Disappearance of rich California ranch proprietor nonetheless a thriller after 3 years

What occurred to Dia Abrams?

Bonita Vista Ranch proprietor Dia Abrams, proper, and ranch hand Jodi Newkirk. (Illustration by Workers Artist Jeff Goertzen) 

The reply has eluded Riverside County sheriff’s investigators for 3 years and baffled residents of the San Jacinto Mountains the place Abrams abruptly disappeared on June 6, 2020.

It’s a whodunit shrouded in a story of wealth, household estrangement and heated litigation that continues to intrigue and entice consideration from native and nationwide media.

“It’s like being in a ‘Dateline’ thriller,” mentioned Peggy Kotner, Abrams’ sister. Requested what she thinks occurred to her sister, Kotner mentioned, “Your guess is nearly as good as mine. I actually wish to know.”

Abrams, who was 65 when she vanished, is presumed lifeless, although her physique has by no means been discovered.

Abrams’ disappearance

Abrams had been estranged for years from her husband, a  rich La Jolla developer who died in 2018. She liked the outside and animals, so in about 2004 or 2005 she determined to commerce the prosperous seaside group in San Diego County for a tranquil 115-acre ranch in Mountain Heart.

Abrams “simply wished to get away from the stress of issues and be round animals,” mentioned Julie Stanford, a retired postal employee and Mountain Heart resident who met Abrams in 2011 whereas working part-time on the Lake Hemet Market.

Dwelling on the Bonita Vista Ranch with Abrams was Keith Leslie Harper, a retired parole agent for the Utah Division of Corrections with a sketchy previous who had served time behind bars. In a 2022 deposition, Harper mentioned he and Abrams met in 2016 on a relationship web site.

After Harper flew into Ontario Worldwide Airport to fulfill up with Abrams, the 2 rapidly hit it off and Harper mentioned he moved in together with her on the ranch six months later. Harper mentioned he labored to improve Abrams’ property, constructing dams, bridges, fences and serving to look after her animals.

Harper additionally claimed to be Abrams’ fiance.

In public statements and the sworn deposition given in a authorized dispute with Abrams’ youngsters over management of her multimillion-dollar property, Harper, 73, mentioned he was the final individual to have seen Abrams earlier than she went lacking someday after 2:30 p.m. on June 6, 2020.

Harper mentioned the 2 had lunch collectively on the ranch, then went their separate methods — Harper to mow the meadow and Abrams to have a tendency her horses at one other property she owned within the neighboring ranch group of Garner Valley.

Harper mentioned he spent about 5 hours mowing the meadow earlier than returning to the home round 7:30 p.m. and noticing Abrams’ Ford F-350 pickup nonetheless parked exterior. However Abrams was nowhere to be discovered.

He mentioned he referred to as Abrams’ cell phone and heard it ringing upstairs. The telephone was nonetheless plugged right into a charger subsequent to a nightstand. Abrams’ purse and keys additionally had been left behind.

“She by no means left the residence,” Harper mentioned within the deposition.


Harper mentioned he referred to as a California Freeway Patrol officer Abrams knew who lived close by. The officer, based on Harper, advised him legislation enforcement wouldn’t take any motion till Abrams had been lacking for 3 days. Harper mentioned he couldn’t bear in mind the officer’s identify.

The next day, Harper mentioned, he began making calls to Abrams’ associates and neighbors. A group search celebration was fashioned involving dozens of locals who scoured the ranch and surrounding mountain space on foot, horseback and all-terrain autos. Harper, some say, was barely concerned, driving an ATV across the property.

Leaves state

Riverside County sheriff’s deputies subsequently started a days-long search the next day, on June 8. However earlier than they arrived, Harper packed up his RV and took off for Arizona, ostensibly to handle a tax problem at a property he owned there, based on his deposition. From there, he mentioned he traveled to a storage facility he owns in Aztec, New Mexico.

He was gone seven days.

Some who participated within the search, together with staff from neighboring Pine Springs Ranch and the Yokoji Zen Mountain Heart, discovered it odd that Harper would go away the ranch, and the state, on enterprise when his purported fiancee was lacking and simply earlier than deputies arrived to conduct a large-scale search of their very own.

“He didn’t get entangled with us in any respect, which gave me a nasty intestine feeling,” mentioned one man who participated within the search however requested to not be recognized. “If it had been my fiancee and somebody I liked, I’d wish to be concerned. You don’t run away just a few hours earlier than (police) get right here to do a search. And but that’s precisely what he did — he packed up his RV and he took off. What on the earth?”

Garner Valley Valley resident Ronnie Imel, whose spouse performed bunco with Abrams, additionally participated within the search, and solid doubt on  Harper’s declare about mowing the meadow.

“That meadow was not freshly mowed. I walked via it. There have been weeds as much as my knees. There have been foxtails in my pants and socks,” mentioned Imel, a embellished Vietnam veteran and former Military Airborne ranger specializing in reconnaissance.

Moreover, Imel recollects Harper telling him through the first search that he had been engaged on a constructing on the property — not mowing the meadow — when Abrams went lacking.

“He mentioned nothing in regards to the meadow,” Imel mentioned throughout an interview at his house, the place he operates his nonprofit, Veterans Paying It Ahead, and assists different veterans in acquiring incapacity advantages.

Diana Fedder, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent and buddy of Abrams who helped set up the search, mentioned Harper advised her he needed to go away the state to test in together with his probation officer, which is inconsistent together with his deposition testimony two years later.

Harper didn’t reply to requests for remark relating to Abrams’ disappearance, however has denied having something to do with it.

Search warrants

Sheriff’s investigators, additionally suspicious that Harper would go away the ranch and the state, instantly started working to acquire search warrants and monitor him down.

“Abrams went lacking beneath suspicious circumstances and foul play is suspected,” Riverside County sheriff’s investigator Donald Atkinson mentioned in a search warrant affidavit filed in Superior Courtroom on June 16, 2020, eight days after Abrams’ disappearance.

Warrants had been signed to look the ranch on Bonita Vista Highway and one other property on the identical road she rented out and the place a marijuana develop was found. Investigators additionally served warrants to look Harper’s RV and the RV and boat storage facility he owns in New Mexico.

From Abrams’ ranch, investigators seized two spent bullet casings; a tan mattress sheet, Band-Support and piece of bathroom tissue all with doable blood on them; two handwritten letters; and a Netgear router, based on a sheriff’s property report.

From Harper’s RV, investigators seized a entrance part of the driving force’s seat, based on a warrant filed in San Juan County District Courtroom in New Mexico.

At Abrams’ Bonita Vista Highway rental property, which she named Sky Excessive Ranch, investigators seized 2,389 marijuana vegetation and 357 kilos of processed marijuana, based on the warrant.

Fedder mentioned Abrams was conscious her tenants at Sky Excessive Ranch had been rising marijuana however didn’t need something to do with them. Abrams would ship a ranch hand to gather the hire, mentioned Fedder, who now lives in Georgia.

“She by no means went over there. She mentioned she didn’t wish to know something about it, however they paid their hire on time,” Fedder mentioned.

Arizona lead

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco mentioned most leads within the Abrams’ investigation have been exhausted — all besides one.

Investigators have honed in on Arizona and are actually working with legislation enforcement there, however Bianco wouldn’t elaborate on the tip his company obtained nor determine the placement investigators have zeroed in on. He did say, nonetheless, that it doesn’t contain the Grand Wash Cliffs space that investigators had been wanting into in 2021 after a tip led them there.

“A few months in the past a lead got here in that ultimately led to this,” Bianco mentioned, declining additional remark.

Loss of life on the ranch

Eighteen months after Abrams’ disappearance, Harper can be the central determine in one other tragedy on the ranch. On Dec. 23, 2021, ranch hand Jodi Newkirk died in what was reported on the time to be an ATV rollover accident.

Harper referred to as 911 someday after 5 p.m., and a responding CHP officer arrived to search out him performing CPR on Newkirk, who was pinned beneath the all-terrain car, based on a coroner’s investigation report. Responding paramedics pronounced Newkirk, 46, lifeless lower than 10 minutes later.

The CHP officer, recognized within the report solely as “Officer Hoskins,” advised Riverside County Deputy Coroner Craig Wills there didn’t look like any trauma on Newkirk’s physique in line with a rollover accident, that he was involved about Harper’s account of what occurred to Newkirk, and that he believed Newkirk’s dying was suspicious, based on the report.

Hoskins noticed no main injury to the ATV, and famous that the tire tracks resulting in the car ended abruptly behind it, indicating the ATV merely got here to a cease. He additionally pointed to the absence of skid or slide marks and famous the soil across the ATV was not disturbed.

Harper, based on the report, advised Hoskins that Newkirk had labored on the ranch for about 3 1/2 months. He mentioned she had requested him for a shovel, then rode off to search for a Christmas tree, regardless of the actual fact it was raining closely.

About an hour later, Harper mentioned he went searching for Newkirk, seen a blinking orange gentle within the distance and walked to the world, discovering Newkirk beneath the ATV.

Investigators additionally famous the Abrams lacking individual case, and Harper’s connection to it.

“Officer Hoskins knowledgeable me that Harper was beneath investigation associated to the lacking individual report of the property proprietor of the ranch who disappeared over a yr in the past,” Wills mentioned in his report. “Harper was residing on the property and had quite a few legislation enforcement contacts relating to the alleged involvement.”

Wills mentioned he knowledgeable his sergeant that Harper’s account of occasions didn’t match as much as findings on the scene, and urged that investigators observe up. The case was subsequently turned over to the sheriff’s murder unit, based on the report.

In February 2022, the coroner’s workplace concluded Newkirk’s explanation for dying to be acute methamphetamine toxicity. The style of her dying, nonetheless, was declared “undetermined.” Newkirk’s case stays open, mentioned sheriff’s investigator Alberto Loureiro, the lead detective on each Newkirk’s dying and Abrams’ disappearance.

The coroner’s investigation report famous that Loureiro didn’t rule out foul play in Newkirk’s dying, and mentioned there was no proof to find out if she took the medication herself or if another person administered them to her.

Newkirk had been a meth addict since she was 15 years previous and had quite a few run-ins with the legislation, mentioned her sister, Kelly Berkowitz, who added that the quantity of methamphetamine in her sister’s system gave the impression to be extraordinarily excessive, even for a lifelong addict.

“She was knowledgeable person,” Berkowitz mentioned of her sister’s drug use. “To me, it doesn’t make sense as a result of she’s by no means had an overdose. By no means!”

She mentioned she final spoke together with her sister, a horse coach who took care of the animals on the ranch, in a telephone name the day earlier than her dying. Berkowitz mentioned her sister was upset that Harper allegedly pawned Newkirk’s horse to cowl the price of a bridge challenge on the ranch, and Newkirk was having hassle getting her horse again.

Berkowitz mentioned her sister liked the outside, and regarded employment on the ranch her dream job.

Harper, who responded to questions on Newkirk’s dying through textual content message, stands by his story even within the face of legislation enforcement suspicion. He believes Newkirk was driving the ATV sidesaddle, with each ft to the left of the car, when it tipped over on high of her. He mentioned he has 20 years’ expertise of getting supplied ATV excursions at his former enterprise, Outlaw Excursions, in Durango, Colorado, and has witnessed many related accidents.

As to Newkirk’s overdose, Harper mentioned: “If Jodi had died from an overdose, why stage (an) accident to cowl up an overdose, why not simply report the dying?”

Requested in regards to the sequence of occasions involving Newkirk and Abrams, he mentioned, “That’s tragic. The lack of one life is tragic, however the lack of many is overwhelming.”

Abrams amends belief

Two weeks earlier than she disappeared, on Might 22, 2020, Abrams amended her belief, which she had drafted in December 2016 initially naming her daughter, Crisara Abrams, as trustee. The modification as a substitute named Harper and Fedder as trustees of her property.

Following the dying of Clem Abrams, her husband of 34 years, in December 2018, Abrams filed a petition in San Diego County Superior Courtroom to invalidate a prenuptial settlement executed earlier than the 2 had been married in 1984, claiming she signed it beneath duress simply earlier than her wedding ceremony.

Abrams additionally was in search of greater than $6.7 million in property from her late husband’s $11 million property to fund a marital belief. Clem Abrams nominated his surviving youngsters, Clinton and Crisara Abrams, as executors of his property.

Abrams’ associates and Harper mentioned Abrams’ relationship together with her youngsters was estranged, a lot in order that Abrams excluded her son from her belief, “leaving nothing however her love and affection to her son,” based on the belief. She subsequently excluded her daughter, thus setting off one other authorized problem between Harper and Crisara Abrams over management of her mom’s property following her disappearance.

Dia Abrams’ property included the Bonita Vista Ranch, the Sky Excessive Ranch, the Garner Valley ranch on Instrument Field Springs Highway, a Chase checking account and a 2006 Lexus.

Abrams household vs. Harper

Crisara Abrams pushed for the removing of Harper as trustee of her mom’s property in a petition filed in Riverside Superior Courtroom in July 2021, requesting that the courtroom as a substitute appoint a non-public skilled fiduciary.

By that point, Fedder mentioned she had already eliminated herself as a trustee as a result of she offered her Garner Valley house and moved to Georgia to take care of her ailing dad and mom.

Crisara Abrams’ petition alleged monetary elder abuse on Harper’s half in addition to breach of fiduciary responsibility, together with self-dealing, concealing his actions and refusing to provide data. She additionally famous Harper’s potential involvement in her mom’s disappearance that was beneath investigation and his prison historical past in Colorado.

Regulation enforcement and courtroom data present Harper had pleaded responsible in La Plata County District Courtroom to third-degree misdemeanor assault on his ex-wife in March 2002 and was granted probation for one yr. In March 2012, he was convicted in San Juan County Superior Courtroom in Colorado of three misdemeanor counts of illegal sexual contact for fondling girls throughout snowmobile excursions at his former enterprise, Outlaw Excursions, in Durango.

Harper, nonetheless, contested his conviction, maintained his innocence and turned down probation, as a substitute opting to serve a yr in jail.

“I did 9 months for selection that I might not do probation or pay their courtroom value,” Harper mentioned in his 2022 deposition. “I used to be harmless of the cost.”

Harper was ordered to register as a intercourse offender following his 2012 conviction.

Harper additionally served time in federal jail for illegally working his Outlaw Excursions enterprise on Forest Service land with out a allow and for giving a false report and different data to a Forest Service officer. Randilee Giamusso, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, mentioned Harper served three months of a four-month sentence at a facility in Florence, Colorado.

Crisara Abrams maintained in her petition that Harper was unfit to function trustee.

Harper fired again together with his personal courtroom declaration. He mentioned the property battle between Dia Abrams and her youngsters escalated following the dying of Clem Abrams. Harper alleged the youngsters minimize off all monetary assist to their mom, even going as far as attempting to take her 2006 Ford F-350 pickup, her solely technique of transportation.

“They’ve tried a hostile takeover of their mom’s properties by monetary strangulation and harassment,” Harper mentioned.

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