The Yuba County Five were a group of young men from Yuba City, California, who attended a college basketball game at California State University, Chico, on the evening of February 24, 1978. They had modest intellectual deficiencies or psychiatric disorders.
After the game, the men disappeared mysteriously. Bill Sterling, age 29, Jack Huett, age 24, Ted Weiher, age 32, and Jack Madruga, age 30, were later discovered dead; Gary Mathias, age 25, has never been located.
The group’s Mercury Montego was discovered abandoned in a remote section of the Plumas National Forest on a high mountain dirt road that was well beyond their route back to Yuba City many days after their original disappearance.
Since the car was in fine operating condition and could have been moved out of the snow it was in, investigators could not identify why it was abandoned. There was no sign of the men at that time.
Four of the men’s bodies were discovered in and around a trailer camp in June 1978. They were discovered 20 miles (32 km) from their abandoned car, deep in the forest. The bodies were found once the snow thawed.
The three bodies in the woods were reduced to their skeletal remains by scavenging animals, while Ted Weiher, who was found starved to death in the trailer, had apparently survived for up to three months after the men were last seen.
Investigators discovered Mathias’ shoes in the neighboring woods, and Weiher’s shoes were gone, indicating that Mathias may have survived past the last night they were seen alive.
A local man who claimed to have spent the night in his own car a short distance from where the Montego was discovered after suffering a slight heart attack while attempting to push it out of the snow as a witness subsequently came forward.
Police were informed by the witness that he had seen and heard people around the automobile that evening and had twice shouted for assistance only to have them become silent and switch off their spotlights.
Suspicions of foul play have been raised in light of this and the fact that the bodies were discovered a long way from the car.
What Really Happened to the Yuba City Five?
Gary Mathias, a native of Yuba City, California, who served in the United States Army in the early 1970s, experienced drug issues while he was stationed in West Germany. He was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia as a result and was then released from the hospital.
Mathias left the psychiatric hospital and returned to live with his parents in Yuba City. While initially challenging—he was twice on the verge of being arrested for assault and frequently suffered from psychotic episodes that sent him to a nearby Veterans Administration hospital—by 1978, Mathias was receiving outpatient treatment with Stelazine and Cogentin.
His doctors regarded him as “one of our sterling success cases.”
Mathias worked in his stepfather’s landscaping company to augment his Army disability allowance. Outside of his family, he formed close friendships with four slightly older guys who were either “slow learners” or had mild intellectual problems. They were Sterling, Huett, Weiher, and Madruga.
The friends resided in Marysville, close to Yuba City. Each man, like Mathias, resided with his parents, who collectively referred to them as “the boys.”
Basketball was the five men’s preferred pastime. According to their family, it was typically to play or watch a game when they came together. They were teammates on the Gateway Gators basketball team. A community-based program for people with mental disorders helped this team.
The Gators were scheduled to play their opening match on February 25 in a Special Olympics-sponsored event that would last for one week and award the champions a free week in Los Angeles.
The five men were ready the previous evening; some had even laid out their uniforms and asked their parents to wake them up early. The following evening, they decided to travel to Chico to support the UC Davis basketball team during an away game against Chico State.
In his turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego, Madruga, the only other party member besides Mathias with a driver’s license, took the group 50 miles (80 km) north to Chico. To combat the chilly nighttime temperatures in the upper Sacramento Valley during that time of year, the guys only wore lightweight coats.
How Did the Yuba City Five Disappear?
The gang got back into Madruga’s car and traveled a short distance from the Chico State campus to Behr’s Market in downtown Chico after the Davis team won the game. They purchased drinks and snacks there, along with sodas and milk cartons.
The clerk later recalled the men because she was irritated that such a large group had entered and kept her from closing the store for the day at 10 o’clock.
After that, none of the men were ever again reported to be alive. Some of their parents stayed up late at their homes to make sure they came home. The cops were informed when morning arrived, and they weren’t there.
Police in Butte and Yuba counties searched the area the men traveled through to get to Chico. However, a few days later, a warden from the Plumas National Wilderness informed investigators that he had seen the Montego parked near Oroville-Quincy Road in the forest on February 25.
He had not thought it significant at the time because many locals frequently traveled up that road into the Sierra Nevada on the weekends to go cross-country skiing on the extensive trail network. Still, after reading the missing person bulletin, he recognized the car and, on February 28, helped the deputies find it.
The Police Find the Car of the Yuba County Five
Evidence found inside the abandoned automobile suggested the guys had been inside it between their last known whereabouts and its abandonment.
Along with the programs from the basketball game they saw and a beautifully folded map of California, there were also the wrappers, empty cartons, and cans they had bought in Chico. However, the automobile finding prompted more questions than it gave answers.
One concern was that it was far from any direct route to Marysville or Yuba City, being 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Chico.
The men’s families had no idea why their loved ones would drive up a long, twisting dirt road in the dead of winter, into a lonely forest at a high elevation, without any extra clothing, and the night before a basketball game they had been talking about eagerly for weeks.
According to Madruga’s parents, he dislikes the cold and has never been to the highlands. The father of Sterling had once taken his son there for a weekend of fishing, but the younger man had not enjoyed it and stayed at home when his father made subsequent excursions there.
The men’s reasons for leaving the car were a mystery to the police. They had climbed to an elevation of 4,400 feet (1,300 m) along the route, which was just short of where the road was closed for the winter and roughly where the snow line was at that time of year.
The police noted that the snow was not so thick that five healthy young men would not have been able to get it out. The automobile had been stuck in snow drifts, and there was evidence that the guys had tried to spin the wheels to get out of it.
When police hot-wired the car, the engine started immediately. The fuel gauge showed the gasoline tank was only about a quarter full, initially raising the possibility that the car had been abandoned because it wasn’t operating properly, and they abandoned it with the intention of returning later with assistance.
After police hauled the car back to the station for a more in-depth investigation, the mystery grew more complex. The Montego had been driven a long way up a mountain road with many bumps and ruts, but the undercarriage had no dents, gouges, or mud scrapes, not even on its low-hanging muffler.
According to his family, Madruga would not have let someone else drive the automobile, so either the driver was exceedingly cautious or someone who knew the road well—something Madruga was not renowned for having.
His family noted that it was unusual for him to leave the car thus unattended; the window was pulled down, and the car was unlocked when it was discovered.
An intense snowstorm that day hindered efforts to search the area. Two days later, search efforts were suspended owing to persistent severe weather when searchers in Snowcats almost got lost themselves. Other than the car, there was no sign of the friends.
Sightings of the Yuba County Five
Several claims of some or all of the guys being seen after they left Chico, including some reports of them being seen elsewhere in California or the country, were made to police in response to local media coverage of the case. Most of the claims were simple to ignore, but two sightings stood out.
Joseph Schons of Sacramento informed police that he unintentionally spent the night of February 24–25 close to where the Montego was discovered. To prepare for a weekend skiing vacation with his family, he traveled up to the area where he had a chalet to check the snowfall.
He had also become stranded in the snow at about 5:30, about 150 feet (46 m) up the road. He attempted to free it but realized he was starting to feel the signs of a heart attack, so he got back inside while keeping the engine running to give heat.
He was in excruciating pain and resting in the car six hours later when he noticed headlights behind him. Looking outside, he noticed a car parked behind him with its headlights on and several people standing around it, one of whom appeared to be a mother holding a child in her arms.
They stopped talking and turned off their headlights when he shouted to them for assistance. Later, he noticed more lights behind him, this time flashlights, and when he yelled at them, they all turned off.
After that, Schons initially recalled seeing a pickup truck briefly stop 20 feet (6 m) behind him before driving away. He later explained to authorities that he couldn’t be certain of that because he was in so much pain at the time that he was nearly insane.
Schons’ car ran out of gas in the early hours of the morning. After his agony subsided enough for him to walk 8 miles (13 km) down the road to a lodge, the manager drove him back home, passing the abandoned Montego at the location where he had recalled hearing the voices come from. Later, medical professionals affirmed that he had, in fact, suffered a small heart attack.
If Weiher had truly been there, his mother said he would not have disregarded someone’s cries for assistance. She remembered how he and Sterling had assisted a friend who had overdosed on Valium in getting to the hospital.
The Second Sighting of the Yuba County Five
The other noteworthy testimony came from a woman who worked at a store in the little town of Brownsville, which they would have reached if they had continued on the road from where the car was found, and which was located 30 miles (48 km) from the location where the automobile had been abandoned.
On March 3, the woman said four of the guys had stopped at the store in a red pickup truck two days after the disappearance. She had seen posters that had been distributed with the men’s images and information about the $1,215 ($5,000 in 2021 currency) reward the families had set up. The shop owner backed up her claims.
The woman claimed that the men’s “large eyes and facial mannerisms” made it clear to her right away that they were not locals. She named them Huett and Sterling. Two of the men remained outside the store in a phone booth while the other two went inside. She was deemed “a credible witness” by the police, who also took her statement seriously.
The store owner provided additional information, stating that individuals whom he thought to be Weiher and Huett entered and purchased burritos, chocolate milk, and soft beverages.
Weiher’s brother told the Los Angeles Times that while the two men’s behavior seemed consistent with the owner’s description of them, driving to Brownsville in a different car while apparently unaware of the basketball game seemed completely out of character for them.
Weiher would “eat anything he could get his hands on,” and Huett was with him more frequently than any of the other four. Huett’s brother claimed that Jack detested using telephones so much that anytime he got a call from one of the other men in the group, he would answer it for Jack.
Did They Find the Yuba County Five?
Police and the families of the five missing men were not ruling out the potential that they had been the victims of foul play because the evidence did not clearly indicate what had transpired the night the five men vanished.
Even while the ultimate finding of the bodies of four of the five men seemed to indicate otherwise, it still prompted concerns about what had transpired that night and whether at least one of them might have been saved.
A party of bikers visited a Forest Service-maintained trailer on June 4 at a campsite off the road 19.4 miles (31.2 km) from where the Montego had been discovered after most of the higher mountain snow had melted.
The trailer’s front window was damaged. They were overpowered by the smell of what turned out to be a decomposing body inside when they unlocked the door. Later, it was discovered to be Weiher’s.
Following the route between the trailer and the location of the Montego, searchers made their way back to Plumas. The following day, 11.4 miles (18.3 kilometers) away from where the automobile had been, they discovered what was eventually determined to be the remains of Madruga and Sterling on opposite sides of the road.
Only Sterling’s bones were left, and scavenging animals had largely devoured Madruga’s body. They both passed away from hypothermia, according to autopsies. According to deputies, one of them may have succumbed to the urge to sleep brought on by the final stages of hypothermia, while the other remained by his side and perished in the same manner.
Jack Huett’s father discovered his son’s backbone behind a manzanita bush 2 miles (3.2 km) northeast of the trailer two days later while participating in one of the other search parties. The deceased was identified thanks to his shoes and neighboring pair of pants.
The following day, a deputy sheriff discovered Huett’s skull 300 feet (91 meters) distant from the bush, which was ultimately identified by dental records. Hypothermia was also blamed for his demise.
Three Forest Service blankets and a corroded flashlight were discovered by the road around a quarter-mile (400 m) northwest of the trailer. It was impossible to tell how long those things had been there. Pictures of Mathias were sent to mental asylums all around California because he likely had not taken his medicine. He has never been identified, in any case.
Proof in the trailer
Eight linens, including the head sheet, were draped over Weiher’s body, which was lying on a bed. He had perished from a mixture of malnutrition and hypothermia, according to the autopsy. Weiher had lost over half of his original weight of 200 pounds (91 kg), and the lengthening of his beard suggested that he may have survived for up to thirteen weeks since his last shaving.
He almost had gangrenous frostbite on his feet. Some of Weiher’s belongings, including his wallet (which included cash), a nickel ring with the name “Ted” etched on it, and a gold necklace he also wore, were placed on a table adjacent to the bed.
A candle that had half melted and a gold watch that Weiher’s family said was not his were also there on the table. He was dressed in a velour shirt and airy pants, but his shoes were nowhere to be seen.
The investigators found Weiher’s fate to be the most perplexing. Despite having plenty of matches and paperback books to serve as kindling, the trailer’s fireplace was still without a fire. The men’s bulky forestry garb, which would have kept them warm, was still stored.
A locker in the same storage shed housed a bigger variety of dried meals, enough to feed all five men for a year if necessary, but it still needed to be opened. Twelve C-ration cans from the outside storage shed had been opened, and their contents had been consumed.
A nearby butane tank would have supplied the trailer’s heating system with a valve that could have been activated in another shed. According to Weiher’s relatives, his mental impairment caused him to lack common sense.
He frequently questioned the need to stop at stop signs, for instance, and one night, when his house was on fire, and the roof of his bedroom was burning, he was dragged out of bed because he was worried he would miss his shift.
Additionally, it appeared that Mathias and maybe Huett had joined Weiher inside the trailer, indicating that he had not been there alone. The C-rations had been opened using a P-38 can opener, which only Mathias or Madruga would have been familiar with from their military service.
Mathias’ tennis shoes were in the trailer. If Weiher had gone outside, Mathias might have chosen to put Weiher’s shoes on instead because his feet were possibly also swollen from frostbite.
Weiher’s body was covered in sheets, which further proved that someone else had also been present because his gangrenous feet would have been too painful for him to draw the covers over himself.
What Could Have Happened to the Yuba County Five?
Investigators could still not pinpoint the exact cause of death for four of the five individuals, even though they had perished in the Sierra. Despite learning that Mathias had acquaintances in the small town of Forbestown, police could still not determine why the men were there.
They theorized that perhaps they were trying to visit them on the way home when they took a wrong turn near Oroville and ended up on the mountain road. For whatever reason, the guys had left the Montego; instead of turning around and returning down the road (where they had passed the lodge that Schons subsequently visited), they had kept traveling in the original route.
That kind of deliberate movement is incompatible with the circular routes used by those who genuinely believe they are lost.
A Forest Service Snowcat had traveled along the road in that direction the day before the men vanished to remove snow from the trailer roof so it wouldn’t collapse. Police speculated that the gang may have chosen to follow its own footprints across snowdrifts 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 m) high in the hopes of finding shelter not too far away.
Most likely, approximately halfway through the arduous walk to the trailer, Madruga and Sterling perished from the cold.
The other three allegedly shattered the glass to enter the trailer after they located it. They might have assumed it was private property because it was locked, and if they utilized anything else they discovered inside, they might have worried about being arrested for stealing.
They may have decided to take various routes back to civilization after Weiher passed away or after the others believed he had passed away, including trekking over land.
Next, read about the Horrifying Story of Hisashi Ouchi. Then, if you like true crime horror, you’d like the Disturbing Story of Albert Fish: The Werewolf of Wysteria.
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