The Strange Disappearance of The Yuba County Five

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13th January 2019  •  5 min read

In 1978, five mentally disabled men abandoned their car in the Yuba County wilderness & vanished without a trace. Months later, four of them would be found. What forced them to abandon their car and wander into the wilderness to their deaths?


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On the night of the 24th of February, 1978, a group of five young men – who were all a part of a program for the mentally handicapped – attended a college basketball game at California State University, Chico. They were: Jack Madruga, 30, William Sterling, 29, Ted Weiher, 32, Gary Mathias, 25, and Jack Huett, 24, all from the Marysville area in California. The group of men had been anticipating their Special Olympic basketball tournament that was scheduled for the very next night in Sacramento. They planned on attending the college basketball game to get them enthusiastic for their own game. Before they left, they neatly laid out their basketball jerseys on their beds. If they won their game, they got a trip to Disneyland in California.

However, the five friends would never make it to their game.

Following the college basketball game in Chico, the men intended on driving back home. They all climbed into Madruga’s Mercury coupe and drove to a convenience store in downtown Chico to purchase snacks and drinks for the drive back. This was at approximately 10PM. After departing the store, the men seemingly vanished. Several days later, their abandoned car was found some 70 miles away on a Plumas National Forest road. It appeared as though the men unaccountably turned off a freeway on the way home, driving east rather than south. An investigation of the car indicated no signs of foul play and revealed it was in working order, ruling out the car breaking down. “The car was littered with candy wrappers, basketball programs, milk cartons, and other material indicating a good time,” said a Butte County sheriff. 1

The elevation of the site where the Mercury coup was found was 4,400 feet and the area was surrounded by deep snow. It wasn’t looking optimistic. The missing men were wearing only light clothing and the area was exceptionally dense and mountainous. “Some places you can only get in on horseback,” said Yuba County Undersheriff, Jack Beecham.2 While the men did suffer from mental disabilities, they all could function quite well. However, their families said that their behaviour tended to “deteriorate” if put in a stressful situation. Nevertheless, it was completely out of character for them to just up and vanish on their own accord, particularly given the fact they were all so excited about their upcoming basketball game. “Ted wouldn’t have missed that game for anything,” said his mother. According to their families, they most definitely wouldn’t have driven up an isolated, unknown road in the middle of the night and just abandoned their car for no reason. “I’m pretty sure he would have come home directly from the game,” said Madruga’s mother. “There’s no way he would have gone voluntarily into the mountains at night.” Several of the men were particularly afraid of the dark and two – Stirling and Wieher – abhorred the cold weather and the outdoors.

Foul play was suspected very early on in the investigation: “They could have stopped to aid somebody, and the people they aided took advantage of them,” suggested Sheriff Jim Grant.

A headline from “The Tennessean”/ newspapers.com

Adding more to the mystery, a witness came forward to tell police that he had seen the Mercury coupe at some point between 11PM and midnight on the 24th of February. The witness, Joseph Schons, had gotten his car stuck in the snow while driving on the same Plumas National Forest road where the abandoned car would later be found. While attempting to push his car out of the snow, Schons suffered a heart attack. While awaiting help, Schons said two headlights appeared behind him and then stopped around twenty feet behind him. He said that a group of men then climbed out of a Mercury coup and climbed into the second vehicle and drove off. However, Schons later said he couldn’t confirm without doubt that there had been a second car: “I was half-conscious, not lucid, hallucinating and in deep pain,” he later said. He did confirm, however, that he had definitely seen a Mercury coupe. Shortly afterwards, another witness came forward to say she had seen the five men in a red, 1950s pickup truck at around 2PM on the 25th of February. She claimed she saw the men outside a store in Brownsville, approximately an hour away from where the Mercury coupe was found abandoned.

After the abandoned car was found, a severe blizzard blanketed the area, hindering search efforts and covering potential tracks. Nevertheless, teams of deputies from Yuba and adjoining Buttle counties searched the mountain on foot, on horseback, with dogs, in four-wheel drive vehicles and in a helicopter. The initial search was exhaustive but several weeks later, the ground search for the men was suspended. The Yuba County sheriff’s office said they wouldn’t resume the ground search unless new evidence came forward that indicated that the five men were still in the dense forest.3 While the ground search was called off, a California Highway Patrol helicopter continued to scour the area from the sky. “We’ve searched every place possible,” said Yuba County Sheriff Jim Grant.4

The case went cold until four months later, when the melting of the mountain snow revealed a tragic fate when a group of motorcyclists went to a trailer maintained by the Forest Service around 19 miles from where the Mercury coupe was found. They noticed the window was smashed and inside, they found the decomposed body of Weiher; his feet had severe gangrene after suffering from frostbite. They also found food, clothing, books, matches and fuel, all of which remained untouched. There was enough food to feed the five men for over a year. It was determined that Weiher had remained alive for up to two months in the trailer before dying of starvation and hypothermia. The late spring thaw then uncovered the bodies of Madruga and Sterling around 11 miles from the abandoned Mercury coupe. Both died of hypothermia. Investigators theorised that one may have succumbed to the desire to sleep that marks the final stage of hypothermia and the other refused to leave his side. Shortly afterwards, Huett‘s father – who had joined in on the search – found his remains two miles from the trailer. Investigators believe that Huett had been in the trailer with Weiher when he died and after becoming confused and scared, fled from the trailer to get away from the body. Despite an exhaustive search, Mathias was never found.

The discovery of the bodies led to even more questions. Why would they walk more than a dozen miles uphill through deep snow instead of walking downhill or remaining in their car? And even more tragically, why would at least one of them – Weiher – live for more than two months in a forest service trailer yet ignore the food, clothing and fuel around him before finally perishing? Their families stick to their belief that somebody forced the men up that mountain road and ultimately, to their deaths.

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Footnotes:

  1. The Los Angeles Times, 10 March, 1978 “Foul Play Suspected in Disappearance of 5”
  2. The Independent-Record, 9 March, 1978 – “Five ‘Slightly Retarded’ Men Vanish, Foul Play Suspected”
  3. The Indianapolis Star, 10 March, 1978 – “5 Retarded Young Men Who Vanished Feb. 25 Feared Victims of Foul Play”
  4. The Indianapolis Star, 14 March, 1978 – “Handicapped Team’s Fate Still Uncertain”

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Ducko5
Ducko5
1 year ago

How sad.

Tara White
Tara White
1 year ago

What a tragedy. They were having fun and looking forward to their game and what awaited them was this nightmare!? So sad…life is completely unfair, especially to these special guys. I’m sorry, but if they had mental disabilities then they shouldve never been driving alone without supervision!

Kate
Kate
1 year ago
Reply to  Tara White

They were high-functioning and were described as being “slightly” mentally disabled (learning disabilities, lower than average IQs, that sort of thing), and I believe one – Gary Mathias – had even served in the military and had psychiatric issues rather than any mental disability (I believe his issues were schizophrenia and drug addiction, but he was being treated very successfully and was not in any apparent danger of an imminent psychotic break). They often drove to places by themselves and spent a lot of time together without any supervision and without any problems. They were adults, after all. I have… Read more »

Lacey Sheridan
Lacey Sheridan
10 months ago
Reply to  Kate

Was it? There’s no reasonable explanation of the abandoned car. If someone wanted to steal it, why was it sitting there? I do believe that the mentally disabled should have as much independence as possible, but a trip like this might have been pushing things a little. It sounds as if they were lost in the woods and couldn’t find their way out.

Jason
Jason
9 months ago
Reply to  Kate

One of them, Weiher, was said to have had such little common sense that he didn’t want to leave his bed when his ceiling was on fire for fear of missing work the next day. Assuming that is true, it seems odd that you would trust him to go on such road trips with only other mentally-impaired folks for supervision. Giving the benefit of the doubt, that probably indicates at least one of the others in the group was very trustworthy. I certainly wouldn’t allow a child of mine with such poor judgement to go off on his/her own unless… Read more »

Jason
Jason
9 months ago
Reply to  Jason

“When his parents’ house in the town of Linda caught fire, he stayed in bed watching the ceiling over him burn and told his brother to leave him alone because he needed to rest for work the next day, they told investigators. One of his brothers dragged him from the burning home.”

I don’t know how objective “high-functioning” is, but I wouldn’t personally find such a person to be capable of independence.

Tara White
Tara White
1 year ago

I’m

Susanna Vesna
Susanna Vesna
1 year ago

This is sad. I feel like there may have been 2 possibilities- someone harassed them, so they ran to hide. Or they saw something in the forest & got curious enough to investigate. They may have gotten lost and then simply stuck because of the weather. Either way- very unfortunate.

Leland small
Leland small
1 year ago
Reply to  Susanna Vesna

No getting lost in snow if it isn’t snowing at the time you can just follow your own prints back

Lacey Sheridan
Lacey Sheridan
10 months ago
Reply to  Leland small

Assuming they realized that, and didn’t just panic.

Angel M.
Angel M.
5 months ago
Reply to  Susanna Vesna

Those are the exact two scenarios I imagined as well. After reading some of the comments, however, I am wondering whether Mr. Mathias (if he had schizophrenia, as was mentioned) may have been having a break that went unnoticed at the time. This was 1978. We know next to nothing about most mental disorders today, let alone back then. I just get the feeling that perhaps some symptoms may have cropped up that either went unnoticed or even downplayed by a family that was grieving and, if they had noticed the signs after the fact (which is often the case)… Read more »

bred
bred
1 year ago

david paulides should cover this case. this makes no sense. none at all. just so sad.
and a guy had a heart attack in the road and nobody helped him? im confused

Kate
Kate
1 year ago

A few thoughts… Perhaps with Weiher not being mobile, they used the trailer as a base. Leaving periodically to look for help, and then returning to feed/tend to him. First Medruga and Sterling as a team, then, when they failed to return, Mathais and Huett. Assuming they were gone a bit longer each time (covering more ground) and then succumbed themselves, leaving Weiher to perish of starvation. With the lack of Mathais’ body, maybe Huett went by himself, leaving Mathais to tend to Weiher. Lacking the schizophrenic medication, its possible that Mathais became increasingly paranoid alone with the incompassitated Weiher… Read more »

Angel M.
Angel M.
5 months ago
Reply to  Kate

Yes! This makes so much sense. I just posted a huge comment above, where I suggested something similar with Mathias, except that his schizophrenia was what brought the group into the mountains to begin with, essentially. This could have been the natural progression of the scenario I laid out. Ugh. Horrible!

Tora
Tora
6 months ago

As a woman with high functioning Autism. I don’t know if that’s their “handicap” or something else is.
I would have never done something like this. I would have stayed with the vehicle.
It seems a few of them may have not been as high functioning as thought.
Why anyone would approve of them going on a long trip alone bothers me…
This didn’t have to happen. I like my independence, but sometimes we NEED someone who isn’t mentally ill to help us with things.

Angel M.
Angel M.
5 months ago
Reply to  Tora

My best answer to this is that it was 1978. In the decade or so prior to this, my grandmother had a child with severe retardation (he never had an actual diagnosis, just that he was “retarded”), and it was expected that she put him in a hospital (read: mental institution) to be cared for and, horribly, forgotten about. My uncle lived out his life in excruciating pain and was “cared for” by ignorant, unfeeling, uncaring employees of that place of torture. He was 24 when he died of pneumonia, which he got every year, once or twice, because they… Read more »

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