A mysterious death on a California ranch uncovers more secrets than anyone bargained for. Someone knows what happened to Jodi Newkirk… but who?
Undated journal entry: “Harper, We need to figure out what my hours will be & how much my pay is. We can deduct the rent off the top. Then figure recent [sic] how many hours a day I’ve been working & the days. Because it seems I have been here at least 6 days a week. And the time you were gone. I’m feeling extremely & I mean extremely frustrated by everything & not being able to have any kind of outside activities is getting me seriously burnt out. Not only that but I need to be able to be home at least 3 nights a week & I would actually prefer more. I feel like you don’t really appreciate me like you could & you[‘re] constantly trying to hire another person (girl).”
Undated journal entry: “You did a shitty ass job of making the beds & I had to redo them. They looked like shit & they couldn’t be photoed like that. And I can’t believe the way that you treat me. It’s a total slap in my face. And like right now you come right behind me & act like I didn’t do a good enough job. I vacuumed the whole house twice & got under everything & even most of the window sills I even dusted & polished the fucking wood almost all of it. I did my very best & no matter how hard I try & how much I do your [sic] still right there one step behind me to finish the one last step in whatever I’m doing, yet you don’t to 1/2 the detailed complete job with your own projects. Look at the indoor BBQ wow.”
Undated journal entry: “Hi again. This is the second letter today. But you didn’t read the first one & you probably won’t even read this one. But I’m going to write it anyway. Because I need to vent. I’m losing my mind. I can’t believe you don’t even… when I realized that you sure can act like you like me a whole lot when you want me but I really don’t matter that much to you. When you said it was OK that you could talk about all that on your phone with those other girls & not me.”
Journal entry dated November 4, 2021: “Dear Harper, So here I go again. And you most likely didn’t even read the last one. I’m beyond hurt & upset and honestly I don’t even know why I even still put myself thru this shit. I have no life at all. I have no fun. I want my fucking horse back Harper & you haven’t done anything to help me or let me at least go look for him. And it’s because of you & your stupid bridge that I don’t have him! I want my horse back. I want you to act like you appreciate a thing I’ve done & lost &… all the work that you never say thanks, never say good job. No instead you say you can’t trust me!! It makes me literally sick to my stomach and it really is totally completely bullshit & you know it. Your just to [sic] much. Your [sic] really starting to hate you & we don’t want that. We don’t want ugliness between us Harper.”
- Jodi K Newkirk | Farewelling Memorial
- Fundraiser by Kelly Berkowitz Trotter : Jodi Newkirk Memorial Fund
- Suspicious Death: Riverside County Sheriff’s Department
- ATV fatality reported at ranch near Idyllwild where woman went missing in 2020
- ‘Suspicious death’ at ranch near Idyllwild where woman went missing in 2020
- Suspicious Mountain Center Death Under Investigation
- Another woman lost at Bonita Vista Ranch near Idyllwild
- Body of Riverside County woman found in open field, death probed as ‘suspicious’
- Journal entry and audio recording shed light on woman’s death at ranch near Idyllwild
- Unexpected arrival at memorial service for Jodi Newkirk near Idyllwild
- Letters: Woman who died on ranch near Idyllwild in relationship with boss
- Autopsy: Woman died of meth overdose on ranch near Idyllwild
Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. While researching last week’s episode about the disappearance of Dia Abrams, I came across another case that is closely entwined with Dia’s story, one that deserves the same amount of attention. Unfortunately, in many ways, Jodi’s story was treated more like a footnote.
If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode or if you just need a refresher, I encourage you to go back and listen – it will provide some important context for Jodi’s case. This episode will discuss sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.
In August of 2021, things were finally looking up for 46-year-old Jodi Newkirk. She had just moved to the beautiful San Jacinto Mountains of California where she landed her dream job of working on a ranch. Jodi loved animals, especially horses, and she knew this job would be the perfect fit.
Jodi’s life up to this point had been an uphill battle. According to her sister Kelly, Jodi’s childhood had been marked by abuse and abandonment, and that trauma had shaped her life’s path. For years, Jodi struggled with substance abuse disorder and all the difficulties that came with it, but now she had the chance to make things right for herself and for her two teenage children, who lived with their fathers. Jodi wanted them to have a better life than she’d had, and she believed this new job would help her make that happen.
Jodi soon settled into a routine at Bonita Vista Ranch in the small town of Mountain Center. Although the days were long, Jodi loved working with the horses, and being out in nature felt so healing. In the evenings, she would retreat to the small house she rented in Garner Valley, about 10 miles away from the ranch. It was quiet and peaceful, and Jodi was happy.
As the months passed, Jodi checked in regularly with her family. She spoke with her sister just a few days before Christmas, and according to Kelly, Jodi was doing really well. “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.”
Of course, even dream jobs come with caveats. Jodi wasn’t making very much money at the ranch, and rent on the house in Garner Valley was expensive. She was also having car trouble, which added to her bills. Kelly felt that Jodi wasn’t being paid what she was worth, especially for how much work she put in at the ranch, but she wanted to be supportive, and it was clear that Jodi really did love her job. She was glad that her sister was finally getting back on her feet.
Sadly, that would be the last time the sisters ever spoke.
Shortly after 5:00 on the evening of December 23, 2021, a call came in to 911. A man reported that a woman had been possibly involved in an ATV accident at Bonita Vista Ranch. While first responders headed to the scene, the dispatcher lost contact with the caller, and was unable to reconnect the call. The dispatcher reported, “The phone number for the original [reporting party] keeps going to an answering machine for American Storage, unable to get anything further from them.”
Officer Hoskins from the California Highway Patrol was the first on the scene. Near the intersection of Bonita Vista Road and Apple Canyon, in a large open field, he saw the body of a woman trapped underneath an ATV. Hoskins then saw a man pull the ATV off the woman and begin performing CPR as heavy rain poured down on them. As they waited for paramedics to arrive, Hoskins examined the scene. He observed that there were tire tracks in the mud leading up to where the ATV had been laying, but there were no skid marks or any indication that the quad had spun out of control. The tire tracks “ended abruptly behind the ATV indicating that it simply came to a stop.”
By 5:40pm, paramedics and Riverside County deputies had arrived, but it was too late. The woman, identified as Jodi Newkirk, was declared dead at the scene.
The man who had been performing CPR was also identified as Jodi’s boss, 72-year-old Keith Harper. Harper told deputies that Jodi had gone out on her ATV in the middle of a rainstorm because she wanted to cut down a live Christmas tree. When she didn’t return, Harper went out looking for her. He found her in the field, the ATV on top of her, pinning her chest to the ground. He said that he began performing CPR while he waited for help to arrive.
At first glance, it appeared as though Jodi had been struck by a vehicle while on the ATV and was left in the field to die. But as they looked more closely, they noticed that Jodi had “unexplained injuries” that didn’t match a hit-and-run. They called in detectives from the Central Homicide Unit to take over the investigation, and it was quickly declared a “suspicious death”.
Over the next 24 hours, investigators processed the scene, hampered by the stormy weather and rough terrain. Before releasing Jodi’s name to the public, detectives contacted her family and broke the news.
Grief-stricken, Jodi’s family began making arrangements for her funeral and headed down to Mountain Center to begin packing up her belongings. In a phone call recorded by one of Jodi’s family members, Harper offered his condolences and spoke highly of Jodi, saying, “Jodi was an amazing individual. You know, you had to just love her… She’s been an awesome help here, an amazing person to have on the ranch.”
On the recording, which Jodi’s family gave to CBS8, Harper also revealed his connection to Dia Abrams. “I don’t know if you know this, but my fiancée, she disappeared a year and a half ago. She disappeared and we’ve been dealing with her missing.”
This seems like a strange thing to mention to a family grieving the loss of a loved one, but Harper likely knew they would find out about Dia eventually. In fact, Dia was mentioned in the earliest news reports about Jodi’s death – it certainly was suspicious that a woman had died on the same property where another had gone missing the year before, and that the same man was connected to both.
Jodi’s family would soon discover just how close that connection was.
While packing up Jodi’s belongings at her Garner Valley home, her family discovered a handwritten journal filled with letters directed to Keith Harper.
Although most of the letters are undated, they clearly outline Jodi’s time on the ranch. In September, just a month after starting the new job, Jodi wrote a letter to Dia, saying that she hoped she would come home soon and that she was trying to take care of Harper. “But I hope from the bottom & all of my heart that you realize that I truly have you & yours, all of your animals, friends & home, possessions, & even Harper’s best interest at heart.” In that same letter, Jodi acknowledged that she had screwed up in the past, but the job at the ranch had given her a purpose again.
While the letters started out hopeful, they soon took a turn, and it became clear that Jodi was not as happy at the ranch as her family had believed. She wrote several letters to Harper, complaining about how he undervalued her work and that she deserved better pay and better hours. She was burned out and getting frustrated. She begged Harper to hire more help, and it appears that he did, but it ended up not being what Jodi wanted or needed.
As the letters continue, it’s clear that Jodi and Harper’s relationship was more than just boss and ranch hand. In one letter, Jodi wrote about how she overheard Harper talking on the phone to another woman and saying that Jodi just followed him around all day. “I can’t begin to express how hurt I am! Even if there was not a personal relationship of sorts between us, I still am so unspeakably devastated. I can’t even talk to you right now.”
In another letter, Jodi called Harper a gigolo, saying that he slept with as many women as he could. “You tell all girls what they want to hear & you tell them all basically the same thing.” In the same letter, Jodi referenced a text message that Harper sent her, a message that freaked her out. “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.” Because the letter was undated, it’s not clear when Harper sent that message or how close it was to Jodi’s death, but it left her feeling unsettled.
Many of Jodi’s letters vacillate between expressing her love for Harper and cussing him out in the same sentence. One that really stuck out to me was from another undated letter where Jodi again expressed her frustration with Harper talking to other women and not giving her the respect she deserved. “What we had wasn’t really all that to you probably cause you have no idea what you had & you never will. No I’m no Anna or Patricia but you know what? I may not be perfect but I am true, honest, loyal, & sincere. I would have killed, died, given my right arm for you. Even if you don’t deserve it. Even if you fire. Not anywhere near the great human being you wish you were or you act like you are. I know who you are : ) I loved (love) you anyway. You will see when I’m gone and I’m already gone. Good Bye.”
If you want to read more of Jodi’s journal entries, you can find them on the podcast website. They are a fascinating and heartbreaking window into her mind and heart in the months before she died.
After releasing the letters to the media, Jodi’s family turned them over to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. The family believed it was too much of a coincidence that two of Keith Harper’s girlfriends had ended up missing or dead.
On January 19th, Jodi’s family and friends gathered at the Living Free Animal Sanctuary for her memorial service. But before it could begin, it was interrupted by the arrival of Keith Harper.
Jodi’s family was shocked and upset. A family member told CBS8 that Harper knew he was not welcome at the service but had chosen to show up anyway. Kelly was especially shaken by his sudden appearance. “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.”
Thankfully, Harper didn’t stay long, but as he walked back to his car, several of Jodi’s family members approached him, including her teenage daughter. We don’t know exactly what they said, but we know they told Harper to leave, and he did.
When the memorial service resumed, Jodi’s family spoke of her lovingly. During the eulogy, Kelly remembered her sister as she was. “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.”
In November of 2022, eleven months after Jodi’s death, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office unsealed her autopsy report. The coroner listed her cause of death as “acute methamphetamine toxicity”, indicating that she had died of an overdose.
However, the coroner listed her manner of death as “undetermined” because “[there is] no evidence to determine if Newkirk administered the drugs to herself or if someone else administered it to her.”
Jodi’s case is still an active and ongoing investigation. Although Keith Harper is considered a person of interest in both her case and that of Dia Abrams, he has never been named a suspect and no charges have been filed. But Jodi’s family is still hopeful that justice will be served.
Jodi Newkirk will be remembered as a loving mother who wanted more for her life and for her children’s lives. Her sister is determined to keep her memory alive. “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.”
If you have any information about the death of Jodi Newkirk, please contact the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office at 951-955-2450. And please share her story – someone out there knows something.