MOUNTAIN CENTER, Calif. — We are learning more about the recent death of a woman at the Bonita Vista Ranch near Idyllwild.
Jodi Newkirk is the second woman lost at the ranch in the past 18 months.
CBS 8 obtained a telephone recording of the man who reported to Riverside Sheriff that Jodi Newkirk had died in an accidental ATV rollover two days before Christmas.
A relative of Newkirk, who does not want to be identified, recorded the audio of Keith Harper on a telephone call, a few days after Newkirk’s death.
“Jodi was an amazing individual. You know, you had to just love her,” Harper said during the telephone conversation.
He apparently did not know the call was being recorded.
“She’s been an awesome help here, an amazing person to have on the ranch,” Harper said.
Newkirk, 46, had been working at the ranch in Mountain Center since early August as a horse handler.
Harper has been acting as trustee of the ranch since June 2020, when the property owner – former La Jolla millionaire, Dia Abrams – mysteriously went missing. Abrams, 65, has not been found. Riverside County Sheriff is investigating the case.
“I don't know if you know this, but my fiancée, she disappeared a year and a half ago,” Harper said on the recorded phone call. “She disappeared and we've been dealing with her missing.”
During the telephone call, Harper claimed Newkirk rode off on a quad just after sunset on December 23, 2021, to cut down a live Christmas tree.
“She wanted to go get a Christmas tree and she took the ATV up on the hill and, I don't know, I don't know if she turned the wheel wrong, or what happens. But the machine flips and when I find her, she has been under that machine probably a half-hour, I would suspect,” said Harper during the call.
“The only thing I could see was her face and probably six inches of her chest, the rest of it was underneath the machine. You know, because it was on her chest she couldn't breathe. I moved the machine off. I moved it off so I could do CPR on her,” he said.
Riverside County Sheriff responded to the Bonita Vista Ranch at 5:39 p.m. and soon realized the victim had "unexplained injuries." First responders called in homicide detectives and secured a crime scene.
“I've got to file a complaint against the sheriff's office because they leave her body for a day and a half in that rain and snow, and it just pisses me off,” said Harper during the telephone conversation. “I’ve never seen inhumane treatment like that.”
Detectives questioned Harper. No arrest was made. The autopsy results and toxicology testing on Newkirk's remains are still pending.
At the time of her death, Newkirk was living about 10 miles away from the Bonita Vista Ranch (located at 58111 Bonita Vista Road in Mountain Center). She was renting a house on Tool Box Spring Road in Garner Valley, a property also owned by Dia Abrams at the time of her disappearance.
As trustee of the Dia Abrams estate, Harper has been managing both properties, as well as a third property in the area owned by Abrams.
Family members said Newkirk was paying rent to Harper. She would spend the night at the Garner Valley house, and then go up to the Bonita Vista Ranch and take care of the horses during the day.
Newkirk was having mechanical problems with her red, 2002 Volvo sedan, according to family members, so Harper may have been driving her on occasion.
Riverside Sheriff detectives did not serve a search warrant on the house Newkirk was renting, according to family members, who found a handwritten journal when they packed up her belongings.
“Dear Harper,” Newkirk wrote in the journal entry weeks before her death and, apparently, while Harper was out of town.
“I feel like we have gotten kinda on different pages lately,” Newkirk wrote in her journal. “With you gone tho I do miss you but I'm thinking things are going to be different when you are back. Not sure who will initiate it but I'm feeling it big time."
Harper, 72, was Newkirk's boss on the ranch but her journal entry sounds more personal, especially when she writes about Harper going online and dating women.
“I feel like you're a computer dog like a high class [gigolo]. Anyhow you really do sleep with as many females as you can & you tell all girls what they want to hear & you tell them all basically the same thing,” Newkirk wrote.
“I really am feeling very strange about the always going to miss me comment in the text a few days ago? What the hell was that about & you never did elaborate? Anyhow, I don't like the way that sounds. Not a bit. It's weird,” she wrote.
Parts of Harper's recorded telephone conversation also sound personal.
“I wrote this tribute to Jodi. I just wanted to read it to you,” Harper said during the phone call with the family member.
“God knows we all loved her. Recently she said, 'You will miss me when I'm gone,' and I responded, ‘Why would I miss you sweet girl with all the pain you bring.' And Jodi said, ‘I do nothing but good for you and when I'm gone you will miss me every day.’ Jodi I do miss you, and you're right, I will miss you every day,” Harper said during the telephone call.
Harper declined to comment on the nature of his relationship with Newkirk. Via text message, Harper wrote to CBS 8 that he has not dated online for years, and currently he does not have a working computer.
Riverside Sheriff investigators have not named anyone as a suspect in the death of Jodi Newkirk.
Below is the full transcript of Jodi Newkirk's “Dear Harper” journal entry:
"Dear Harper, So I know I shouldn’t be writing this down & your [sic] most likely not going to read it anyway. Sometimes it really helps to vent. And Boy I have a ton to say about everything obviously. With you being gone it’s very hard for me to feel OK with everything. I need to communicate & in person is always best. I feel like we have gotten kinda on different pages lately. Probably because I feel like you’re a computer dog like a high class gigilo (sp?). Anyhow you really do sleep with as many females as you can & you tell all girls what they want to hear & you tell them all basically the same thing. I listen to you & I really am feeling very strange about the always going to miss me comment in the text a few days ago? What the hell was that about & you never did elaborate? Anyhow I don’t like the way that sounds. Not a bit. It’s weird. With you gone tho I do miss you but I’m thinking things are going to be different when you are back. Not sure who will initiate it but I’m feeling it big time."
A memorial is planned for Jodi Newkirk on Saturday, January 15, 2022 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Living Free Animal Sanctuary, 54250 Keen Camp Rd, Mountain Center, CA 92561. Her family has set up a GoFundMe page to cover expenses.
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