MYSTERY OF THE YUBA COUNTY 5
Five young men kissed their families goodbye and drove off to a basketball game. Four returned months later in body bags and one never returned at all. What happened on that freezing cold night?
In 1978, five Californians went to watch a basketball game: none were seen alive again. How did they end up dead on a mountain, miles away?
It was a freezing cold evening on 24 February 1978 when five close friends, Jackie Huett, Ted Weiher, Jack Madruga, William Sterling and Gary Dale Mathias, decided to take a mini road trip, 75 kilometres from their home town of Yuba City to Chico in order to catch a basketball game. Although it was cold out, the young men didn’t feel the need for jackets, as they intended to drive up in Jack Madruga’s beloved 1969 Mercury Montego and would be coming straight home after the game finished at around 10pm. It was important that they returned home as quickly as possible when they were done because the group were playing a game themselves the following day. It was a big event for their team, the ‘ Gateway Gators’, and they wanted to be up and ready good and early on Saturday morning.
The game had been a good one, and as they clambered back into the car and pulled out of the California State University carpark they decided to celebrate with some snacks. Three blocks away they found a late- night market and so pulled in off the road. The clerk at Behr’s Market would be extremely useful to the police when the investigation was underway, because he remembered the exact time they showed up and what the men bought. He had been slightly irritated by their arrival as it was closing time and he wanted to shut up shop and go home. The men had promised to be quick but had then proceeded to buy “half the store”, including milk, Pepsi, a Hostess cherry pie, various chocolate bars and a Langendorf lemon pie. Laughing and joking, the group paid for their food and climbed back in the car, ready to go home. But the young men didn’t go home, and from that point onwards their movements became inexplicable.
It was a straightforward journey from Chico back to
Yuba City. The men knew the route perfectly well; along Highway 70, cutting through the Central Valley. It should have taken them about an hour to drive the 75 kilometres, especially since the driving conditions were clear. Although it was bitterly cold, the snow had not started to fall across the lowland areas and it was a bright, starry night.
However, the group did not take that route. Instead, they turned the car around and began travelling in completely the wrong direction. The car would eventually be found four days later, on Tuesday 28 February, 115 kilometres from Chico, high up on a lonely mountain road near Oroville, along the Rogers Cow Camp area. Whatever had possessed them to travel 2.5- hours up a mountain dirt track, at an elevation of over 1,375 metres, through thick snow into the Plumas National Forest when they had fully intended to make the one- hour journey home across the flatlands? Nobody could understand it, but as the parents gathered to give their statements to the police, it soon became apparent that this was no ordinary disappearance and these were not your average young men.
Five Good Men
Ted Weiher’s mother was the first to realise something was wrong when she went to wake up her son, as he had requested, and he had not come home. She rang William Sterling’s mother Juanita in a blind panic only to find that William had failed to come home too. In fact, none of the
men had made it back the previous night. For most families, a group of young men not coming straight home after a night out would not be a cause for alarm, but these men were slightly different and, under the circumstances, there was every reason to be fearful. The friends all suffered in varying degrees from developmental disabilities and were enrolled in a day program for mentally handicapped adults. Each one lived at home with his parents.
At 32 years old, Ted Weiher was the eldest. Although he was considered very slow, the gentle giant had tried to hold down a job as a janitor, but it had proved too difficult and his family had advised him to give it up. He was particularly close to Jackie Huett, the youngest member of the group, who at 24 walked with a stooped head and struggled to use the telephone without support. William Sterling was deeply religious and was often found reading passages from the
Bible to other handicapped and sick patients at the local psychiatric hospital. His best friend, Jack Madruga, had never been diagnosed with any mental illness but clearly had a very low I. Q. However, he had gained a driver’s licence and had served in the army.
25- year- old Gary Dale Mathias was the last member of the gang. He had also served in the army but had been given psychiatric discharge after suffering from drug problems while in Germany five years earlier. Having been charged with two counts of assault, Gary was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was subsequently put under a doctor’s care. His stepfather Bob ensured that he took his medication of Cogentin and Stellazine, and had been relieved to notice a marked improvement in his condition. On the night of the basketball game he had taken his tablets as usual, but left them at home because he intended to be back the following day, easily in time for his next dose.
The men each had their problems, but they weren’t totally incapable and their parents all believed that they were perfectly able to make their way to and from a game without getting into trouble. They were all ‘ good men’ who did as they were told and never deviated from a plan once it had been decided upon. A sudden change would have unnerved them and would have been entirely out of character. The parents all agreed that, should something have gone awry, the five friends would have stuck together, supporting one another as best they could and would certainly not have abandoned each other if at all possible. However, later evidence would suggest that they had done just that.
The Mystery Begins
Two of them could drive, all had held down menial jobs at some point and none of them would have reneged on the upcoming Gateway Gators match. Their parents were understandably terrified, and when they didn’t show in time for the big game, the local police were called and an investigation was launched. Sunday and Monday dragged by agonisingly slowly, but on Tuesday Jack Madruga’s pride and joy, his Mercury Montego, was discovered. High up in the Sierra Nevada mountains above the Feather River, a search team located the car in a small drift just beyond Elke Retreat. The wheels had appeared to have spun in the snow, but the car was not stuck and could easily have been pushed backwards onto the dirt path. The floor and seats were littered with rubbish; chocolate bar wrappers, lemon
The parents all agreed that, should something have gone awry, the five friends would have stuck together
as joseph Shones climbed out of the car he saw a group of people, including a number of men and a
woman with a baby
and cherry pie boxes, a carton of milk and some empty
Pepsi bottles. The men had clearly eaten their celebratory feast before leaving the vehicle. But why leave it at all? The petrol tank was at least one- quarter full and the car itself was not stuck. Although the keys were missing, the police had no problems in hot- wiring it and starting it up. There was nothing wrong with the vehicle at all – in fact it was suspiciously undamaged. The men must have travelled up the unmade track in dangerous conditions and somehow avoided every single bump and rut. The car was not designed for such terrain and yet it had survived the journey unscathed. Police decided that whoever had driven the car must have known the road like the back of his hand in order to have avoided any damage, but Mrs Madruga later testified that Jack never let anybody else drive his car and that he had never been up that road before.
Forest Rangers searched the area with no luck, and five days into their investigation a violent storm blew, in dropping 23 centimetres of snow over any potential tracks. The investigation was postponed, leaving the anxious parents to wait until the spring thaw.
A Peculiar Sighting
While police waited for better weather conditions, a witness came forward claiming to have seen something suspicious on that Friday night. 55- year- old Joseph Shones had driven up the mountain road during the night of the disappearance but had got his car stuck in snow about 45 metres beyond the spot where the Montego would later be found. He had been digging the wheels out when a sharp pain forced him to his knees. Shones believed he was having a heart attack, and doctors later confirmed that this was the case. Having crawled back into his car, Shones turned the engine on and the heater up before passing out. During the night he awoke to the sound of whistling, and as he climbed out of the car he saw a group of people, including a number of men and a woman with a baby, walking up the road, lit up in the glare of headlights from a car and a truck. When he called for help, the lights went out, and he was plunged back into darkness.
A few hours later he was woken by the beam of a torch behind him. Once again he yelled for help, but the lights were extinguished and the whispering voices stopped. Shones was deeply unnerved by the experience, and as soon as he felt better he began to walk the 13 kilometres to the Mountain House Lodge, passing Jack Madruga’s empty car on the way. He soon forgot all about the incident when he got safely home but was reminded of the peculiar sighting when police announced the bizarre disappearance of the men on the
news. The moment he saw the photograph of the missing Mercury Montego he phoned the police. It soon became apparent that Joseph Shones had likely been the last person to see the men alive, but his statement only seemed to add to the list of unanswerable questions.
Meanwhile, the young men’s families raised a $ 2,600 reward for any information and waited for the thaw to arrive. The police became desperate, following misleading eyewitness accounts all over the county and eventually calling on psychics but, unsurprisingly, it was all to no avail.
On 4 June, after the spring thaw, some motorcyclists riding up through the mountain road discovered a Forest Rangers’ trailer approximately 30 kilometres further up from where Jack’s car had been found. A window had been smashed. As the motorcyclists opened the cabin door they were hit by a repugnant smell. Something had crawled in here and died. Sadly, it would turn out to be Ted Weiher.
go had Jack Madrug a’s Mercur y Monte made it up the rough road in difficultsug gesting conditions without a scr atch,tely the dr iver knew the road intima
above The Plumas National Forest just above Feather River after the big thaw. On that fateful night in February 1978, the view was decidedly less beautifulopposite Five young men with their whole lives ahead of them disappeared one cold February evening, never to be seen alive again
above Jack Madruga’s pride and joy, the 1969 turquoise and white Mercury Montego that was discovered up in the Plumas National Forest mountains, a 2.5- hour drive from Chico in the wrong direction to the men’s homes Joseph Shones , whohad suf fered a mild heart a ttack nearwhere J ack’s car later f ound, reported w asseeing a group of men and a w omanwith a ba by by the road on the nightthe men disa ppeared