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A sports utility vehicle carrying a large, multiracial family from Washington state drove straight off a scenic cliff on the California coast last week, killing at least six people in what appears to have been an intentional crash, police said.
The wrecked GMC Yukon was discovered last Monday (local time), only three days after child welfare authorities in Washington state opened an investigation into allegations the children were being neglected, social and health authorities said.
According to court records, the family had troubles in the past when one of the mothers was charged with domestic assault against a daughter.
The family gained attention after one of the children, Devonte, was photographed crying in the arms of a white police officer at a 2014 protest just months after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
The family's SUV appears to have been stopped by the side of the road in Mendocino County, about 290 kms north of San Francisco, before accelerating to as fast as 145 kph and hurtling off a cliff, acting Assistant CHP Chief Greg Baarts told reporters on Sunday.
Data from the SUV's software, along with the absence of skid marks, suggested the event was not an accident, Baarts said.
He said that it was "pure acceleration all the way."
The SUV fell into rocks and water about 30 metres below the highway.
Driver Jennifer Hart (38) and Sarah Hart (38) a white married couple from Washington State, were killed. So were at least three of their six adopted children, Markis (19), Jeremiah (14) and Abigail (14) police said.
The bodies of their three other children, Hannah (16), Devonte (15) and Sierra (12), were not recovered as of early Monday, but officials believed all the children, who were black, were in the vehicle along with their parents.
Police said they searched the family's home in Woodland, Washington, about 500 miles north of the crash site, but found no suicide note.
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services said it opened an investigation into the family for potential child neglect or abuse after a complaint on March 23.
Neighbors Dana and Bruce DeKalb told the Oregonian newspaper that Devonte had asked them for food for himself and his siblings after his parents withheld it as punishment. The DeKalbs did not respond to requests for comment.
Sarah Hart was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault of Abigail in 2011 in Minnesota. Court documents show the child told a teacher, "Mom hit me."