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  • Wilma Leona Barnhart's body was found on a remote road in the woods northeast of Nevada City.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Terry Kennedy, right, hugs Cindy Pekarek on Wednesday at Prosperity Lanes, the Grass Valley bowling alley where they had shared many good times with their friend Wilma Barnhart.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    The front door of Wilma Barnhart's home in Grass Valley is decorated with an angel, a clown and the word LAUGH, which her friends on Wednesday recalled she loved to do with them.

Before her death, missing 74-year-old woman lived life to the fullest

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 - 7:28 am

Wilma Leona Barnhart was a 74-year-old widow with painful hips and knees but an unrestrained zest for life.

She was an avid bowler and the queen of hugs at Prosperity Lanes in Grass Valley. She would dress up in a clown suit to entertain kids at the local Moose Lodge. And friends say she drove like a daredevil.

In early July, Barnhart went missing. One friend of 50-plus years thought she might have been looking for a long-forgotten campground where she used to stay with her husband, who died in 2010.

On Monday evening, a motorcyclist found Barnhart's body on a remote road, miles into the woods off Highway 20 northeast of Nevada City. Her SUV had gotten stuck on a fallen tree branch.

Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said Barnhart had written notes in a journal, "basically keeping track of the days as they went by and her condition" until she died of natural causes.

"It's so tragic," Royal said. "She had a couple of hip replacements and wasn't mobile. It would have been very difficult to walk out."

The circumstances of Barnhart's passing have left friends grief-stricken. For weeks, they had searched back roads, highways and ravines, driven to find her.

Barnhart lived alone in a mobile home park and talked constantly about missing her late husband, Gilbert "Bud" Barnhart. But she escaped her loneliness as the social belle of the local bowling alley. She doled out hugs, and home-stitched angels and birds she put on mobiles and gave to friends.

"Oh my God, she was fun," said Sherry Frayne, a bowling companion and close friend. "She just did a big 'whoopee!' if she got a strike or someone else did. She was a very happy person. Very friendly. Very lovely."

Juanita Flowers, a Grass Valley resident who had known Barnhart for more than five decades, said she last spoke with her on the morning of July 7, a Sunday. She said Barnhart told her the power was being shut off at the mobile home park for local maintenance on Monday. So Flowers suggested she come over to her house for lunch.

Barnhart never showed up.

Over ensuing days, Flowers made repeated checks to see if she had returned to her unit at Sierra Pines Mobile Home Park, where Barnhart kept a posted sign, "Beware of the Guard Frog" and her eclectic wind chimes of CDs and a disco ball that swayed in the breeze.

The California Highway Patrol issued a "Silver Alert" on July 13, seeking any leads on her whereabouts.

"I drove down Highway 20, down Highway 49, to the Grass Valley Airport" looking for her, Flowers said. "I checked every parking lot in town at least a half a dozen times – just hoping to find her vehicle."

Terry Kennedy, a longtime friend of Barnhart and an employee of Prosperity Lanes, led an organized search with Barnhart's "bowling alley family" of nearly 75 people. They combed rural areas around Grass Valley. Kennedy's 21-year-old son, Shawn, walked up to five miles a day over dirt roads at campsites that Barnhart frequented.

"I had the feeling that with any luck, we were going to find her," Shawn Kennedy said.

At one point, Terry Kennedy took a search party to the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park on a tip from two people who professed to be psychics. He spent five days at the park, where he and companions searched on foot for nine hours a day.

Flowers said she told searchers to hunt for areas where a car might have flown off a road because she knew how Barnhart loved to drive – "like a bat out of hell."

"She scared me to death," Flowers said. "She didn't think the seat-belt law applied to her. She didn't think she had to stop at stop signs. The roads in Nevada County were Wilma's roads."

Ultimately, Flowers probed her memories of Barnhart's life, searching for clues on where she may have been headed.

Barnhart had once been dangerously obese. After heart-bypass surgery in the late 1970s, Flowers said, she dieted to shed more than half her body weight. She raised a daughter, Joy, as a single mother. But her daughter died about 15 years ago.

Late in life, Barnhart met and married her husband, a decorated Green Beret from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. He stoked her sense of outdoor adventure. They went camping and fishing across the Sierra.

Flowers said Barnhart, after her husband's death, spoke often of a favorite spot where they used to sleep under the stars, but struggled to remember where it was.

"She kept saying, 'Camp 19.' I've lived in this area 57 years. I've never heard of a Camp 19," said Flowers, who figured it was a numbered space at a wilderness park somewhere.

Barnhart's wedding anniversary with her late husband was coming up, and Flowers came to believe that Barnhart went searching for the treasured place – but got "totally confused" while doing so.

The woman's 1999 GMC Envoy SUV was located far down remote Burlington Ridge Road, a seldom-used trail miles from a regional campground, Skillman Camp. Flowers says she doubts that was the campground Barnhart was looking for because it lacked the fishing that she and her husband had cherished.

"It was a very tree-covered area," Sheriff Royal said. "Even if there was a helicopter over the area, they would not have spotted the vehicle."

Royal declined to release excerpts from Barnhart's journal but said she seemed to understand she might not make it out alive. She wrote notes about her personal belongings and whom they should go to once she was gone.

With the search having ended in sadness, Terry Kennedy thanked those who looked for Barnhart. "The group was fabulous," he said. "I can't say how much my heart goes out to them."

And Flowers took solace that her friend just may be reunited with her late husband and daughter.

"I'm just happy," Flowers said, "that she's up there with Bud and Joy."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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