A Berkeley artist and musician went missing in Humboldt County after asking for directions to a Buddhist temple in nearby Trinity County in early September, authorities report.
Betty Baxter Simmons, who went by “Beebee” or “BB,” was reportedly last seen in Berkeley on Saturday, Sept. 5, two days before Labor Day. Authorities found her 2012 silver Toyota Prius abandoned on a Northern California logging road Sept. 24. It “may have been stuck there for some time,” the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Simmons had lived at her four-unit apartment complex on Eighth Street in West Berkeley for about 20 years, her neighbor Linda Cashen told Berkeleyside on Wednesday. Cashen said she saw Simmons packing up her car on Labor Day weekend. Neighbors became concerned when she never came home. After three weeks went by, with no sign of Simmons and her mail piling up, they called Berkeley police to share their worries.
“It was just odd that she didn’t come back,” said Cashen, who initially wondered if her neighbor might have been delayed by the fires happening up north. “She was such a sweet person. I hope she didn’t meet up with foul play.”
At this point, foul play is not suspected, said Samantha Karges, spokeswoman for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities believe Simmons may have had car trouble then set off on foot for help, possibly after taking a wrong turn and getting stuck while trying to turn around at a locked gate on the logging road.
A timber company employee called the sheriff’s office Sept. 24 at 8:30 p.m. when he found the abandoned Prius on Snow Camp Road near the small town of Korbel (population: 123, according to one online estimate).
“Tow to Berkeley,” said a note on the car window. In the vehicle, deputies found a cellphone that was turned off or dead, Karges said. They also found luggage and other personal belongings.
In the Prius, investigators also found paperwork including a business card for a State Farm office in Vacaville, Karges said. It turned out Simmons had gone into the office Sept. 2, she said, asking for directions to Tara House, which is the main office of Chagdud Gonpa Rigdzin Ling, a Buddhist retreat center “nestled in the Trinity Alps of northern California,” according to the temple’s website.
The temple is located west of Interstate 5 near Highway 299 in Junction City in Trinity County. If you pass Junction City and drive west on Highway 299 for another 80 minutes, you arrive in the town of Blue Lake, according to Google Maps. Two miles southeast and you’re in Korbel. Depending on your route, Snow Camp Road is another 30-40 minutes back to the east.
A staff member at the temple told Berkeleyside on Wednesday that Simmons had not visited in September. The temple is closed because of COVID-19, he said, operating with only a skeleton crew. Another worker said Simmons was not listed in the temple’s pre-COVID records, but observed that the grounds had been open prior to the pandemic for people to walk and explore. Had Simmons done that in the past, it would not have left a trace.
Karges, in the sheriff’s office, said authorities don’t know what Simmons might have been doing on the logging road or in Humboldt County: “We have no idea what might have brought her there,” she said.
Karges said initial search efforts for Simmons had been somewhat limited because many of the people who would do that work have been tied up helping with evacuation efforts in connection with ongoing fires in the area.
There had also been “less urgency for search and rescue” efforts because the Prius appeared to have been abandoned “for some time” when it was discovered, Karges said. Officers searched up and down the road to where Simmons would have walked out of the area, but found nothing and are planning to return this week “for a more comprehensive search.”
Simmons is described as a 75-year-old white woman, approximately 5 feet 6 inches tall and 156 pounds, with gray hair and hazel eyes.
Karges said there had been no indication that Simmons might have been struggling in any way that might help explain her disappearance. When she visited the State Farm office, Simmons “did make a few odd statements, but nothing extremely alerting,” she said.
As of Wednesday, Karges told Berkeleyside investigators “remain hopeful for a positive outcome.”
“There are a lot of unknowns and we don’t know what happened to her at this point,” she said. “We can only consider Ms. Simmons missing at this time. It is unknown if she is alive or deceased.”
“I don’t know if she’s still out there”
On Wednesday, several friends of Simmons alerted Berkeleyside to her disappearance and said they hoped to find out more about what might have happened. They said Simmons had been a frequent participant for many years at open mic events around Berkeley, including those at the Missouri Lounge. She was a friend of the Starry Plough and also the larger Irish music community.
Simmons also spent a lot of time in the café at Berkeley Bowl West, at Caffè Chiave on San Pablo Avenue and at the French Hotel on Shattuck Avenue. That’s the last place friend and bassist Leslie Thorne saw her in mid-August.
“She was her usual boisterous self at that time,” said Thorne, who has known Simmons for six or seven years. “She liked to engage a lot of people in conversation. She was very outgoing. She would talk to everybody.”
Thorne said Simmons was an a capella singer who tended toward “story-type songs,” and also collected a range of instruments, including accordions, a keyboard, a guitar and bass, a harp and numerous flutes. She could play them all to varying degrees.
Thorne said Simmons was also a visual artist. She studied photography and film. In her apartment on Eighth Street, some of her paintings hang on the walls. Before she retired, Simmons made her living as a longtime substitute teacher.
According to her Facebook page, Simmons had a bachelor’s in fine arts, with a focus on painting and drawing, from Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts, and a master’s in creative arts from San Francisco State.
Word began to spread Tuesday — after the sheriff’s office put out its notice, which was picked up by some media outlets — that Simmons was missing. Thorne said Simmons didn’t usually take long drives; she would sometimes go to Cotati, about an hour north, for an accordion festival.
“It’s kind of baffling,” Thorne said. “It would be really great if we could figure out where she was going.”
Prior to her disappearance, Simmons posted often on her Facebook page, her friend said.
The posts “just kind of cut off at the end of August and there hasn’t been anything since then,” Thorne said. “I don’t know if she’s still out there. It seems like a long time that she’s been missing.”
A lifelong love of music
Roger Brown, another longtime friend, said Simmons had a lifelong love of music. She grew up in North Carolina and graduated from South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, according to her Facebook page. In the early 70s, Simmons moved to New York, spending time in Manhattan with a number of professional musicians, Brown said.
In more recent years, Simmons created a public access program called Heads Up Berkeley, which ran for years on Berkeley Community Media, documenting all kinds of local music. Some of the videos have garnered many thousands of views. Her YouTube channel features about 200 videos dating back to 2009.
The program was a lot of work, and Simmons wasn’t paid for it.
“It shows her generosity of spirit,” Brown said.
Brown said he had learned Tuesday that Simmons was missing. Friends were still discussing next steps and have been in touch with Simmons’ sister in Connecticut, he said.
“I’m missing her already,” he added. “I’m hoping she’s going to be found somehow.”