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 2014 clinging to the shoulders of a white police officer at a Portland, Oregon, protest.
It became an emblematic moment during national rallies that rocked the country after a grand jury chose not to indict a white police officer in the killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
But now, police in Northern California say Devonte and his family are at the center of a mysterious tragedy, and they need the public’s help.
Devonte, 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 passerby reported the 2003 GMC SUV was 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 parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38, as well as children Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, and Abigail, 14.
Devonte and two other sisters — Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12 — have not been located, but were believed to have been inside the SUV.
A specialized team of accident investigators was trying to figure out why the car flew off a dirt turnout in a part of the cliffside where many tourists stop for photos, Mendocino County 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 to determine that no one was still there.
Officers said “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,” according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
Zippy Lomax, a friend of the family since 2012, told The Oregonianthat the Harts loved to travel and were always “going somewhere special.”
“They weren’t plugged into the technology,” she said. “They preferred to lay (around) and read books and hang out with their chickens.”
The family called themselves the Hart Tribe, and mothers Jennifer and Sarah home-schooled the children, who were all adopted. A next-door neighbor of the family when they lived in Oregon told the Associated Press that the family didn’t eat sugar, raised 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 first-hand, 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 would later write on social media that Devonte faced his own racism and questions about police: “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… 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 noted that not everything seemed quiet and peaceful.
Neighbors told The Oregonian that Devonte would come asking for food and said his parents withheld it as punishment.
Neighbor Bruce DeKalb told the AP that one of the girls rang their doorbell early in the morning last year asking for help and claiming she had been abused.
A former neighbor, Bill Groener, said he was struck by how isolated the kids were kept, and told The Oregonian he felt “guilty he never called (children’s) services.”
According to the newspaper, child protective services had tried to visit the family on Friday, but no one answered the door. Cowlitz County Child Protective Services did not immediately return calls for comment from NBC News.
Lomax told The Oregonian there was no sign that anything was amiss all these years. To her, the trip to California was probably just another one of their adventures.
The Harts “loved their kids more than anything else,” she said.