Her ‘Weird’ Landlord Was Her Friend. She Ended Up Dead in a Lake.
Holly Simmons was pals with her landlord before things took a turn 15 years ago. Now he faces a murder charge.
“She called me up and told me she was having problems with [him] and she needed to move,” Shaina Smith, who’d worked at an assisted living facility with the 45-year-old prior to her November 2006 disappearance, told The Daily Beast. “And she said, ‘I have to be quiet, because I don't know if he’s listening.’”
Until 2009, evidence explaining what happened to Simmons—she was classified as a missing person—was scant. But that July, a recreational diver found the woman’s body covered with concrete at the bottom of a jon boat sunk in Inks Lake, a reservoir on the Colorado River. The discovery earned Simmons the moniker “The Lady in the Lake,” and her apparent murder the reputation of one of the coldest cases in that part of Texas.
Another 12 years would pass before authorities named a suspect. But this month, Simmons’ former landlord Jimmy Wolfenbarger, 57, of Lubbock, was arrested and charged with the single mom’s murder.
Conversations with Simmons’ friends and family paint a picture of an unusually warm friendship between tenant and landlord—one that suddenly turned, in the words of Simmons’ older daughter, Ashley, “really weird.”
Eventually, Simmons tried to draw a line with Wolfenbarger, her daughter recalled.
“They got in an argument and she just said, ‘Stay away. Just be a landlord. Just stay away,’” Ashley Simmons said, describing a fight between Wolfenbarger and her mother.
But Wolfenbarger couldn’t stay away, authorities say. On Nov. 28, 2006, he allegedly strangled Simmons “by a wire, cord or similar ligature,” according to the grand jury indictment issued earlier this month. Wolfenbarger has not yet issued a plea in this case, and could not be reached for comment for this story. His attorneys also did not respond to numerous requests for comment sent over a period of several days.
Authorities have declined to speculate on motive, but the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a press release after his arrest that Wolfenbarger often had disputes with Holly Simmons over one of her teenage daughters. Lt. Glen Williams of the Llano County Sheriff’s Department elaborated, telling The Daily Beast, “We were aware of inappropriate behaviors [from Wolfenbarger towards] the youngest.”
He declined to specify what that behavior was, citing the ongoing investigation. At the time, Ashley was 17 and her younger sister, Alicia, was 15.
Alicia Simmons could not be reached for comment for this story, but Ashley Simmons told The Daily Beast that Wolfenbarger’s “behavior towards the whole family was inappropriate.”
“He overstepped his boundaries as a landlord on multiple occasions. He just didn’t know how to separate the two,” she said, adding, “He made it very uncomfortable, as a landlord, for even friends and family to come over.”
She declined to provide more specifics, citing the ongoing investigation, but Williams told The Daily Beast he’d heard Wolfenbarger described as “overbearing.”
Although bail for Wolfenbarger was set at $2 million, he bonded out that same day, a fact that has Simmons’ friends and family furious—and worried.
“It’s scary he’s out there, knowing what we know... But I pack,” said Ella Pemberton, with a laugh, referring to her license to carry a concealed weapon.
Pemberton, a former co-worker of Simmons at a local gas station deli, said she remembered Wolfenbarger frequenting the hardware store where she worked—often with his father, who owned a large RV park in town—prior to her friend’s disappearance. Wolfenbarger’s father, Hollis, was at one time the president of Banta Oil, an energy company in Hobbs, New Mexico. Attempts to reach him for this story were also unsuccessful.
Lt. Williams of the Llano County Sheriff’s Department told The Daily Beast that he, too, had been caught off guard by the suspect making bail. “None of us expected” Wolfenbarger to bond out, he said.
But if Williams gets his way, Wolfenbarger may not be the last arrest: For years, investigators have said they believed whoever killed Simmons had help disposing of her body.
“I hope we can determine who helped him, because we do believe that it took more than one to actually dispose of her,” Williams told The Daily Beast.
Before things fractured with Wolfenbarger, he and Holly Simmons “were really good friends,” her daughter Ashley recalled. In fact, Simmons, 32, told The Daily Beast, her mom had actually invited Wolfenbarger to be their landlord. When the property under their Buchanan Dam trailer had gone up for sale, Simmons was the one who suggested he buy it since he’d been looking for land he could turn into a trailer park.
For a while, Ashley noted, the arrangement worked well for her mom, who quickly decorated nearly every window in the trailer with decals of penguins, her favorite animal. Wolfenbarger, who lived at an RV park nearby, continued to hang out at the trailer, socially.
“Then he just got weird out of nowhere, the last six or seven months before she went missing,” Ashley Simmons told The Daily Beast. “We all started avoiding him.”
Ashley told The Daily Beast that before Wolfenbarger’s arrest, she was the last person known to have seen her mother alive. And in many ways she has remained the investigation’s beating heart, acting as the point of contact between the sheriff’s department and her sister and two older brothers while running the Facebook group, “Justice for Holly Simmons.”
She can still clearly remember the morning when she last saw her mother: As the elder Simmons dropped Ashley at the local bus stop, she promised to pick her up from school that afternoon.
When Simmons didn’t show, Ashley reluctantly got on the bus. While not showing up for her daughters was out of character, Ashley said, she wasn’t initially concerned. Holly Simmons, by all accounts, was vivacious and fun-loving—a bit of a drinker, but one with “a heart of gold,” as her daughter put it.
“Did my mom struggle? Yeah, she did. Did my sister and I go without wants? Yes. Did we get what we needed? Always, without a doubt,” she said.
Ashley figured that, at worst, her mother had been sidetracked having a few drinks with a friend who lived down the road, a suspicion that was reinforced when she got home and saw her mom’s car parked outside the trailer.
“I was still calling her when I walked up to the house. I was like, ‘You said you’d pick me up, so you can come out to the walkway and walk me into the house,’” Ashley told The Daily Beast, laughing. “She annoyed the hell out of me.”
Inside the trailer, the teen tried her mom’s cellphone again, from the landline. But this time, when it rang on her end, she also heard it buzzing nearby. Ashley found it along with her mom’s purse in the kitchen, right where Simmons usually dropped things when she came in.
But Holly Simmons was nowhere to be found—and for 15 years, her daughter has been waiting for police to explain why.
“We finally got some information that led us down the right path,” said Lt. Williams, who has run point on Simmons’ case since it became a homicide investigation 12 years ago. The turning point, he explained, came after the Department of Public Safety assigned Simmons’ case to the Texas Rangers’ cold case unit in 2016. Williams said the Rangers unearthed a clue that led to Wolfenbarger’s arrest, though he declined to comment on what that was. The Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’ve had our eye on him from day one,” Williams told The Daily Beast about Wolfenbarger. “We had to be objective, of course, and not just clue in on one person. But Jimmy, yeah, he was our No. 1 person of interest.”
While Wolfenbarger’s arrest has brought some relief for Simmons’ family, who’ve waited a decade and a half for some sort of resolution in the case, it’s also dug up old frustrations.
“I’ve been yelling at them to arrest him for 15 years,” Ashley Simmons said. “Two days after she went missing, they asked me and I was like, ‘I know who it is.’ And they were like, ‘How sure are you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m sure.’”
That first night her mother didn’t come home, Ashley slept alone in the trailer, leaving the porch light on for her mother. The next morning when she woke up, still alone, she started making calls: local hospitals, jails, and then, finally, the police.
“We didn’t know if someone took her. It was like she walked off with Alzheimer’s or something,” Pemberton said. “So I printed up flyers with her picture and hung ’em up everywhere we could hang ’em up, hoping someone would have seen her.”
Ashley Simmons said she had hoped that the discovery of her mom’s body in 2009 would finally lead investigators to Wolfenbarger. But disappointment followed, instead.
“I was like, ‘We found her. Just make an arrest already.’ But there was nothing,” Ashley said. “And then you realize, ‘Oh, OK, it’s back to square one and another hundred years of waiting.”
Williams told The Daily Beast that investigators never stopped working on the case. And over the years, the Llano County Sheriff’s Department dropped clues that seemed to point towards Wolfenbarger.
In 2015, Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn told local NBC affiliate KXAN that the killer was probably local and knew Simmons. In fact, he said, she may have known the killer so well that this person’s car was likely a familiar sight parked on her Buchanan Dam cul-de-sac.
That trailer, Blackburn had said, is where they believed she was killed. But he declined to elaborate on how, telling the outlet only that “it was a personal type of death.”
“Something did occur at the house that led us to believe that it was a violent occurrence,” Blackburn said at the time. “We don’t think that she left the house alive.”
In the meantime, Wolfenbarger kept busy. In Facebook posts from Oct. 2010, he wrote about getting his first tattoo as well as a new job and a new house, writing, “I must Thank God once again, I have been Blessed.” A few months later, Wolfenbarger began a prayer, “Dear God, I come to you as humble as I know how. I confess my sins, those known and unknown.”
Both posts appear to have been later deleted.
Around that same time, a Flickr user with the name Jimmy Wolfenbarger wrote, “Single man, Looking for friend, No strings, No hassel [sic], Just someone to spend quality time with, coud [sic] be a good deal for both of us…”
But while Wolfenbarger lived his life, Ashley discovered that she couldn’t live her own. She said she felt consumed by the investigation into her mother’s murder. Finally, this January, she told her husband that she had to walk away from it. That same night, she said, she went to her mother’s grave and told her.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had something like this happen to someone close to you, but the not-knowing stops everything. Life stops. Your mental state stops. Weeks become months, months become years, and it’s all just a blur,” she said. “And you sit back and you realize if you don’t walk away from it, you will be completely consumed by it. You don’t give up on it, but you mentally can’t be fixated anymore. You have to walk away to move forward with your life.”
“And, of course, the moment I friggin’ do it, they make an arrest,” she told The Daily Beast.
Lt. Williams stressed that the investigation remained active—even now.
“Some people may know something and probably do know something,” he said. “I just hope that now that everything’s coming full circle, they’ll come forward and give us some information. I’m hoping that.”
His bailing out notwithstanding, Wolfenbarger’s arrest has brought Simmons’ loved ones a degree of satisfaction. But it’s also resurfaced one of the most painful events in their lives.
“I have a ton of anger right now. My supervisor [at work] told me, ‘You’re going to have anger. You’re going to have sadness. You’re going to have joy. You’re going to have it all because this has been your life for 15 years,’” Ashley Simmons said. “And he’s right.”