Boy Who Hugged Officer in Viral Photo Missing After Family’s SUV Goes Off Cliff

March 29, 2018 Updated: March 29, 2018

A teen famously photographed hugging a police officer during 2014 protests over the shooting of Michael Brown has been reported missing after several members of his family died in a horrific car crash.

The search continues for 15-year-old Devonte Hart and his siblings, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 12-year-old Sierra Hart, officials from the California Highway Patrol and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said in a joint press conference on Wednesday, March 28, ABC reported.

Five members of Hart’s family, including adoptive parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart, are confirmed dead after the SUV they were in went off a cliff near Mendocino in northern California on Monday, March 26.

The bodies of the two women were still in the vehicle, KGW8 News reported, and the bodies of the children were found outside.

A puzzling aspect of the case, authorities said, was the lack of brake or skid marks before the vehicle plummeted 75 feet into the Pacific Ocean, something police called “confusing.”

A helicopter present at the scene of the accident. (California Highway Patrol)

None of the victims of the crash had their seatbelts on, the authorities revealed, and when crews arrived the car engine was cold, reported ABC.

While investigators remain unclear about the details surrounding the circumstances of the incident, officials said they had “no reason to believe” the crash was “an intentional act.”

Devonte Hart became known when a photo of him hugging a police officer during the Ferguson protests in Portland on Nov. 25, 2014 went viral.

Hart was 12 at the time and carried a sign at the demonstration with the words “free hugs” on it, and the police officer in the photo reportedly walked up to the boy and asked if he could “get one of those.”

According to CNN, Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum approached Devonte and extended his hand. Barnum reportedly said in a later interview he approached Devonte “not as a police officer but just a human being” when he saw him crying.

Freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen was there to capture the moment.

“The situation itself is something police officers do every day when they go out on the street and make citizen contacts,” Barnum said, according to CNN.

Within hours of its posting on Facebook by an Oregon newspaper, the first media outlet to publish the photo, it was shared more than 150,000 times, CNN reported.

“It solidified what all of us do this work for—this job for—to create good will,” Barnum said of the positive attention the snap received in context of bridging social divides.

Photographer Nguyen said it seemed to capture a spirit of unity and reconciliation.

“I thought, what a great scene. A powerful scene. A scene with a message that needed to be communicated. A scene of coming together,” he said, according to CNN.

“I knew it had something special, something powerful. It had a message I think everyone wanted to see,” he said.

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