MOUNTAIN CENTER, Calif. — The sister of a woman who died on a ranch near Idyllwild two days before Christmas is speaking out about Jodi Newkirk’s death.
It’s the same ranch where another woman – former La Jolla millionaire, Dia Abrams – went missing in June 2020.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has called Newkirk’s death “suspicious” as investigators wait for autopsy and toxicology reports to be completed.
Newkirk, 46, died on the ranch in Mountain Center just after sunset on December 23, 2021.
She had been working on the sprawling property since early August, as a ranch hand taking care of the horses.
“My sister was what you would describe as an outdoors woman. She was a horse trainer,” said Newkirk’s sister, Kelly Berkowitz. "She was extremely strong. Although she was probably 100 pounds soaking wet and barely over five feet, she could hold her own. When you were in her presence, she was intimidating even with her small stature because she was just a very strong, outdoorsy, capable woman."
Berkowitz said she last spoke to her sister the day before she died.
“She was in a great mood. She was up in the mountains, and she loved being in nature. And she spent all day outside. So, she really felt like she had gotten her dream job,” recalled Berkowitz.
The Bonita Vista Ranch is the same ranch where Abrams, 65, mysteriously went missing a year and a half ago. Her body was never found and the Riverside Sheriff has not arrested anybody in the Abrams case.
Abrams' boyfriend, Keith Harper, is still living on the ranch where Abrams went missing and where Newkirk recently died.
“He [Harper] was her boss. He was the one who gave her direction and told her what needed to be done. And she kept lists of everything he told her to do. And she would check those off,” said Berkowitz.
Harper, 72, also was Newkirk's landlord, as she was living in a house ten miles away in Garner Valley, a property also owned by Dia Abrams at the time of her disappearance.
“She [Newkirk] was paying him rent. And she was struggling. I don't think she was making what she deserved.,” said Berkowitz.
It was Keith Harper who called police around 5 p.m. on December 23 to report Newkirk had been killed on the ranch in an ATV rollover accident. He told sheriff investigators that Newkirk had been riding a quad on the property, during a rainstorm, because she wanted to cut down a live Christmas tree.
Harper said he discovered the quad on top of the woman and performed CPR on her before authorities arrived and found Newkirk deceased.
Riverside Sheriff announced in an online news release that the incident was a “suspicious death” and that Newkirk had “unexplained injuries,” which were not consistent with an ATV rollover accident. Homicide detectives are investigating, according to the news release.
“This was not an accident. But as far as the investigation, we know nothing and we're just hoping that answers come from the toxicology,” said Berkowitz.
Newkirk was the mother of two teenage children who lived with their fathers.
“She loved her children more than anything and she loved her family. She was loved. She should still be here with us. She should still be riding bareback up a hill on her horse, and enjoying life and working. She was a wonderful person,” said Berkowitz.
Harper declined to be interviewed for this report. Previously, he has denied any involvement in Dia Abrams' disappearance a year and a half ago.
In a series of text messages with News 8, Harper indicated he received information that one of Abrams’ workers “escorted her off the ranch into the hands of those who execute[d] her” and “they then waited [sic] her down and put her in the bottom of Lake Hemet.”
Via text message, Harper claimed a Riverside Sheriff dive team recently attempted to locate Abrams’ remains in Lake Hemet but failed.
In response to CBS 8 inquiries, a Riverside Sheriff’s spokesperson emailed, “Unfortunately, we are unable to provide any additional information on this open and active investigation.”
Court records showed the deceased victim, Jodi Newkirk, had a long criminal history, including use of drugs and possession of drugs. So far, there is no indication that drug use played a role in Newkirk's death.
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.
WATCH RELATED: Family of missing Idyllwild woman takes issue to court (March 2021)