CALIFORNIA CITY -- A few weeks ago California City resident Kimberly Tharp marked the sixth year anniversary of her son Robert Austin Tharp’s disappearance.
Six years of missed birthdays, unanswered questions and a continuing cold case that California City police have attempted to find leads on.
As Tharp explained it, “it’s been hell.”
Her son was reported last seen July 4, 2014, according to Cal City Police Department’s missing person’s case description. It was just shy of his 21st birthday, according to Tharp.
“I know absolutely nothing, but I’ve heard all kinds of talk around town,” Tharp said, adding she doesn’t believe her son is still alive. “I know he would have contacted me by now. We were very close.”
Austin is the youngest of Tharp’s three children, and described him as someone who “loved life and fun-loving.”
Tharp said the last time she heard Austin was last seen in her driveway the morning of July 5, 2014, while she was away visiting her daughter’s family in North Carolina. She said she was taking care of an elderly man at the time, who had seen Austin come to Tharp’s house, and then leave in a car with three other people.
Over the years, searches have been conducted in the surrounding desert and communities. Tharp said a private investigator was hired to help pinpoint where it might be suspected her son might be buried.
“I was out there digging for over a year, and nothing came of it,” Tharp said. “The worst part is just not knowing anything.”
She added that the Anonymous Tip Line 1-855-227-3656 is there for people who want to report something. She added she suspects that people out there have some information.
“I would think after six years, someone would have the guts to come forward,” Tharp said.
Tharp said she has lived in Cal City for 29 years, coming out here to raise her children safely. Austin’s disappearance left behind two sons, ages 5 and 7.
Austin Tharp’s cold case isn’t the only one on California City’s books. There are eight cold cases total, with three classified as missing persons and five as homicides.
-- Phillip “Pete” Hammond has been missing since July of 2017;
-- Deverrie Schiller was found strangled to death in Central Park on June 26, 2016;
-- Demetri Thomas was the victim of a drive-by shooting in 2014;
-- Former California City Planning Commissioner Charles Pieper was murdered in his home during what police believe was a home invasion robbery in 2012;
-- Desiree Thompson has been missing since January 2012;
-- Matthew Lininger was killed as he slept in a bed at his girlfriend’s house in 2010;
-- Dr. Burdette Thorbus was murdered in 2001 in what police believe was a botched burglary.
Cal City PD has offered $25,000 rewards for information leading to arrest and convictions of those responsible in each incident. Cal City PD brought on specialists to help close the cold case, with the task currently assigned to Det. Larry Brandenburg.
NBC’s “Dateline” news magazine show even ran a segment on the cases in 2019 in the hopes of spurring more leads.
Brandenburg declined to speak about specifics of the case, citing an ongoing investigation, but there are some leads. Brandenburg currently handles all the cases, receiving support from other Cal City officers as needed and as resources and duties permit.
“I do think we are making progress on this,” he said.
Brandenburg comes from a 34-year career with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, including 20 years in homicide.
Brandenburg said he understands the toll these cold cases take on families.
“People might read about it in the news and might care about it or forget it soon, but the families never get over it because they live with it,” Brandenburg said. He added he hopes to give the families the closure they need.
“It’s the one thing that helps these families go on with life,” Brandenburg said.
He acknowledges that Cal City’s cold case count is rare for a small rural town, though it does occur in other places.
For the time being, Tharp said she remains determined to see the case solved.
“I’m not going to give up,” she said. “I just need to know where his body is, if nothing else. That would bring some peace, so I could put him to rest properly.”
Tharp said that the support from the community and from families of the other victims have helped, and has prompted her to tell others to stay more connected with their loved ones.
“Family is the most important thing, I think,” Tharp said. “Know your children, know their friends, get in their face and in their business.”