By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A family of eight with ties to Minnesota is feared dead after their SUV plunged off a northern California cliff and into the Pacific Ocean.

Now, deputies are investigating if it was a deliberate act.

“I was trying to help them and protect them, and this the result,” Dana Dekalb, a neighbor of the family in Oregon, said.

Neighbors say signs of trouble became obvious late last year. They say children would come to their house for food, asking them to hide it by a nearby fence.

In Alexandria, where they lived before heading out west, neighbors say they’ll always remember the Hart family as good people — making their deaths and the DCS investigation ever more shocking.

sarah and jennifer hart Onetime Minn. Family Involved In Deadly Plunge From Calif. Cliff

Sarah and Jennifer Hart (credit: Facebook)

“They were just nonchalant, wonderful people,” neighbor Chris Dillon said.

From day one, Dillon says Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their six children were ideal neighbors. The handyman says he not only helped around their house, but fixed the kids’ bikes.

“They were just the perfect family,” he said. “Never caused any problems, no headaches, no nothing.”

It’s how Mike and Lorraine Fealy remember them, too.

“They were nice, well mannered, just good neighbors,” Mike Fealy said.

What they didn’t know is that Sarah Hart was convicted in 2011 of domestic assault. One of their children showed up to school with bruises. Sarah admitted to spanking her and pleaded guilty.

Last week in Washington state, the Harts’ new neighbors called the Department of Child Services. They say one of the children came over starving, begging for food.

“They portray this happy little family,” Dana Dekalb said in Oregon. “Yet the night before, their daughter is telling us ‘please, please, please,’ begging us not to make her go back, and that they’re abusing her. And then Devonte coming over here and telling us that he’s being starved to death, and they’re mean.”

The family gained attention after Devonte was photographed during a 2014 protest in Portland, Oregon, over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri. The boy, holding a “Free Hugs” sign, stood crying. A Portland officer saw his sign and asked if he could have a hug, and an emotional Hart embraced him in a picture that was widely shared.

They say DCS showed up to the house, the Hart’s didn’t answer and the next day their SUV was gone. Days later, it was found at the bottom of a California cliff.

“I don’t understand why or how it would have happened,” Dillon said.

Investigators say there’s no evidence that their drive off the cliff was intentional — however there were no brake or skid marks leading up to the edge.

“It chokes a person up, because they were just so nice of people,” Dillon said.

Investigators are searching the ocean waters for the three children who haven’t been found. However, rough conditions have made it difficult for divers to go in.

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