Some mysteries are full of twists and turns, which leaves the police and the public confused and with more questions than answers. One of these kinds of unsolved mysteries is the case of the Yuba County Five.
How did five men coming home from a college basketball game travel in the wrong direction and become lost in the woods in the mountains of California? Why did they walk away from their car in a snow-filled forest?
Why were only four men found, and what happened to the fifth? Almost 50 years after they disappeared, what happened to the Yuba County Five is just as confusing as it was back in the 1970s.
The Yuba County Five
The Yuba County Five were five young men from Yuba City, California, who became friends while members of a local basketball team for people with mental disabilities. The eldest of the “boys,” as their parents called them, were Ted Weiher, 32 years old who was described as “showing signs of Autism, and Jack Madruga, 30 years old, who was described as a “slow learner.”
Bill Sterling was 29 years old and intellectually disabled. Jackie Huett was a 24-year-old man with unspecified physical and mental disabilities. The last member of the Yuba County Five was 25-year-old Gary Matthais.
Gary was in the army, and while in West Germany, he used drugs heavily. He was discharged from the army because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Gary had been in and out of mental health institutions, but at the time of this story, he was being treated with antipsychotics and was said to have been doing well.
The men did live at home with their respective parents but were independent, and some held jobs. Jack Madruga was also an army vet with a driver’s license and a beloved turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego.
The Yuba County Five had a basketball game on February 25th, 1978, that they were excited to play in. Organized by the Special Olympics, the winning team would receive a free weeklong trip to Los Angeles, and the boys were dead set on winning.
February 24, 1978
On the evening of February 24, the boys drove 50 miles (80 km) north to Chico, California, to watch a basketball game between UC Davis and Chico State. Madruga drove off, and the Yuba County Five were never seen alive again.
When the boy’s parents noticed their sons had not come home, the police were called. They knew something was very wrong. The boys were so excited about their game that they would not have missed the game unless something had happened to them.
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Police began searching the route the Yuba County Five would have taken back from Chico, and there were no signs of the boys. This is when this whole case takes a strange and puzzling turn.
A ranger from the Plumas National Forest had told investigators he saw a Mercury Montego parked along one of the roads in the forest on February 25. The ranger was not concerned because residents in the area park on that road while spending the day cross-country skiing in the thick snow. Knowing that Madruga drove a Mercury Montego, the police went to investigate and found Madruga’s car.
Nobody knew why his car was there or why the Yuba County Five were even in Plumas. Some of the Yuba County Five’s parents told police that there was no reason their sons would have gone that far into the mountains while it was snowing.
The forest was over 70 miles (112km) northeast of Chico, opposite where the boys needed to go to return home. The car was stuck in a snow drift, showing signs that the Yuba County Five tried to get the car free.
However, the police felt that the five men, who were in good health, could have easily pushed the car out of the drift. No keys were found in the car; when it was hotwired, it worked without a problem and had a quarter tank of gas.
The Montego was examined, and the undercarriage had zero dents or scratches, even though the terrain was rough. Whoever drove the car into the forest drove incredibly cautiously or knew the area well.
Madruga had never been to Plumas, and a search began. Unfortunately, snowstorms caused the search to be closed two days later, but the police asked the public for any information related to the missing Yuba County Five.
In June, a group of bikers found a Forest Service trailer in a campsite 19.4 (31.2 km) away from where the abandoned Montego was found. Weiher’s decaying body was inside the trailer, and the scene around him was very odd.
Weiher’s body was wrapped up in sheets on a bed, and his feet were frostbitten and gangrenous. Based on the length of his beard had grown, the coroner was able to determine that Weiher had lived as long as 13 weeks after he last shaved.
The cause of death for Weiher was determined to be hypothermia and starvation. This was puzzling because the cabin had a lot of matches, books for kindling, a butane tank for heat, and heavy forestry clothing. Twelve army ration cans were found empty on the floor, but there was an untouched dry food pantry with enough supplies to keep all of the Yuba County Five alive for up to a year.
Weiher’s family told police he lacked common sense from his disability citing an incident where he had to be dragged from his bed while the ceiling was on fire. He stayed in bed because he was afraid he wouldn’t get to work on time if he got up.
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Yet there was evidence that Weiher was not alone in the trailer the whole time. Police believe Mathias and maybe Huett, who they had yet to find, were in the trailer with Weiher. Mathias’s shoes were found in the trailer, and it looked like the food cans that had been eaten were opened with a military P-38 can opener, which only Madruga or Mathias would know how to operate the device from their time in the army.
Police backtracked and started searching along a road that led from the Montego to the trailer and found the scattered remains of Madruga and Sterling. Autopsies confirmed their death was caused by hypothermia.
Authorities think one of the boys may have laid down to rest or sleep, which is a side effect of late-stage hypothermia, and it seems the other boy stayed with his friend until he, too, froze to death. Two days after Madruga and Sterlin’s remains were found, they found the remains of Jackie Huett.
His father had come across some of his son’s clothes, and upon picking them up, the backbone of Jackie fell out onto the ground. Four of the Yuba County Five tragically died in the forest. The real mystery is that Mathias was never found.
We know he was in the trailer where he left his shoes, and it’s assumed he took Weiher’s, which would have fit his frostbitten feet a bit better, but his remains have not been found after 47 years.
This cold case is so intriguing because the reason and what exactly happened to the Yuba County Five is still a mystery. Nobody could figure out why the boys were there.
One theory was that the boys may have taken a side trip to visit some friends of Mathias’s in a nearby town. The thought was that Madruga took a wrong turn and kept going straight ahead instead of turning around. However, police discovered that Mathias’ friends hadn’t seen or heard from him in over a year.
Mathias, however, could have kept walking after Huett died and was somewhere else. Mathias was known for being able to travel long distances on foot. He had once walked over 500 miles after escaping the asylum he was staying at.
With that in mind, police sent pictures of Mathias to the town hospital and morgue nearby, but nobody ever saw him. Mathias’s mental health was brought up as a theory. Mathias was a paranoid schizophrenic and did not have his medication with him which would have meant he began hallucinating and might have led the boys from the car in a deluded state.
Jack Madruga’s mother had told reporters, “There was some force that made ‘em go up there. They wouldn’t have fled off into the woods like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that somebody made them do it.” While Weiher’s sister-in-law was quoted saying, “They seen something at that game, at the parking lot. They might have seen it and didn’t even realize they seen it.”
Mathias’s stepfather believed that the only reason why the men in the trailer didn’t build a fire was that they were afraid of being found. This case can be best summarized by then-Yuba County sheriff Jack Beecham who described it as “bizarre as hell.”
Top Image: Police seraching for the Yuba County Five eventually found four bodies, but Gary Mathias, an army vet, has never been found. Source: Sherrod Photography / Adobe Stock.