WOODLAND, Wash. (KOIN) — Friends and neighbors of the Hart family, at least 5 of whom died after plunging off a California cliff, shared differing thoughts just days after the crash.
Several family friends told KOIN 6 News they’re sad about what happened and said the Harts meant a lot to their community.
Sarah and Jennifer Hart had adopted the 6 children from 2 separate biological families. All of them were homeschooled and the family was often seen marching together or going to family-friendly music festivals.
Family friend Zippy Lomax first spotted the family at the Beloved Festival in Tidewater in 2012 and noted their energy and charisma right away.
“They were that really bright kind of presence,” Lomax said. “It was pretty hard to miss them. Any event that I was at where they were, if I had a camera, I was attracted to that.”
Lomax, a photographer, captured dozens of photos of the Harts throughout their friendship. She captured the same spirit their son Devonte showed in a viral photo of him hugging a Portland police officer during a Bernie Sanders rally.
“It was such a beautiful moment,” Lomax said. “We saw just the Devonte that we know, of course.”
Lomax said the parents did everything to give their kids a stable life — raising them to be smart, unselfish and passionate young adults.
“Jen and Sarah really were the kind of parents that I think the world desperately needs,” Lomax said.
The Harts, friends said, shared their positive energy and love no matter where they went.
But Sarah Hart had been convicted in 2011 of domestic assault. Read the police report here.
Friends said they didn’t see any signs of child abuse. In fact, friend Max Ribner said, it was just the opposite.
“Rehabilitation from what we learned when they adopted 6 children,” he told KOIN 6 News. “They were in the harshest critical conditions and they took day-by-day, hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment to help rejuvenate, help teach them language and how to be here with community.”
Max also spent plenty of time with the Hart children. He said music was an outlet that aided in that rehabilitation. Max and his band produced many songs with the Hart children on an album entitled, “Wolfpak: Youth Music Empowerment.”
“They really found the goodness in everybody and I hope they we can all really learn a beautiful lesson from that and carry that legacy on,” Max said.
Kristina Pescatore, another family friend, added: “The kids were angels — always beamed with smiles.”
Max and Kristina did not know why the Harts were in California, but said they often went on outdoor adventures.
But neighbors Dana and Bruce Dekalb told KOIN 6 News the Harts almost never left home and that signs of trouble started to become glaringly obvious.
“Since the day that they moved in, we didn’t even know they had 6 kids until an incident,” Bruce said.
About a week or so ago, they said, one of the kids came to their place asking for food. At first, the child just asked for a little, then more and more.
“He was asking that we not tell his mom, to hide it and put it by the fence so he could get to it,” Dana said, adding “that they were withholding food from him.”
Another time, a little girl came over covered in blackberry thistle and asked for help because, they said, she was afraid to go back to her home.
Once a girl came over early in the morning and didn’t know what to do, they said. “She wanted us to take her to Seattle because they weren’t treating her right,” Bruce said. “‘Don’t make me go back,'” he said the girl said.
The Dekalbs said a 12-year-old girl looked to be about 7 and had 2 front teeth missing. All the children appeared very thin and small, they said.
Last Friday, the Dekalbs called Child Protective Services. Officials came to the Harts house and the Dekalbs said they knew the Harts were home at the time.
On Saturday morning, they noticed the Harts car was gone.
The Dekalbs, who have lived in Woodland for 22 years, said the family we see in the photos is a far cry from who they truly were and the crash breaks their heart.
“I feel like there was nobody in their court. I feel that if there were people that knew these people, how could you miss that?” Dana said. “I gleaned that quickly without hardly any interface.”
Bruce said his wife has “been crying all morning about it because it’s, you know, we kind of started some of this.”
“I was trying to help them and protect them and this is the result. It’s not easy,” Dana said. “That’s not how I thought it was going to end.”
The Dekalbs said they are praying the 3 missing children will be found safe and unharmed.