The family of Lisa Harvey is working through grief and welcoming closure this week after the 51-year-old Ventura woman’s car was pulled out of the Kern River above the Upper Richbar picnic area.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Coroner’s office has not yet identified the body found in the Toyota Solera that was winched out of a pool on the river Saturday.
But cousin Jennifer Cotterell of Ridgecrest said the family is certain it is Harvey.
“She has a large family who all knows and love her,” Cotterell said. “We’re all processing it differently. But we needed the closure.”
Without that closure, she said, there is a rabbit hole your mind goes down imagining all the terrible things that could have happened.
“You don’t know. You can’t mourn,” Cotterell said.
Harvey’s family has been living in that limbo since the April night that Harvey disappeared.
Cotterell said Harvey was the fifth child in a big family full of strong, stubborn, independent women.
“Lisa’s the life of the party,” she said. “I grew up with her when I was young.”
Cotterell and her mother lived with Harvey and her mother in those years, she said, and the older girl was just a ton of fun.
“When my uncle would make pork chops for dinner she was the one who taught me how to pretend to eat it and throw it away,” Cotterell said.
Harvey loved the beach. She had a huge heart and a lot of love.
She carried that love into her job as a para-education teacher serving special needs children, Cotterell said.
In recent years Harvey lived with a niece and her family in Ventura, she said.
“If you ask all Lisa’s nieces and nephews, she is the fun aunt,” Cotterell said. “I can hear her laughing.”
Late on April 29 Harvey was nearing the end of a long drive from Ventura to visit a cousin from her father’s side of the family in Lake Isabella.
In the late hours, driving north on Highway 99, she appears to have missed the exit for Highway 178.
Cotterell said her cousin didn’t use gps to navigate.
The signage for the Highway 178 exit from northbound Highway 99 mentions only Highway 58, which runs westbound – not the 24th Street route eastbound to Highway 178.
Harvey kept driving, out of Bakersfield and north through Delano and into Tulare County.
Cotterell said at around 11:51 p.m. Harvey called a friend to update them and told them she had gone too far and was going to gas up and head back down to Bakersfield.
Phone records, she said, showed Harvey’s phone had pinged a cell tower in the area of Tipton and Pixley about 45 minutes north of downtown Bakersfield.
About 40 minutes later Harvey made her last communication – a missed Facebook Messenger call. That call wasn’t answered and the social media application recorded a minute of indistinct audio from Harvey, Cotterell said.
She said they believe the call was an accident.
Then Harvey and her white Toyota Solera disappeared.
When Harvey’s family found out that she hadn’t arrived at her destination they immediately started a search.
Cotterell, in Ridgecrest, was closest.
“I drove up there and started looking for her,” she said. “I stopped and got food and water. I figured she had gone off the highway.”
Harvey, she reasoned, would be stranded, frustrated, thirsty and hungry.
Cotterell thought of Harvey sitting on the side of the road – her phone useless in the canyon’s dead-cell zone – waiting to be picked up.
But Cotterell and her husband didn’t find Harvey or her car.
Law enforcement was called and the search began.
The family felt they knew where she was, even as they tried not to think about nightmare scenarios that would take her who-knows-where.
“We were always sure that she had wrecked in the canyon,” Cotterell said.
The family, led by Harvey's daughter, rallied to Kern County from Ventura. Harvey’s mother came from Las Vegas. Her three sisters and one brother came in from their far-flung homes.
And they searched.
The family combed Highway 178 by car and eventually on foot.
“I chartered a plane and flew up and down the canyon a bunch of times,” Cotterell said.
Kern County Search and Rescue teams covered the canyon by helicopter, in vehicles and on foot.
They found nothing.
Then the Kern River, swollen by one of the biggest water years in the past two decades, pulled the search and rescue volunteers away into a blistering summer rescue season that claimed at least 14 other lives and put hundreds of others at risk.
And Harvey’s family struggled forward without news about her fate.
Then, one week ago, someone called the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
They had been scavenging along the Kern River just a couple miles above Upper Richbar Campground and they’d found a bag.
In the bag was information connected to Lisa Harvey, said Kern County Sheriff’s Sergeant Zachary Bittle, the Search and Rescue coordinator for the Sheriff’s volunteer teams.
The person who found the bag searched Harvey’s name online and called in the location.
Sheriff’s officials drove to that spot in the canyon, climbed down the steep 100 foot wall of the canyon to the river and spotted a car, flipped onto its roof and completely submerged in the river, under the obscuring branches of a huge tree.
On Friday, Dec. 1, six months to the day after Harvey disappeared, they surveyed the location, developed an extraction plan and made plans with Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol to close Highway 178 through the canyon.
On Saturday they sent divers in, hooked up the car and pulled it out.
It was Harvey’s Solera.
There was a body inside.
Cotterell was there on Friday and Saturday.
At first, she said, she didn’t understand what they meant when officials told her the entire car, even the tires, were under the water.
Then she realized why they had never found the Solera. It was upside down.
“I went out there on Friday when they were closing it off,” Cotterell said. “I stood and looked at the water and I knew there was a car there but I couldn’t see it.”
All those months they had been looking for something that was invisible.
“I was looking for a white car. I wasn’t looking for a black undercarriage,” she said.
Now the family is working through the grief, Cotterell said, and dealing with other tragedies.
“My family in Ventura has been evacuated because of the fires,” she said.
Later, in the new year, there will be a memorial for Harvey.
But for now, Cotterell said, she is finally able to breathe out and process what happened back in April.
“I just needed to know that she wasn’t waiting for me somewhere,” she said.