Missing in the Mountains: obsession, violence and tragedy in a quiet place 

Winton Road, outside West Point, in Calaveras County. Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

Marny Shaffer knew something was wrong almost as soon as she arrived for her daughter.

Shaffer had made her way up a tree-lined path bending off Pine Grove’s highway, its entrance guarded by a lone white-and-red cross near the shaggy trunk of a pine. Shaffer rolled past this makeshift memorial as she drove up a hill towards the house her daughter was renting. She’d come to take the 27-year-old to a visitation appointment with her own children. Savana Burger had been trying to regain custody of her kids ever since a night of shock and chaos hit this property like a cyclone three months before. Savana had nothing to do with what happened, but it had seriously rocked her life.

That incident on July 20th, 2020 caused Savana’s boyfriend, Joshua Ramirez Blackwell, to be arrested on a warrant as Child Protective Services took the couples’ little ones away. Sheriff’s deputies had found drugs in the house. But Ramirez Blackwell’s narcotics weren’t the main reason law enforcement pulled up to the old structure that morning: They’d been dispatched for a far more jarring discovery.

Savana’s custody issues were the fall-out from what had been found at the knotty pine trunk at the bottom of the driveway.

Since then, the young mother had been going to addiction treatment and making all of the necessary court appearances to get her kids’ lives on track. As the summer’s brightness turned to shades of fall, things were finally starting to get better. Savana saw a light at the end of the custody tunnel. 

When Shaffer knocked on the house’s glass slider that day and got no response, she was initially perplexed. She walked around to the front door, knowing that there was no way her daughter would miss visiting with the kids.

She tried knocking again.  

It was Oct. 23, 2020.

Savana Burger.

Eventually, Savana’s roommate, Emily, came out. She told Shaffer that her daughter left the day before with a man named Jerry. Emily hadn’t seen her since.

Shaffer felt uneasy. At that point, all she really knew about 44-year-old Jerry Lee Adams was that he was a grieving father who been directing cryptic, ominous messages towards Ramirez Blackwell and two of Savana’s friends. Shaffer felt a cloud of worry settling inside her – and it was directly tied to that bleak-and-crimson cross she’d gone by.

A search was about to begin for Savana, one that would start here in Amador County and then stretch to Calaveras County’s most-rugged hilltops and ravines. It would lead cops, volunteers and town folks to go tromping down ridges of vines and along turning creek beds and through torturous bramble called mountain misery. And it would cause those closest to Savana to fear, as the looming snows approached, that they might never know what happened to her.

Shaffer dealt with the beginnings of those premonitions on that October morning.         

“As soon as Emily said that Savana had left with Jerry, I called the Sheriff’s Office,” she remembers. “It was just as soon as I realized she hadn’t come back.”

Obsession at the tree

Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson.

The name on that roadside cross was Isaac Adams. He was a 23-year-old who had grown up 18 miles away in Calaveras’s remote mountain enclave of West Point. According to testimony at a recent court hearing in Amador, Isaac Adams had been dating a girl named Sarah leading up to the evening of disarray at Savana’s house. Amador County Sheriff’s Detective Keith Russell testified that five people were on the property that night of July 20, 2020: Isaac Adams, who’d been visiting; Isaac’s girlfriend, Sarah; a man named Nick; Ramirez Blackwell; and Savana herself. Savana was mostly shut away in her bedroom from for what was about to happen.

Russell explained that, at some point, Sarah let Isaac know that she was breaking up with him. Isaac became angry, ultimately storming out of the house around 2 a.m. The others inside said that they could hear him down the hill, walking up and down Highway 88, yelling things up towards Sarah.

Everyone listened to the outbursts until around 5 a.m., when Isaac went silent, according to statements taken by Russell.

Around 6:40 a.m., motorists driving through Pine Grove spotted Isaac Adams hanging from a tree at bottom of the driveway.

Russell, who was on patrol that morning, was the first deputy to get there. Surveying the scene, he recognized Isaac Adams from previous contacts. He saw that the hanging had been done with a black rope and that there was a backpack and flashlight under Isaac’s feet. The detective testified that, when he’d then gone up to the house, everyone inside seemed unaware of what had befallen the young man.  

One of them may not have been entirely surprised.

Russell recalled that Sarah described Isaac as having been suicidal for a long time. She said that she’d stopped him from taking his life on three occasions.

The duty of contacting Isaac Adam’s father, Jerry Lee Adams, with the sad news, fell to Russell. Asked by defense attorney Ken Foley how Jerry reacted, Russell recalled the older Adams being engulfed in an outcry.

“But that kind of reaction is something you see a lot, right?” Foley retorted to the detective.

“Yes,” Russell replied.  

Isaac Adams.

While Sarah had been Isaac’s girlfriend, Savana had been his confidant.  

“He was a drug addict, and he was very depressive,” notes Melissa Swan, who’d known Isaac Adams since he was a child. Swan is also a close friend of Savana’s mother – a kind of nexus between two families who found themselves on opposite sides of a courtroom on Aug. 16, 2022.

Swan says that, for a while, Savana tried to be a pillar of support for Isaac.

“He would always talk to Savana about things he’d been through when he was growing up,” Swan adds. “God, I wish she was here, because she could tell you some stories.”

An autopsy performed on Isaac Adams determined that he died from asphyxiation by hanging. Amador County’s chief deputy coroner ruled the death was a suicide. However, Jerry Lee Adams did not accept that finding. Rumors had reached him that, when Isaac was seen hanging, there was deep bluing in his face. In Detective Russell’s testimony, he noted that this wasn’t unusual for a body in that state. But Jerry Adams believed that the discoloration was from bruising – a bruising inflicted on his son by the other two men who’d been at the house that night, Nick and Ramirez Blackwell.

Based on messages that Adams wrote, later read aloud in court, the distraught father convinced himself that the two men had beaten Isaac to death at the direction of Sarah, Isaac’s newly minted ex-girlfriend.

Jerry Adams started making vague, menacing posts on social media about holding everyone at the house that night accountable. According to testimony, at one point Adams shared a photo of Isaac’s memorial cross, along with the words “justice for Isaac” and the image of an automatic pistol in the frame.

Then, Adams started trying to get ahold of Nick, whom he believed had replaced his son as Sarah’s boyfriend.

Detectives would eventually learn that three of the four people in orbit of Isaac’s suicide realized Jerry Lee Adams was on the warpath.  

The only one who didn’t seem to fully understand it … was Savana.   

The girl who disappeared, the man behind the messages

Savana Burger with her son, James.

For those who loved Savana, she was the last person they thought would end up in the sites of an unhinged father consumed by rage. Savana was naturally empathetic – a people-pleaser who automatically put others’ needs and happiness ahead of her own. She had dreams of becoming a youth counselor.

“She was the most-loving person you’d ever want to meet – just loved everyone,” Shaffer says. “She never judged anyone.”  

Conor Matlock, who was like a second father to Savana, describes her as a caring, gently vulnerable soul.   

“Savana kind of adopted me, really,” Matlock admits. “She was a sweet girl that would never have hurt anybody. I called her Cheekie Lala growing up. She was afraid of amusement park rides. I couldn’t even get her to ride the little kid rides when she was 12. She was the kind of person who took in animals from the shelter to foster them, even when she could barely afford to do things for herself … From the time she was young, she wanted to have kids – she wanted to be a mom.”

Savana’s friends stress that, prior to her three-year relationship with Ramirez Blackwell, she had never had run-ins with the system. The story goes that Ramirez Blackwell was clean when he and Savana started dating. Later, Savana’s boyfriend reportedly relapsed, and her own life began spiraling along with his.

According to court records, Ramirez Blackwell has convictions for theft, cutting phone lines, inflicting corporal injury on a spouse, along with two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery and one charge of resisting a peace officer. His most-recent arrest happened last March, when he was taken into custody for spousal battery directed at a new girl. Ramirez Blackwell’s last guilty plea involved an admission he’d violated probation by testing positive for drugs.

The tumult that Ramirez Blackwell was in became public within the small community less than a month before Isaac Adams died. Ramirez Blackwell was at the house he shared with Savana when he got into an argument with a former roommate and allegedly started throwing rocks at him. That man, in turn, pulled out a shotgun. This forced an arriving sheriff’s deputy to draw his own weapon while getting out of his cruiser.

It all made the paper.

Savana was at the house as the drama unfolded.

Swan believes that Savana stayed with Ramirez Blackwell partly because he was the father of her two youngest children; and partly due to her own struggles with self-esteem.

“She just wanted love and acceptance,” Swan reflects. “She hated the way she looked … She thought she wasn’t beautiful.”

When Swan heard that Jerry Lee Adams was starting his slow-burn terrorizing online – and that Savana was on his list – she knew there was a genuine misunderstanding.

“Isaac was like her little brother to Savana– she did nothing to harm him,” stresses Swan, who had also been acquainted with Jerry Adams for years and made it a point to stay away from him.

“I know he’s possessive, and that he gets what he wants out of anger and force,” Swan adds of Isaac’s dad. “The day I saw those Facebook posts about how he was going to get everybody, I told Marny, ‘Please get your daughter of this county.’”

And who is Jerry Lee Adams? It’s not a question that veteran deputies in Amador and Calaveras counties have difficulty answering: Court records indicate that, between those agencies, Adams has been arrested well over 22 times.

He has multiple convictions for burglary, possessing stolen checks, transporting narcotics and assault and battery. From Pine Grove to West Point, Adams’ most talked-about crime, previously, was burglarizing a small-town pharmacy for a cache of opiates. He committed that break-in along the same rural highway where, two blocks away, his son would later be found dead.

After Jerry Adams spurred rumors online that Isaac was murdered, Nick and Sarah – his two primary obsessions – left the county. Ramirez Blackwell was in custody on various charges. That meant that the only one at the house that Adams could reach out and touch – was Savana. 

Lying in wait

The West Point cemetery. Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

When Amador County Sheriff’s detectives John Cruz and Nathan Woods learned that Savana had been making her court dates, and keeping up her child visitations, without fail, they were immediately concerned about the disappearance. Shaffer says that the CPS worker assigned to Savana’s case was, too.

Though Savana’s loved ones were mystified, there was a stroke of luck in the investigation: Savana had been maintaining two phones. One was with her when she vanished; but the other was still at the house and still usable. It was also still logged into her social media platforms. Shaffer let the detectives know, who then got a warrant for the other cell device and Savana’s Facebook account.

That revealed a disturbing line of communication.

At the recent hearing, Woods testified that Jerry Adams had first contacted Savana through Facebook Messenger. It was in the wake of Isaac’s death. According to Woods, there had been an ongoing conversation between Savana and Jerry Adams right up until the moment she melted away. The detective sergeant did not break down everything discussed, but confirmed that Adams wanted to know about his son’s last night on earth. 

Shaffer and Swan believe that Savana was communicating with this man, whom she knew her friends were scared of, because she thought she could help with his grieving process.

What Savana didn’t know, Woods shared on the witness stand, was that Jerry Adams had been sending messages to his own family saying he wanted all four people who’d been at the house during Isaac’s death, including Savana, to burn in hell.

Woods walked prosecutor Lindsey Dell’Orto through the culmination of Adams’ deception. He explained that on Oct. 22, 2020, Adams sent a Facebook message to Savana saying that his dead son had been coming to him in his dreams, Isaac’s spirit imploring his father to visit his grave with Savana. Jerry Adams asked Savana if she would grant this request. Savana messaged back that she was willing to go the cemetery in West Point, but emphasized she had to be home by 1 p.m. She had a court date that she didn’t want to miss.

Adams then told Savana he was on his way to pick her up.

So, why did Savana get in the truck?

Shaffer explains that her daughter had spiritualist beliefs and may have actually took Jerry Adams at his word about Isaac speaking from beyond the grave.  

Either way, Shaffer acknowledges that Savana had trouble comprehending that anyone could truly mean her harm.

“She didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ or put herself first, and that was always the problem,” Shaffer observes. “I tried so hard to raise her so that she would not be so naive. I mean, she knew all about evil in the world, but she just wouldn’t see it.”

A hunt through the hills

Main Street, West Point. Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

Almost as soon as Savana’s friends learned that Jerry Adams had taken her to the isolated ridges of West Point, an impromptu search party started to fan out through the surrounding mountains. Its members took pickup trucks and a dirt bike down hidden backroads, and along empty vacation cabins, and around old mine shafts lost in the woods. All the while, Swan used an app called Live 360 to map the grids that they were covering.

Reports had swirled through West Point that, around the time Savana was gone, Adams had been spotted in his truck out on Winton Road, a worn mountain path with a very dark history. People also thought they’d seen him out by an abandoned gold-digging site.

West Point lies in Calaveras County just across the Mokelumne River from north-east Amador. Jerry Lee Adams grew up there. Most people in the town knew him. They could recognize him on-sight.

One family friend who was searching was Lakeeta Rogers. Her mother, Tonya Rogers, is a West Pointer who grew up with Jerry Adams – and was wary of him.

“She knew Jerry Adams’ history,” Lakeeta recalls, adding that her mom had gone out looking for Savana before messaging the others possible spots to check. “Jerry was seen up there, multiple times,” Rogers says. “He knew the ins-and-outs of West Point.”

Jerry Lee Adams.

Meanwhile, Cruz and Woods used cellular data from the phone Savana left behind to track the movements of the phone she took with her. Its travel route indicated that Adams had indeed brought her to Isaac’s grave at the West Point cemetery. Isaac was laid to rest in a family plot with a small bench in front of his marker: The space is lovingly cluttered with flowers, river stones and candle boxes. The headstone has a photograph of Isaac’s face, smiling, overlayed into its light marble.

Whatever Savana and Jerry Adams did, or said, at Isaac’s gravesite, it wasn’t a place where he could get away with harming her. The cemetery is on a hill over West Point’s Main Street. It has a church at its front and four houses lining its eastern fence. If Savana started screaming, plenty of people were in ear-shot.

Not surprisingly, the cell-data showed Savana’s phone eventually left the cemetery, heading up a rugged mountainside along the pathway of Winton Road.

Then, it went dead forever.

Driving far up Winton, some three miles out of West Point, the detectives reached an absolute silence in the forest. They were looking for anything that seemed different or out-of-place. Then they saw it – a carefully carved memorial cross on the path’s south shoulder. It was a crucifix and wooden headstone fashioned into a down-pointing American flag. It had been erected at the spot where a 28-year-old from town died in a car wreck on March 23, 2020.

The name on the cross was Chris Brabbin.

He was Jerry Lee Adams’ nephew.

Bringing her home

The view off upper Winton Road at sunset. Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

While court testimony indicates Adams used the tale of his son’s tortured spirit to lure Savana to West Point, the reality of the town’s graveyard shows that he needed a second story to coax her further into the wilderness. And, high on Winton – a road where several murders have occurred over the years – there was a memorial to his young nephew who’d died four months before Isaac.    

The terrain along Chris Brabbin’s cross is a steep, heavily wooded ravine leading down to Bear Creek. It’s a land of bumpy forest-floor layered with tangles of ivy and a strata of dead branches. Its cave-like canopy has pines, ferns and maples nearly blocking out the sun.

The detectives searched the area. Later, after further investigation, the Amador and Calaveras sheriff’s departments began combing the ravine again on January 16, 2021, this time bolstered by search-and-rescue teams from the area and Placer County. Between investigators, deputies and volunteers, it was a force of roughly 50 searchers pushing through the obstacles of thorny brush and log debris.

With the worst of the winter storms approaching – and snows and potentials floods on the horizon – the fear of the unknown suddenly gave way.

Cadaver dogs had located Savana’s skeleton.

One of the search-and-rescue volunteers nearby was noted forensic anthropologist Dr. Allison Galloway. She took an inventory of how the remains were laying in the woods. Three days later, Galloway performed an official examination on them at the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office. Forensic pathologist Dr. Ken-Chi Su performed his own an examination.

Both Galloway and Su determined, independently, that Savana had been killed by a gunshot wound to the head. The doctors each testified at the Aug. 16 court hearing, explaining that the trajectory of the entrance wound and exit wound indicated that Savana was shot from an angle slightly below her left ear. Galloway added that the internal and external beveling in Savana’s skull was consistent with a small-caliber bullet.

Savana was probably looking slightly off to the side when it happened.

Savana and James.

Cruz and Woods had more evidence against Adams, too, including profanity-laced messages he’d sent his wife after Savana disappeared saying that he was going to prison. Another message told her, “I’m not going to prison, I’m going to be with my son – have a good night.”

Around the time that an arrest warrant was issued for Adams, he fled California to Nevada. He was soon located at a casino in downtown Reno and taken into custody.

At the Aug. 16 hearing, Cruz, the lead investigator, was about to take the stand when Adams surprised everybody. He entered a guilty plea to murder before a judge officially held him to answer for the crime.

With Shaffer’s permission, the Amador District Attorney’s Office agreed to deal in which, in exchange for Adams saving Savana’s family the stress of a trial, he would plead guilty to murder – and prosecutors would not seek charges against several members of his family who may have been accessories to the killing after the fact.

Adams is scheduled to be sentenced to 25-years-to-life in late October.

For Shaffer, she tries to hold on to the fact that she got to see her daughter almost every day for the last three months of her life. It was while she was helping Savana run errands and make the visitation appointments with her kids. It was a lot of time spent together. And it makes her think.

“But she was beautiful,” the mother says quietly, “even if she didn’t think she was.” 

Scott Thomas Anderson is also the writer-producer of the true crime podcast series ‘Trace of the Devastation.’

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3 Comments on "Missing in the Mountains: obsession, violence and tragedy in a quiet place "

  1. Thank you for this post. We have a group of young people in our society who live on the edge and cannot comprehend that they are loved. It’s our job to keep trying and giving support where we can, the goal is always to make a connection to a path out! If we could imbue the wisdom of those who have gone before so many young lives could be saved from an early death. My heart goes out to the parents. I live in West Point and raised my daughter here, it is a beautiful place to raise a family!

  2. I couldn’t even imagine the pain of losing my child. My dearest and most sincere condolences to the family. I myself would have a hard time accepting any deal that would exonerate ANYONE that had ANYTHING to do with my kids’ death. I’d rather endure the trial; my baby is gone. The evidence seemed like a conviction would of been the result? I would want any low life involved (before or after the fact) with my child’s murder to be held accountable. It’s NOT ok to help someone in any way re murdering someone; this makes it seem like it is. So sorry for her babies. RIP

  3. Isaac was one of my brothers friends in high school. His dad was (for lack of a better word) a lunatic. But Isaac was always kind to me. He played with me occasionally and always had a smile on his face. Even after his dad tried to rob us Isaac was still always coming over. He deserved a better life than the one handed to him. He deserved a chance to get better, but he didnt get it.

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