“They weren’t plugged into the technology,” she said.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“They preferred to lay (around) and read books and hang out with their chickens.”

The family called themselves the Hart Tribe, and Jennifer and Sarah home-schooled the children, who were all adopted. A next-door neighbor of the Harts when they lived in Oregon told The Associated Press that they didn’t eat sugar, grew their own vegetables and liked to go on camping trips.

The parents also didn’t shy away from having the siblings learn about social justice and experience events firsthand, including the rally in Portland that Devonte attended.

The boy was holding a “Free Hugs” sign when an officer asked him for a hug, and a photographer snapped the emotional moment.

Jennifer Hart later wrote in a Facebook post that Devonte had his own questions about police racism:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“My son has a heart of gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police,” she wrote.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“He wonders if someday when he no longer wears a ‘Free Hugs’ sign around his neck, when he’s a full-grown black male, if his life will be in danger for simply being.”

In recent months, after the family moved to Woodland, neighbors said that not everything seemed quiet and peaceful.

One neighbor, Bruce DeKalb, told the AP that one of the girls rang his doorbell early in the morning last year asking for help and claiming that she had been abused.

A former neighbor, Bill Groener, said he was struck by how isolated the kids were kept, and told The Oregonian that he felt guilty for neglecting to call child welfare authorities.

Child protective services with Cowlitz County tried to visit the family on Friday, but no one answered the door, said Norah West, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. She added that the family had no prior history with the agency, but an inquiry was opened to investigate possible abuse or neglect.

It’s unclear when exactly the family set off on their road trip.

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