MENDOCINO, Calif. (KOIN) — The crash off a Northern California highway that killed at least 5 members of the Hart family is being called a crime by the sheriff leading the investigation.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told HLN’s “Crime & Justice with Ashleigh Banfield” on Wednesday that Jennifer Hart, 38, was driving when their SUV went over the cliff on March 26. Jennifer and her wife Sarah were both found dead at the bottom of the cliff.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office previously said that Jennifer and Sarah were both buckled in at the time of the crash, however, they corrected themselves on Thursday and said both women were not wearing seatbelts.
Three of their children — 19-year-old Markis, 14-year-old Jeremiah and 14-year-old Abigail — were also found dead near the SUV.
“I’m to the point where I no longer am calling this an accident,” Allman told HLN. “I’m calling it a crime.”
Authorities have previously said they believed the crash was an “intentional act” because of air bag evidence and because there was no tire friction by the cliff’s edge.
The couple’s 3 other children — 15-year-old Devonte, 16-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Sierra — are still missing. But Allman said there is “every indication” all 6 children were inside the SUV at the time.
About 70 people searched 20 miles of shoreline for the 3 missing children Wednesday, but the search came up empty. The search was temporarily suspended on Thursday because of a major storm in the area. The National Weather Service said an atmospheric river with heavy rain is expected in Mendocino County.
The search is expected to resume after the storm passes.
Cell phone pings placed the Harts in the Newport area on March 24 — 2 days before the fatal crash. Jennifer Hart was also spotted the next day at a Safeway in Fort Bragg.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office told KOIN 6 News that a person, not affiliated with law enforcement, located a cell phone near the crash site that deputies think could’ve possibly belonged to a member of the Hart family. Deputies said that cell phone is being analyzed to see if there’s a connection.
Mendocino County deputies said autopsies are pending. A toxicology report is expected to be completed in 4-6 weeks.