Disappearance of wealthy Riverside County ranch owner still a mystery after 3 years

California

What happened to Dia Abrams?

Bonita Vista Ranch owner Dia Abrams, right, and ranch hand Jodi Newkirk. (Illustration by Staff Artist Jeff Goertzen)
Bonita Vista Ranch owner Dia Abrams, right, and ranch hand Jodi Newkirk. (Illustration by Staff Artist Jeff Goertzen)

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

It is a whodunit shrouded in a tale of wealth, family estrangement and heated litigation that continues to intrigue and attract attention from local and national media.

“It’s like being in a ‘Dateline’ mystery,” said Peggy Kotner, Abrams’ sister. Asked what she thinks happened to her sister, Kotner said, “Your guess is as good as mine. I really want to know.”

Abrams, who was 65 when she vanished, is presumed dead, though her body has never been found.

Abrams’ disappearance

Abrams had been estranged for years from her husband, a  wealthy La Jolla developer who died in 2018. She loved the outdoors and animals, so in about 2004 or 2005 she decided to trade the affluent seaside community in San Diego County for a tranquil 115-acre ranch in Mountain Center.

Abrams “just wanted to get away from the stress of things and be around animals,” said Julie Stanford, a retired postal worker and Mountain Center resident who met Abrams in 2011 while working part-time at the Lake Hemet Market.

Living on the Bonita Vista Ranch with Abrams was Keith Leslie Harper, a retired parole agent for the Utah Department of Corrections with a sketchy past who had served time behind bars. In a 2022 deposition, Harper said he and Abrams met in 2016 on a dating website.

After Harper flew into Ontario International Airport to meet up with Abrams, the two quickly hit it off and Harper said he moved in with her at the ranch six months later. Harper said he worked to upgrade Abrams’ property, building dams, bridges, fences and helping care for her animals.

Harper also claimed to be Abrams’ fiance.

In public statements and the sworn deposition given in a legal dispute with Abrams’ children over control of her multimillion-dollar estate, Harper, 73, said he was the last person to have seen Abrams before she went missing sometime after 2:30 p.m. on June 6, 2020.

Harper said the two had lunch together at the ranch, then went their separate ways — Harper to mow the meadow and Abrams to tend her horses at another property she owned in the neighboring ranch community of Garner Valley.

Harper said he spent about five hours mowing the meadow before returning to the house around 7:30 p.m. and noticing Abrams’ Ford F-350 pickup still parked outside. But Abrams was nowhere to be found.

He said he called Abrams’ mobile phone and heard it ringing upstairs. The phone was still plugged into a charger next to a nightstand. Abrams’ purse and keys also were left behind.

“She never left the residence,” Harper said in the deposition.

  • Dia Abrams standing atop the steps of the newly completed...

    Dia Abrams standing atop the steps of the newly completed Bonita Vista Ranch. Circa 2004. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

  • Bonita Vista Ranch under construction. Circa 2004. (Photo courtesy of...

    Bonita Vista Ranch under construction. Circa 2004. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

  • Bonita Vista Ranch, in Mountain Center, under construction. Circa 2004....

    Bonita Vista Ranch, in Mountain Center, under construction. Circa 2004. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

  • Julie Stanford stands near the gate of her missing friend...

    Julie Stanford stands near the gate of her missing friend Dia Abrams’ 117 acre Bonita Vista Ranch in Mountain Center, near Lake Hemet, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Abrams, a multimillionaire, was last seen on June 6, 2020 at her ranch and has disappeared without a trace. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Jodi Kristen Newkirk, 46, died at Bonita Vista Ranch under...

    Jodi Kristen Newkirk, 46, died at Bonita Vista Ranch under suspicious circumstances on Dec. 23, 2021. Her death was later attributed to a methamphetamine overdose. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Berkowitz).

  • Jodi Newkirk. Circa 2021. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Berkowitz)

    Jodi Newkirk. Circa 2021. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Berkowitz)

  • Jodi Newkirk with her son, Christopher, and daughter Faith. Circa...

    Jodi Newkirk with her son, Christopher, and daughter Faith. Circa 2007. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Berkowitz).

  • Dia Abrams and her son, Clinton, following the funeral for...

    Dia Abrams and her son, Clinton, following the funeral for Clem Abrams at La Jolla Farms in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

  • Dia and Clem Abrams. Circa unknown. (Photo courtesy of Clinton...

    Dia and Clem Abrams. Circa unknown. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

  • Dia Abrams with her daughter, Crisara, and son Clinton, following...

    Dia Abrams with her daughter, Crisara, and son Clinton, following the funeral of Clem Abrams at La Jolla Farms in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

  • Julie Stanford stands near the gate of her missing friend...

    Julie Stanford stands near the gate of her missing friend Dia Abrams’ 117 acre Bonita Vista Ranch in Mountain Center, near Lake Hemet, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Abrams, a multimillionaire, was last seen on June 6, 2020 at her ranch and has disappeared without a trace. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Dia Abrams with one of her horses on her ranch....

    Dia Abrams with one of her horses on her ranch. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Abrams)

Harper said he called a California Highway Patrol officer Abrams knew who lived nearby. The officer, according to Harper, told him law enforcement would not take any action until Abrams had been missing for three days. Harper said he couldn’t remember the officer’s name.

The following day, Harper said, he started making calls to Abrams’ friends and neighbors. A community search party was formed involving dozens of locals who scoured the ranch and surrounding mountain area on foot, horseback and all-terrain vehicles. Harper, some say, was barely involved, riding an ATV around the property.

Leaves state

Riverside County sheriff’s deputies subsequently began a days-long search the following day, on June 8. But before they arrived, Harper packed up his RV and took off for Arizona, ostensibly to take care of a tax issue at a property he owned there, according to his deposition. From there, he said he traveled to a storage facility he owns in Aztec, New Mexico.

He was gone seven days.

Some who participated in the search, including employees from neighboring Pine Springs Ranch and the Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, found it odd that Harper would leave the ranch, and the state, on business when his purported fiancee was missing and just before deputies arrived to conduct a large-scale search of their own.

“He didn’t get involved with us at all, which gave me a bad gut feeling,” said one man who participated in the search but asked not to be identified. “If it were my fiancee and someone I loved, I’d want to be involved. You don’t run away a few hours before (police) get here to do a search. And yet that’s exactly what he did — he packed up his RV and he took off. What in the world?”

Garner Valley Valley resident Ronnie Imel, whose wife played bunco with Abrams, also participated in the search, and cast doubt on  Harper’s claim about mowing the meadow.

“That meadow was not freshly mowed. I walked through it. There were weeds up to my knees. There were foxtails in my pants and socks,” said Imel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Army Airborne ranger specializing in reconnaissance.

Additionally, Imel recalls Harper telling him during the first search that he had been working on a building on the property — not mowing the meadow — when Abrams went missing.

“He said nothing about the meadow,” Imel said during an interview at his home, where he operates his nonprofit, Veterans Paying It Forward, and assists other veterans in obtaining disability benefits.

Diana Fedder, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent and friend of Abrams who helped organize the search, said Harper told her he had to leave the state to check in with his probation officer, which is inconsistent with his deposition testimony two years later.

Harper did not respond to requests for comment regarding Abrams’ disappearance, but has denied having anything to do with it.

Search warrants

Sheriff’s investigators, also suspicious that Harper would leave the ranch and the state, immediately began working to obtain search warrants and track him down.

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

Warrants were signed to search the ranch on Bonita Vista Road and another property on the same street she rented out and where a marijuana grow was discovered. Investigators also served warrants to search 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 bed sheet, Band-Aid and piece of toilet tissue all with possible blood on them; two handwritten letters; and a Netgear router, according to a sheriff’s property report.

From Harper’s RV, investigators seized a front section of the driver’s seat, according to a warrant filed in San Juan County District Court in New Mexico.

At Abrams’ Bonita Vista Road rental property, which she named Sky High Ranch, investigators seized 2,389 marijuana plants and 357 pounds of processed marijuana, according to the warrant.

Fedder said Abrams was aware her tenants at Sky High Ranch were growing marijuana but didn’t want anything to do with them. Abrams would send a ranch hand to collect the rent, said Fedder, who now lives in Georgia.

“She never went over there. She said she didn’t want to know anything about it, but they paid their rent on time,” Fedder said.

Arizona lead

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said most leads in the Abrams’ investigation have been exhausted — all except one.

Investigators have honed in on Arizona and are now working with law enforcement there, but Bianco would not elaborate on the tip his agency received nor identify the location investigators have zeroed in on. He did say, however, that it does not involve the Grand Wash Cliffs area that investigators were looking into in 2021 after a tip led them there.

“A couple of months ago a lead came in that eventually led to this,” Bianco said, declining further comment.

Death at the ranch

Eighteen months after Abrams’ disappearance, Harper would be the central figure in another tragedy at the ranch. On Dec. 23, 2021, ranch hand Jodi Newkirk died in what was reported at the time to be an ATV rollover accident.

Harper called 911 sometime after 5 p.m., and a responding CHP officer arrived to find him performing CPR on Newkirk, who was pinned under the all-terrain vehicle, according to a coroner’s investigation report. Responding paramedics pronounced Newkirk, 46, dead less than 10 minutes later.

The CHP officer, identified in the report only as “Officer Hoskins,” told Riverside County Deputy Coroner Craig Wills there did not appear to be any trauma on Newkirk’s body consistent with a rollover accident, that he was concerned about Harper’s account of what happened to Newkirk, and that he believed Newkirk’s death was suspicious, according to the report.

Hoskins observed no major damage to the ATV, and noted that the tire tracks leading to the vehicle ended abruptly behind it, indicating the ATV simply came to a stop. He also pointed to the absence of skid or slide marks and noted the soil around the ATV was not disturbed.

Harper, according to the report, told Hoskins that Newkirk had worked on the ranch for about 3 1/2 months. He said she had asked him for a shovel, then rode off to look for a Christmas tree, despite the fact it was raining heavily.

About an hour later, Harper said he went looking for Newkirk, noticed a blinking orange light in the distance and walked to the area, finding Newkirk beneath the ATV.

Investigators also noted the Abrams missing person case, and Harper’s connection to it.

“Officer Hoskins informed me that Harper was under investigation related to the missing person report of the property owner of the ranch who disappeared over a year ago,” Wills said in his report. “Harper was living on the property and had numerous law enforcement contacts regarding the alleged involvement.”

Wills said he informed his sergeant that Harper’s account of events did not match up to findings at the scene, and suggested that investigators follow up. The case was subsequently turned over to the sheriff’s homicide unit, according to the report.

In February 2022, the coroner’s office concluded Newkirk’s cause of death to be acute methamphetamine toxicity. The manner of her death, however, was declared “undetermined.” Newkirk’s case remains open, said sheriff’s investigator Alberto Loureiro, the lead detective on both Newkirk’s death and Abrams’ disappearance.

The coroner’s investigation report noted that Loureiro did not rule out foul play in Newkirk’s death, and said there was no evidence to determine if she took the drugs herself or if someone else administered them to her.

Newkirk had been a meth addict since she was 15 years old and had numerous run-ins with the law, said her sister, Kelly Berkowitz, who added that the amount of methamphetamine in her sister’s system appeared to be extremely high, even for a lifelong addict.

“She was a professional user,” Berkowitz said of her sister’s drug use. “To me, it doesn’t make sense because she’s never had an overdose. Never!”

She said she last spoke with her sister, a horse trainer who took care of the animals at the ranch, in a phone call the day before her death. Berkowitz said her sister was upset that Harper allegedly pawned Newkirk’s horse to cover the cost of a bridge project at the ranch, and Newkirk was having trouble getting her horse back.

Berkowitz said her sister loved the outdoors, and considered employment at the ranch her dream job.

Harper, who responded to questions about Newkirk’s death via text message, stands by his story even in the face of law enforcement suspicion. He believes Newkirk was riding the ATV sidesaddle, with both feet to the left of the vehicle, when it tipped over on top of her. He said he has 20 years’ experience of having provided ATV tours at his former business, Outlaw Tours, in Durango, Colorado, and has witnessed many similar accidents.

As to Newkirk’s overdose, Harper said: “If Jodi had died from an overdose, why stage (an) accident to cover up an overdose, why not just report the death?”

Asked about the series of events involving Newkirk and Abrams, he said, “That’s tragic. The loss of one life is tragic, but the loss of many is overwhelming.”

Abrams amends trust

Two weeks before she disappeared, on May 22, 2020, Abrams amended her trust, which she had drafted in December 2016 initially naming her daughter, Crisara Abrams, as trustee. The amendment instead named Harper and Fedder as trustees of her estate.

Following the death of Clem Abrams, her husband of 34 years, in December 2018, Abrams filed a petition in San Diego County Superior Court to invalidate a prenuptial agreement executed before the two were married in 1984, claiming she signed it under duress just before her wedding.

Abrams also was seeking more than $6.7 million in assets from her late husband’s $11 million estate to fund a marital trust. Clem Abrams nominated his surviving children, Clinton and Crisara Abrams, as executors of his estate.

Abrams’ friends and Harper said Abrams’ relationship with her children was estranged, so much so that Abrams excluded her son from her trust, “leaving nothing but her love and affection to her son,” according to the trust. She subsequently excluded her daughter, thus setting off another legal challenge between Harper and Crisara Abrams over control of her mother’s estate following her disappearance.

Dia Abrams’ estate included the Bonita Vista Ranch, the Sky High Ranch, the Garner Valley ranch on Tool Box Springs Road, a Chase checking account and a 2006 Lexus.

Abrams family vs. Harper

Crisara Abrams pushed for the removal of Harper as trustee of her mother’s estate in a petition filed in Riverside Superior Court in July 2021, requesting that the court instead appoint a private professional fiduciary.

By that time, Fedder said she had already removed herself as a trustee because she sold her Garner Valley home and moved to Georgia to look after her ailing parents.

Crisara Abrams’ petition alleged financial elder abuse on Harper’s part as well as breach of fiduciary duty, including self-dealing, concealing his actions and refusing to produce records. She also noted Harper’s potential involvement in her mother’s disappearance that was under investigation and his criminal history in Colorado.

Law enforcement and court records show Harper had pleaded guilty in La Plata County District Court to third-degree misdemeanor assault on his ex-wife in March 2002 and was granted probation for one year. In March 2012, he was convicted in San Juan County Superior Court in Colorado of three misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual contact for fondling women during snowmobile tours at his former business, Outlaw Tours, in Durango.

Harper, however, contested his conviction, maintained his innocence and turned down probation, instead opting to serve a year in jail.

“I did nine months for choice that I would not do probation or pay their court cost,” Harper said in his 2022 deposition. “I was innocent of the charge.”

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

Harper also served time in federal prison for illegally operating his Outlaw Tours business on Forest Service land without a permit and for giving a false report and other information to a Forest Service officer. Randilee Giamusso, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said 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 serve as trustee.

Harper fired back with his own court declaration. He said the estate battle between Dia Abrams and her children escalated following the death of Clem Abrams. Harper alleged the children cut off all financial support to their mother, even going so far as trying to take her 2006 Ford F-350 pickup, her only means of transportation.

“They have attempted a hostile takeover of their mother’s properties by financial strangulation and harassment,” Harper said.

On March 23, Harper and the Abrams siblings agreed to settle the matter. The agreement allows Harper to continue managing the ranch as a co-trustee until the ranch or the livestock is sold, and another co-trustee was appointed by the court to help oversee and manage the trust.

The agreement also calls for the court-appointed trustee to post a $300,000 reward for any information regarding Abrams’ disappearance.

On June 6, 2025, the trust will be split three ways, with Harper getting 50% and Crisara and Clinton Abrams each getting 25%.

Additionally, the settlement stipulated that any beneficiary “found to have been involved in Dia’s disappearance or death is disinherited and shall receive no distribution from the trust.”

Clinton Abrams said in an email that while his family is grateful to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for what it has done, he said it has not been nearly enough.

“Many individuals know the people and events that converged to bring about my mother’s demise,” he said. “Where there is a will there is a way; with ironclad tenacity, this case can be solved.”

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