Missing relative found in river

By REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

A desperate search that spanned four counties over the course of seven months for a missing 51-year-old Ventura woman came to an end this weekend when Kern County officials recovered from the Kern River what they believe are her remains.

“Honestly, it’s the best-case scenario for the worst possible situation,” said Jennifer Cotterell of Ridgecrest, who helped lead the search for her cousin, Lisa Harvey.

“As I walked away on Saturday, it was a bittersweet feeling. In a way it was like losing her all over again because we knew for sure that she was really gone. But our family needed to know what happened. Her daughter, her mother, her niece, me — all of us — needed to have closure.”

On April 29 Harvey left her hometown to visit family members in Lake Isabella. She apparently called a friend from Tulare around 11:50 p.m. to tell them she had missed her turn (ostensibly looking for the 178 East from the 99 North). An apparent pocket call to the family member she intended to visit came in at 12:30 a.m. That was the last anyone would hear from her.

But through a series of misinterpreted data and events, the search was delayed and kicked around while officials tried to determine where she went missing. Kern County deputies said that Harvey’s 11:50 call pinged a cell tower in Palmdale.

Although this report turned out to be untrue, it placed in question whether Harvey disappeared in Kern, Tulare or Los Angeles county. All the while, Ventura County officials stood in the wings waiting to see if the case would land in their laps.

However, Cotterell and her family members believed that Harvey had turned around in Tulare before midnight and gotten back on the 178. In the days that followed, family members stopped at every fueling station and convenience store on the route to unearth any clue as to Harvey’s last known whereabouts. Cotterell chartered a private plane to fly over the treacherous geography in search of the missing white car.

But after months had passed with no new clues and no way to mount a more aggressive search, Harvey’s loved ones had all but given up hope of finding her.

“Really, it’s a miracle that we were able to find out what happened,” said Cotterell.

Last Friday a young hiker and some friends encountered a bag full of Harvey’s belongings while exploring the rugged terrain around the Kern River Valley. They found an item with her name on it inside the bag, and Googled her name in hopes of finding a way to contact her. What they found instead was a giant footprint on social media that centered around the desperate search for her.

Upon their discovery, they contacted authorities.

Cotterell said that she would not have known so soon about the lead, except that the young man who found Harvey’s belongings posted on one of the search pages that her vehicle had been located off the 178 at Mile Marker 23.

“We have had so many people come to us with information,” said Cotterell. The stories varied, and ultimately never led to anything useful. “I would call my family and tell them, ‘You know, I don’t think this is going to go anywhere, but here’s what was reported.’ And of course it never amounted to anything. This was the first time I believed it was true.”

A family member contacted the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to verify that Harvey’s car had in fact been found. Sheriff’s officials would only say they could neither confirm nor deny. Cotterell drove to the scene off the 178 on Friday afternoon. She found officers blocking off the scene. They still could not confirm that it was Harvey’s car, but they acknowledged that a team would be recovering the vehicle the following day.

Cotterell was determined to be on hand during the recovery, but was informed by officials that family would not be allowed to go near the site. She showed up early Saturday morning (with coffee and donuts for the rescue team). Officials gave her as much of an update as they could, but discouraged her from staying on scene.

She and her husband agreed to leave, but returned toward the end of the recovery effort. When she got back, the car had been retrieved from the river, and the body had been removed and delivered to a medical examiner on the scene.

“I know now why they don’t wan the families on site,” she said, sharing the unanticipated trauma she carried home with her from the sights and sounds of the recovery effort.

“But I needed to see that respect and reverence from the rescue team.”

After months of feeling frustrated and exhausted trying to convince officials to look along the dangerous 178, Cotterell said she needed to witness the concern and care with which scores of strangers treated the recovery of her cousin.

Harvey’s vehicle went off the road just after a particularly precarious turn. Between atypically high levels of the river and the fact that the car was upside down, Cotterell said, she does not know how they would have found the car if the hikers had not found Harvey’s belongings so near the vehicle.

“Thank God the team knew right where to look. And thank God those boys didn’t just throw away her stuff without a thought!” Cottrell said.

Although the official information surrounding Harvey’s death is still under analysis, deputies at the scene noted that the fact that her seatbelt was still buckled. The coroner later noted that indicated she was unconscious when her car went off the road.

“I am so glad that she didn’t suffer. That was our worst fear during the search — that she was waiting somewhere, hoping to be rescued.”

Cotterell said the family will be planning a memorial service for Harvey.

“In a really weird way, this really expressed Lisa’s character,” said Cotterell. “She was late to everything. You watch our wedding video, and you see her come in and sit down in the middle of the service. And she always told people, ‘I’m so glad you got to know me.’

“So here we are after this crazy search with everyone focused on her and asking questions about her. It was just like her to show up seven months late.

“And she probably would want everyone to know, ‘I’m so glad you got to know me.’”

Story First Published: 2017-12-08