MOUNTAIN CENTER, Calif. — Family and friends gathered over the weekend near Idyllwild for a memorial service for Jodi Newkirk, 46, the woman who died on the Bonita Vista Ranch two days before Christmas.
CBS 8 was at the service with a video camera rolling when the man nobody expected to see surprisingly showed up.
Keith Harper, 72, is the man who called 911 to report Newkirk had died on the ranch in a rollover ATV accident just after sunset.
It's the same ranch where former La Jolla resident Dia Abrams, 65, went missing in 2020. Abrams still has not been found. Harper took over as trustee of the ranch after Abrams disappeared.
Riverside Sheriff investigators called Newkirk’s death “suspicious” and dispatched homicide detectives to the scene on December 23. Her cause of death still is pending autopsy and toxicology results.
Harper’s arrival at Newkirk’s memorial service – at Living Free Animal Sanctuary in Mountain Center – was surprising, awkward, and upsetting to some in attendance.
Harper strolled into the outdoor venue, coming face to face with friends and family of the deceased.
CBS 8 was in attendance at the invitation of Newkirk’s sister, Kelly Berkowitz, who drove up in a car just after Harper arrived. She was visibly shaken when she noticed Harper was nearby.
“My reaction to seeing Keith Harper was a panic attack. I kind of lost my mind there for a minute. I just couldn't believe it. I was stunned,” Berkowitz told CBS 8.
Harper already had been warned not to show up at the service, according to a family member who said they told him about a week earlier that he was not welcome.
Before long, Harper walked away. He was met by more relatives in the parking lot, including the victim's teenage daughter. They told him to leave. Harper drove away in a Hummer SUV.
The memorial service for Jodi Newkirk began with guitar music.
Berkowitz spoke of her sister’s troubled life and her love for her children.
“Jodi was not a perfect person, but who of us are? She was a wildflower. How difficult it is to love a wildflower. How painful it is to lose our wildflower,” Berkowitz said during her eulogy.
Newkirk’s son, Chris Rowley, 19, spoke of his mother’s struggles.
“No matter what she was going through, no matter what was going on in her life, she always made sure to keep in touch,” he said.
“She was loved and she just will live in our hearts forever, we could never ever forget her,” Berkowitz said following the service.
Keith Harper did not respond a message from CBS 8 requesting a comment.
Harper has told family members that Newkirk’s death was the result of an accidental rollover, while she was riding a quad to cut down a Christmas tree on the property.
Newkirk worked at the Bonita Vista Ranch as a horse and ranch hand since August 2021. Keith Harper was her boss, as well as her landlord, as Newkirk rented a nearby house also owned by Dia Abrams before she went missing.
While clearing out her belongings from Newkirk’s rental house, family members discovered several journal entries addressed to Harper. The journal entries – reviewed in detail by CBS 8 – appear to suggest the two were in a personal relationship.
Newkirk’s journals have been turned over to Riverside County Sheriff’s detectives, according to family members.
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