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?

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Joanna El­ph­ick

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.

Wrong Turn

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

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