What would you think if your loved ones decided to go catch a basketball game, something they had done dozens of times before? Would you think that this dinner would be the last time you would see them alive? That what would happen to them would become one of the most disturbing mysteries in American history? For the families of Jack Madruga, Ted Weiher, Jack Huett, Bill Sterling, and Gary Mathias these questions never crossed their minds. They gave their love and wished their boys a safe trip before losing them forever to the night.
While collectively the five are called “the boys”, they were in fact grown men, with Huett being the youngest at 24. They all had developmental disorders or learning disabilities which put them at a lower intellectual level. This made living on their own difficult and all of them lived with family. Mathias was different from the others, he was a schizophrenic. They all knew each other from a program for the disabled they were a part of. Through that center, they formed their own basketball team, The Gateway Gators. The boys loved basketball and it wasn’t uncommon for them to catch a game in Chico, California which wasn’t far from their hometown in Marysville, near Yuba City.
Nothing was out of the ordinary that February 24th in 1978. The boys were in good spirits as they set off in Madruga’s Mercury Montego. By all accounts, Madruga loved that car like it was his child and since he was the only one with a license, none of the others ever drove it.
The boys hit up the game and while they cheered on their favorite team, heavy snow started to fall outside. That winter had been a hard one and when the game let out at 10 pm it was really coming down.
Where It All Went Wrong
They stopped at a gas station for snacks and from there nothing makes sense. Instead of driving the 50 miles south back to Marysville, a route they had taken numerous times, they drove 70 miles east.
The Montego that Madruga loved so much was found abandoned on a mountain road four days later on the 28th. The road was full of twists and turns that ran through heavily wooded areas. In order to even get there, they would have had to have cut through Oroville and crossed a bridge over Oroville lake.
There was no known reason for them to have taken this route. The five were expected home and Mathias hadn’t taken his medication (though there are conflicting reports on this.) When the boys didn’t arrive home on time their families contacted the police. Law enforcement sent out a bulletin with a description of the five and the Montego. That’s when Joe Shores came forward with his odd story.
Two Pairs Of Headlights On The Road
Joe Shores was a man who enjoyed the great outdoors, that night on the 24th he was out checking the route he’d planned on taking when he brought up his family for a camping trip. His car got stuck in the snow on a tight turn and as he was giving it a push Joe’s night got a lot worse.
The strain from trying to push his car out brought on a mild heart attack. Joe was forced to climb into his back seat to hold out against the storm. While he lay there he saw a set of headlights come up the road.
He got out and tried to wave down what seemed to be a pickup truck but they kept on. Joe followed after them, shouting for help and eventually came upon what he claimed was a group of four men and a woman with a baby. They were illuminated in the headlights of another car but when he called out to them, the lights died and no one came to his aid.
Back at the car, he waited until the storm died down and he felt well enough to trek to a mountain lodge he knew was around 8 miles away. On the way, he passed Madruga’s empty 1969 Montego. He realized it must have been the second pair of headlights he’d seen with that group of people from before. Police followed his report, as well as that of a forest ranger, to the car and the mystery only deepened.
Out Into The Cold Night
The car was empty and filled with wrappers from the snacks they had bought. Inside the glovebox was a selection of roadmaps, seemingly untouched. Reports conflict on if the police had to add gas to get the car to start or if there was still fuel in the tank but either way the car had to be towed.
Investigators figured that the car had gotten stuck in the snow, much like Joe’s had. What puzzled them is why the boys weren’t able to get the car going. All of them were in good shape and should have been able to push the car out easily. Instead, they had abandoned the Montego and made their way into the woods. The five had dressed for a quick night out, not a hiking trip.
Searching those woods proved no easy task as the area was already covered in heavy snow. To make matters worse the woods were dense and some trails inaccessible. Still, they searched for those beloved boys. Ground crews, helicopters, psychic mediums, the families raised a reward of over two thousand dollars for any information. Nothing came until June and it wasn’t what anyone had wanted to hear.
A group of motorcyclists were out enjoying the good weather when they came across a remote forest station. These stations were used by the forest rangers in the event of an emergency. They were stocked with food, warm clothes, they even had their own propane generators. This one, the bikers found, had been broken into.
Inside they found Ted Weiher’s emaciated body under a bunch of thin sheets. His feet showed extreme frostbite. They judged by beard and fingernail growth that he’d lived at least 8 weeks from the time he’d left the car (though this was a rough estimate). What didn’t make any sense to them was the condition of the station.
It was virtually untouched. The place was stocked with enough food to have fed all five for a year, but only 12 cans had been opened. Outside there was a generator that had never been turned on and a full fuel tank. Weiher’s leather shoes were missing but they did find a pair of tennis shoes that were later identified as belonging to Gary Mathias. The forest station was roughly 19 miles away from where Madruga’s car was found.
A further search of the grounds revealed the bodies of Jack Madruga, Bill Sterling, and Jack Huett. They were all around 4 miles away from the station and seemed to have died from the cold. The station and their bodies were located between where Daniel Zink Campground and Little North Fork Campground are today. To date, the body of Gary Mathias has not been found.
What happened out there in the woods? What led up to the loss of the Yuba County Five? Sadly, there are no answers but many theories.
How Did It Happen?
An Enemy Within
Many speculate that the threat the group faced did not come from without but from within. Gary Mathias was the newest member of the boys and he had a troubled past. There are reports that he was hospitalized in high school after a “bad trip” brought on by drug use. He had been discharged from the military after going AWOL and assaulting a police officer while naked. His defense for this was simply:
I’ve been in the Army and I don’t like it, and I thought if I hit a cop, maybe they’d let me out.”
After his discharge for schizophrenia, he was brought up on charges for assault with intent to rape after being found astride his cousins sleeping wife. This was later dropped thanks to a plea deal struck up for his battery of the police officer from before. He continued to use drugs and get into barroom brawls. While his mental illness made his sanity a shaky concept, it did not diminish his capabilities.
Mathias had escaped several mental institutions since 1973. Sometimes slipping away when allowed outside, other times he would pull a stunt like something out of a movie. Such as the time he broke out of his cell and escaped through a drainage pipe.
Mathias was no stranger to roughing it either. After he tried and failed at community college he moved away from Yuba City for a time to live with relatives in Portland Oregon. His parents pleaded with him to return and after weeks he showed up on their doorstep in a mess. He’d walked over 500 miles to get back to them. He claimed that he’d stolen milk off porches and pilfered dog food along the way to sustain himself.
While he had managed to maintain a job with the help of his stepfather and regular dosing of his medication, there was always the risk he could “go haywire” again. Could that be what happened that night? Could he have snapped and convinced the others that they were being followed and that’s why they ended up on that mountain road so far from home? Maybe once the car got stuck he bolted and the others followed him to their frozen end.
But What If They Were Followed?
Another leading theory ties in with the account of Joe Shores. For some sports fans, emotions run a little too hot and the impaired are often easy targets. Could the boys have angered a fan of the rival team and had some sort of altercation that spilled out onto their drive back? Some also think that the woman with a baby has much more significance.
Could she have been running from someone and the boys picked her up after their trip to the gas station, only to put themselves in the crosshairs of her pursuers? Then again, the whole sighting could have been a hallucination brought on by Joe’s heart attack.
One interesting theory may explain why they left the Montego and the state they would have been in. Carbon Monoxide poisoning can occur in a car if the exhaust becomes obstructed. The five could have gotten the car stuck in such a way that the tailpipe was partially blocked. Or, some unknown fault could have occurred to the exhaust system. This would have caused carbon monoxide to build up in the cab as they ran the engine to stay warm.
CO poisoning can cause dizziness and confusion, along with a host of other issues. This would have left the boys disoriented and in such a state they could have made the fatal choice to leave the car to seek help. CO poisoning from running a car in the cold is shockingly more common than one might think and even today has led to several unfortunate deaths.
What About Ted Weiher?
Personally I find the CO poisoning to be the most likely. None of the theories explain why the Yuba County Five decided to take that route. However, there may be an explanation as to what happened to Ted Weiher in that station.
Whatever the reason, Weiher and Mathias both made it to that forest station. If the others made it there as well and later on left or never made it at all is unclear. Weiher’s feet showed advanced frostbite and it would be safe to say he was not in a good state. Stressed, in pain and possibly brain-damaged, it would have been all too easy for him to slip into Mathias’s madness.
Folie à deux or “a madness shared by two”, is an obscure mental condition where the delusions and paranoid beliefs of one person become shared with another. A rather famous modern case of this would be of Sabrina and Ursula Eriksson. Twin sisters who, after meeting each other one day, went on to kill a person and throw themselves into traffic over and over. (Their bizarre story became the subject of a documentary, Madness In The Fastlane.)
I feel that in the days they were in the station, Mathias become unhinged and suffered an insane break. Be it that they were being pursued or something else altogether, his paranoia spread to Weiher. This madness locked them both in the station and drove the strange decisions that kept the two from warmth and food.
When Weiher’s body finally gave out and Mathias was left alone, he covered his friend as best he could. He then traded shoes with the dead man and made his long walk into the unknown.
(Enjoy reading about the Yuba County Five? Read more like it under the obscure tag)