By Peter Hecht
After searching for weeks along country roads and ravines of Nevada County, friends today were grieving for a 74-year-old woman who went missing July 7.
The body of Wilma Leona Barnhart of Grass Valley, a long-time resident well-known as an enthusiastic presence at the local bowling alley, was found near her car Monday on a heavily wooded isolated road a few miles of Highway 20 northeast of Nevada City.
Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said Barnhart appeared to have died of natural causes after her sports utility vehicle got stuck on a downed log along a seldom traveled back country road, Burlington Ridge Road. He said Barnhart had written notes in a journal, "basically keeping track of the days as they went by and her condition" before she died.
Juanita Flowers, a Grass Valley resident who had known Barnhart for more than 50 years, said she believes her friend may have been searching for a campground where she used to stay with her husband, Gilbert "Bud" Barnhart, who died in 2010.
Barnhart, who lived at a mobile home park in Grass Valley, was an avid bowler well known at the local Prosperity Lanes.
"Oh my god, she was fun," said Sherry Frayne, one of her bowling companions. "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."
Flowers said she became worried when Barnhart didn't show up for a lunch they had scheduled together for Monday July 8. The California Highway Patrol on July 13 issued a "Silver Alert" seeking any leads on her whereabouts.
Flowers said she conducted personal searches for her friend nearly every day. "I drove down Highway 20, down Highway 49, to the Grass Valley Airport. I checked every parking lot in town at least a half a dozen times - just hoping to find her vehicle."
PHOTO CAPTION: Wilma Leona Barnhart of Grass Valley. CBS Sacramento