Inside The Chilling Disappearance Of The Yuba County Five
By Sarah Norman | August 4, 2023
The Yuba County Five - California's Greatest Mystery
In the dimly lit and fog-enshrouded annals of mysterious disappearances, the case of the Yuba County 5 stands out as one that can send a chill down the spine of even the most hardened investigator. Let's go back in time to 1978, in a remote region of Northern California in 1978 - which is when and where this unnerving occurrence unfolded.
On February 24, 1978, five friends – Gary Mathias, Jack Madruga, Jack Huett, Theodore Weiher, and William Sterling – set off to a basketball game in Chico, California. They were all part of a special education project and were described as having mild mental or psychiatric disabilities.
That night, after attending the game, the men stopped at a local convenience store to buy snacks. This would be the last confirmed sighting of them alive. What happened next remains a tale of confusion and fear, woven with inexplicable events and unsettling discoveries.
The Yuba County Five were five friends from Yuba City and Marysville, California, most of whom were part of a program for men with various mental disabilities, and all played basketball together at the Yuba City Vocational Rehabilitation Center on a team called "The Gateway Gators". All of the five men lived with their families - who affectionally referred to the group as "The Boys", but with the exception of Gary Mathias, who suffered from schizophrenia but was not developmentally disabled.
The Basketball Game
On February 24, 1978, the group set out to watch a college basketball game at California State University in Chico, a town over 50 miles from their homes. Full of camaraderie and excitement, little did they know that the night would take a sinister turn. The boys were fans of the visiting team from U.C. Davis - who ended up winning that night - and when the game finished before 10 PM, they were all in good spirits. They were meant to compete in a Special Olympics tournament the following day, and had been looking forward to it. It's unlikely they would have purposefully stayed out late.
The Convenience Store Sighting
The last sighting of the Yuba County Five - alive - took place shortly after they left the California State University basketball game that night. They stopped on their way home just three blocks away from the basketball stadium at a convenience store called Behr's Market, slightly before 10 PM. The clerk was in the process of closing up shop, but still rang up their snacks for the ride home. Their purchases included one Hostess cherry pie, one Langendorf lemon pie, one Snickers bar, one Marathon bar, two Pepsis, and a quart and a half of milk.
A Sleepless Night
The mothers of two of the men, Ted Weiher and Bill Sterling, knew something had happened almost immediately. Juanita, Bill's mother, reportedly had been up since 2 AM wondering where her son was, whereas Ted's mom Imogen awoke suddenly around 5 AM to find Ted's bed still untouched and empty. Imogen and Juanita proceeded to contact the rest of the group's parents, hoping in vain for good news, but everyone had the same answer: their boys had not come home.
After anxiously waiting most of February 25th, the day after the basketball game in Chico, hoping the boys would show up, the parents of the Yuba County Five finally contacted the local police. All of the parents were certain that some sort of accident had happened - the boys had all been excited for their February 25th tournament. Ted Weiher had bought new sneakers, and asked his mother to wash them especially for the occasion, while Gary Mathias drove his mom nuts reminding her not to let him oversleep. The police luckily seemed to take the situation, and concerns of the parents, seriously, and so the search began.
Upon receiving the missing persons report, local law enforcement quickly began coordinating a search. The police were aware of the route the men were expected to take back home from Chico, and they knew the car they were driving—Jack Madruga's beloved 1969 Mercury Montego. There were no immediate leads, and the lack of any information added to the concern. The weather was also a potential factor, with cold temperatures adding urgency to the search. Sunday and Monday passed with no leads - and then came Tuesday's bone-chilling discovery.
On Tuesday, February 28, 1978, the abandoned 1969 Mercury Montego, which belonged to Jack Madruga, was found on a mountain road near Oroville in the Plumas National Forest. The car was a considerable distance from the boys' homes and far off their intended path back from Chico. The Montego was found stuck in the snow on a rough and winding dirt trail, at an elevation where the road would have been quite a challenge in the snow. It appeared to be have been quickly abandoned, despite the fact that it was undamaged, operable, and could have been removed from the snowbank with relative ease. None of the men were known to be familiar with the area, and it was unclear why they would have taken such a detour. However, before the search party could explore the area more thoroughly, it became clear that Mother Nature had other plans.
Shortly after the discovery of Madruga's car, a massive snowstorm hit the area. As the snowstorm made an already rugged and challenging terrain even more difficult to navigate, and treacherous for any search parties to maneuver through, the search had to be halted. Unfortunately, that also meant that the deep snow covered tracks, trails, and potential clues. The families of the missing men anxiously waited throughout the rest of the Spring for the snow to thaw, so that the search for their loved ones could continue.
The Schons Story
While the nation waited for the snow to subside, a supposed eyewitness to the disappearance to the Yuba County Five came forward - a Mr. Joseph Schons, age 55. According to Schons, on the night the boys were last seen, he had been in the area planning out a weekend ski trip. He was driving up a mountain road in the Plumas National Forest when his car became stuck in the snow. Upon trying to free it, Schons began to experience a mild heart attack, and decided to get back in his car and rest. During the night, he saw headlights, and a group of men and a woman with a baby, walking away from the car. He called for help, but the group seemed to ignore him, although he claimed they shone a flashlight into his car. Schons also mentioning seeing a pick-up truck with the group, though he later retracted this. The next morning, Schons walked the eight miles down the mountain to get help, was found and taken to a hospital. On his way down, he passed Madruga's empty car, stuck in the snow.
Joseph Schons’ experience on that fateful night weaves an even more complex and eerie tapestry around the Yuba County Five case. As he was undergoing a serious medical event, was his "encounter" just a hallucination? If it were real, who was the woman with the baby accompanying the men?
The Brownsville Witness
On March 3, 1978, another possible witness came forward. This witness, who requested anonymity, claimed to have seen the men in front of Mary's Country Store in Brownsville the day after they were due home, around 2 pm. This small town is situated over an hour’s drive from where the group's Mercury Montego had been abandoned. Notably, the witness said that two of the men were in a red pick-up - similar to the one that Joseph Schons mentioned.
"I noticed them because they didn't look from this (Brownsville) area, and you notice strangers around here, especially them with their big eyes and facial expressions."
It's worth it to note that the witness identified Jackie Huett as being in a telephone booth, when, as his brother Tom Huett noted, one of his character traits was refusing to make phone calls.
"He just would never use a phone, hated it, Ted (Weiher) always called my house as well as his own every time they went out bowling or to play basketball."Additionally, this witness only came forward after a reward was posted.
Send in the Psychics
Desperate for answers, Jack Madruga's parents called on local psychic Gloria Elizabeth Daniel, a member of the metaphysical Tsaddi church headquartered in Garden Grove. Her husband claimed that they predicted the discovery of the red pick-up mentioned by the anonymous Brownsville witness, but law enforcement insisted it was never found, nor was there even concrete evidence of its existence.
Lt. Lance Ayers of the Yuba County sheriff department felt a strong connection to the case, having gone to high school with several of the missing men. He too enlisted the help of psychics, but to no avail. One psychic claimed that the had group been abducted and taken to Nevada, while another suggested that the boys had been killed in nearby Oroville, in a two-story red brick or stained-wood house. This purported location was further detailed as having a gravel driveway and bearing the house number 4723 or 4753. Apparently, no such house existed in Oroville at all.
As June arrived, the mountain snow finally melted enough for the search for the Yuba County 5 to move forward. However, despite the search efforts, it was a couple passers-by that made the initial discovery. On June 4th, some bikers peeked into a Forest Service cabin - to be greeted by the emaciated corpse of Ted Weiher. He was located around 20 miles away from where his car had been found. The police were notified, and they immediately began scouring the area. What was left of Jack Madruga and Bill Sterling was found several miles away, most of their bodies having been eaten by forest animals. Jack Huett was found last - first his shoes and spine, and finally, his skull, over 100 yards away. Gary Mathias was never found.
The Cans in the Cabin
Investigators soon began to focus on Ted Weiher's body. Discovered alone in the Forest Service cabin, the situation raised more questions than it answered. Weiher's body was emaciated, and his beard was heavily overgrown, suggesting he had lived several months after the disappearance. However, why had he not made use of more resources in the cabin? The fireplace was unused, and heavy clothing in the cabin remained untouched, although he had wrapped himself in thin sheets for warmth. Furthermore, there were matches, candles, and ample canned food within the cabin, but only a small number of cans had been opened. Why did he not continue to open and eat the food? If he was unable to, why did he not don the heavy clothing and leave the cabin, attempting to seek help?
The Trouble with the Tennis Shoes
Adding to the mystery of Ted Weiher's death in the cabin was the fact that Gary Mathias' tennis shoes were also found there, though there was no so sign of Gary. The presence of the shoes indicates that Mathias likely switched footwear with Weiher, as Ted's leather shoes would have been better suited for the snow outside. This, in turn, raises questions about the interactions between Mathias and Weiher, their decisions, and their state of mind during their time in the cabin. Unfortunately, despite the discovery of the shoes, no concrete evidence has ever been uncovered to explain why the group ended up in the wilderness, why Mathias's shoes were left in the cabin, or what ultimately happened to him.
The Gold Watch
When Ted Weiher was discovered dead at the Forest Service Cabin, he was lying in bed, shoe-less, frostbitten, and swaddled in sheets. Beside him on the table, were his ring, his gold necklace, and his wallet, which still held cash. Along with his personal items, there was a gold watch, which, according to the families, did not belong to any of the young men. Who did this belong to? Had Ted taken this watch before his disappearance? Or had an unknown individual - perhaps, a guilty one - been present at the cabin?
Further adding to the mystery, police claimed that Ted would have been unable to cover himself in the sheets due to his severely frostbitten feet and gangrene. So then, who was in the cabin with him - and why did they not turn on the heat?
The 20 Mile Hike
Yet another issue with Ted Weiher's body was its location. Weiher was found in a Forest Service Cabin 20 miles from where Madruga's car was found, meaning that if no outside parties were involved in this mystery, he had hiked those twenty miles in the cold and snow. In ordinary circumstances and on flat terrain, this distance would take an individual about 10 hours to cover. However, taking into account the weather, temperature, and terrain, it's surprising that Weiher made it at all.
The Forbestown Theory
Theories were already flying during the initial search for the Yuba County Five, well before the bodies were found. One such theory suggested that the men had planned to make a detour on their way home to visit a friend Mathias had in Forbestown, which might explain how they ended up so far off their intended path. Jack's niece and nephew, Cathy and George, headed to Forbestown to investigate, but were chased off the property by a man with a shotgun. Law enforcement followed up with Mathias' friend, who claimed they had not seen him in over a year, but Cathy was sure he was on the property:
Gary Mathias is in that shed, and I am not leaving until I get him out.
The Carjacking Theory
Those who considered foul play most likely in the Yuba County Five case figured that a random carjacking was the most likely scenario. With a "malicious hitchhiker" involved, Gary Mathias might have fought back and been injured or killed before the group ventured deeper into the National Park. This could potentially explain why Mathias was not found with the others and might also provide a reason for why the rest of the group would comply with the demands of an assailant. However, why would the carjacker ditch the Mercury? Why not keep driving in an undamaged, warm car rather than risking the elements on foot?
The Fringe Theories
The Yuba County Five case had the normal fringe theories, especially when the primary search was afoot - aliens, bigfoot, cryptids. One notable fringe theory, thanks to the timing of the case, was that the group had been kidnapped by a gang of bloodthirsty hippies. This was thanks to the fact that the Manson family murders were fresh in everyone's minds, especially in California. The Tate murders had occurred less than a decade ago in Los Angeles, and even though Charles Manson was in prison, the Manson family was still at large around this time, having attempted to assassinate president Gerald Ford just 3 years prior in 1975.
A Targeted Attack
Some wondered, and still may wonder, not only if foul play was involved in this mystery but if this group was specifically targeted due to their disabilities or association with the Gateway Project, a program that provided services to the mentally handicapped or emotionally challenged. All of the Yuba County Five were regulars at the Gateway Center and played on its basketball team, the Gateway Gators.
Just a few years before, several of Gateway's facilities had been been attacked by arsonists, and its previous director, Donald J. Garrett, had actually been killed by an arsonist attack at his own home. Police officers were willing to believe that all the Gateway attacks were related to each other, though that doesn't necessarily mean they were connected the boys' disappearance:
Apparently someone really has it in for Gateway Projects, for some reason or another. Aside from that, we don't have much else. We have to assume the [arson] attacks are all related because they were all associated with Gateway.
Mathias Was Never There...
Just a few days after the disappearance, Bill Sterling's mother traveled to Chico with photographs of the men and showed them to the ticket takers and security personnel who had been present at the basketball game. None of them recognized any of the individuals in the photographs. It's also worth noting that the Behr's Market cash register records only show four drinks being purchased. These facts, of course, don't disprove anything, but they leave some room for speculation.
A theory that has come up because of these few notable occurrences, and because he remains missing, is that perhaps Gary Mathias never accompanied the rest of the group to the basketball game. Some believe perhaps Mathias had his friends drop him off to see his friends at Forbestown on the way to the game - and they were on the way back from the game to pick him up when disaster struck, which would explain their strange route. Mathias, perhaps filled with guilt by the loss of his friends, decided to go into hiding. What does your inner detective think?
The Tule Fog
A final theory - and one that seems most reasonable - is that this was all a series of tragic accidents. The weather report history for February 24, 1978 shows that it was overcast and heavily foggy. That area of California is known to develop Tule Fog - a creeping, crawling ground fog that blankets the roads. Tule Fog poses real danger for both drivers and hikers, reducing their world to the few feet of ground visible ahead. The boys take a wrong turn, the car gets stuck, realizing they're unable to drive in this weather they decide to walk for help, thinking they're in familiar territory, only for the cold and fog to claim them one by one.
The Families Stay Firm
Along with others in the group of bereaved parents, Jack Madruga's mother, Mabel Madruga, was positive that the death of the boys was not an accident:
There was some force that made em go up there. They wouldn't have fled off in the wood like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that somebody made them do it. We can't visualize someone getting the upper hand on those five men, but we know it must have been.
George Madruga, Jack's nephew, was also sure that foul play was involved:
Those men were murdered by being forced or coerced to march to their ultimate demise from the elements. No way would Jack Madruga abandon his vehicle on the side of a mountain road without being forced or coerced to do so.
He took an immense amount of pride in his car. Additionally, upon the off chance that he may have taken a wrong turn, he knew to simply turn around and retrace the route and not drive aimlessly until the road ended.
Law enforcement did work the case, but I can't help but feel more could have been done
Theodore "Ted" Weiher is perhaps the most mysterious and tragic figure in the chilling tale of the Yuba County Five. His role in the story, as well as the circumstances surrounding his discovery, adds an even more puzzling and haunting dimension to an already baffling case. At the time of the disappearance, Theodore Weiher was 32 years old, and described as friendly, with a trusting nature that was open to suggestion or manipulation. Months after the disappearance of the Yuba County Five, Weiher's body was found in a Forest Service cabin, about 19.4 miles from where the car had been abandoned.
Ted was found lying on a bed inside the cabin, covered with sheets. The scene inside the cabin presented a bizarre and tragic tableau. Despite the availability of food in the cabin, Weiher had lost nearly 100 pounds prior to his death, ultimately succumbing to hypothermia and starvation.
Ted is remembered below by his mother:
Ted was a very loving person. He loved life, and he loved people.
Jack Huett was 24 years old at the time of the disappearance. He lived with his mother and was described as quiet, reserved, and dependent on others, particularly his fellow companions who disappeared with him that night. Like the others, Huett had some developmental disabilities, and his relationship with the other men, particularly Jack Madruga and William Sterling, was vital to his sense of belonging and friendship. They often played sports together, and their companionship was integral to their lives. Huett's shoes and spine were discovered not far from where the bodies of Madruga and Sterling were located, several miles from where Ted Weiher's body was found in the remote forest service cabin. Curiously, Huett's skull was about 100 yards from his other remains.
Jack is remembered below by his mother, Sara:
"He was a delight...he was just slow, but real happy."
William Sterling was 29 at the time of the inexplicable events that took place in Yuba County. Known to be deeply religious and regarded as a friendly, gentle soul, Sterling had a close relationship with Jack Madruga and Jack Huett. By the time Sterling's body was found, close to the remains of his friend Jack Madruga, animals had sadly gotten to it first.
Jack Madruga was 30 years old at the time of the disappearance. Unlike others in the group, he was not formally diagnosed with a developmental disability, though he was considered to be a bit of a loner. His nephew, George, describes him below:
He was an intelligent and sensitive man. Just extremely shy in social situations... Jack's favorite TV show was I Love Lucy. He liked to laugh at all the comedy shows of the time. He also enjoyed game shows, and we would play board games for hours.
Jack had completed high school, served in the U.S. Army, and had been working different jobs. He also not only had a driver's license, but was the driver that fateful night in 1978. Friends and family described him as responsible and not one to deviate from plans without good reason. Madruga's 1969 Mercury Montego was later found abandoned on the mountain road, stuck in the snow but otherwise in good condition.
Exactly why Madruga left his car has never been explained, especially given his known character of being cautious and responsible. He was later found lying beside the road, about 11 miles from the car. His body was in a state of decay, and the cause of death was never definitively determined, leaving yet another unanswered question in this chilling mystery.
Gary Mathias had a history of schizophrenia and was under medication for the disorder. His life had been marked by various challenges, but he had a job at his stepfather's gardening business and was reportedly taking his medication at the time of the disappearance. Though he had had run-ins with the law in the past, friends and family described him as friendly and compassionate. Mathias's presence with the group that night adds an eerie dimension to the story, as he was less acquainted with the other men, unlike the rest who had been long-time friends. Also unlike the other men, Mathias's remains were never found. There have been numerous theories and wild speculations regarding Mathias's role in the incident. Some believe that he may have been the one to lead the group up the mountain, though there's no concrete evidence to support this. Others have pointed to his history of mental illness as a possible factor in the events that transpired.
Was Mathias a victim of the same unknown terror that led to the others' demise? Or was he, perhaps, a survivor, wandering lost and nameless somewhere, carrying the dark secrets of that night with him? Mathias' niece, Tammie, has this to say:
My uncle was not violent. He had a mental illness, yet he was sweet, quiet, artistic, and absolutely loved women and children. He was very close with my mom and his own mother was his best friend. Please have an open mind and remember his family does exist.
The Answers Escape Us
We will likely never have all the answers to the case of the Yuba County Five - indeed, we likely won't have any more than we have now. It's a mystery filled with such twists and turns that it completely boggles the mind. Why would they take the mountain route away from their home? Why would they leave their (still working) car? What happened in the cabin - and to Ted Weiher's shoes - and to Gary Mathias?
Whatever happened, let's hope for closure for the families and loved ones of the Yuba County Five. As Tammie, the niece of the missing Gary Mathias, puts it:
These are memories that still haunt them. Can you imagine never knowing what happened to your brother, son, uncle for 40 years? Let me tell you, it's still painful. I truly hope we all will learn the truth of what happened to my uncle Gary and his friends.