The Yuba County Five

In February 1978, five young men from Yuba City, California failed to return home after attending a college basketball game. Their car was found four days later, abandoned. Four of them were eventually found dead in strange circumstances, while the fifth has never been found. The mystery surrounding the event has led to many researchers referring to the Yuba County Five disappearance as the ‘American Dylatov Pass‘.

All five men played for the same basketball team, the Gateway Gators. All five also had some degree of mental disability. Two, Bill Sterling (29) and Jack Huett (24) had mild intellectual disabilities. Two more, Ted Weiher (32) and Jack Madruga (30), had learning difficulties. The fifth, Gary Mathias (25) had been diagnosed with schizophrenia which had led him to be discharged from the US Army. All five lived with their parents in either Yuba City or neighbouring Marysville

On February 25th 1978, the five men were set to play the first game of a tournament sponsored by the Special Olympics with an opportunity to win a free week in Los Angeles. The evening before, the five decided to make the 50 mile drive to the city of Chico to watch a college basketball game. All five travelled in Madruga’s car, a 1969 Mercury Montego. Following the game, the five men visited a local store and purchased snacks and drinks, shortly before 10pm. This proved to be the last time any of them were seen alive. When all five failed to return home, their parents called the police the following morning.

A 1969 Mercury Montego, similar to the one driven by Jack Madruga. Image: The Hartford Guy/Wikicommons

Search Effort Launched

After three days of fruitless searching along the routes between Yuba and Chico, a park ranger notified police that he had seen a car parked on the side of the Oroville-Quincy Road that runs through Plumas National Forest. Police quickly established it was the car belonging to the missing men, and found empty drinks cans and food wrappers that confirmed they had been in the car between the last sighting of them and the vehicle being abandoned.

However, the car had been discovered more than 70 miles from Chico, in the wrong direction to any route that would lead to Yuba City. The men’s parents were confused as to why their sons appeared to have driven their car along a dirt road to a high-elevation area of forest, past the snowline, and then seemingly abandoned the vehicle wearing only the light windproof jackets they had been wearing earlier. Both Sterling and Madruga’s fathers confirmed that their sons hated the cold and disliked spending time in the outdoors. 

The Yuba County Five. Clockwise from top left: Jack Madruga, William Sterling, Jack Huett, Gary Mathias, Theodore Weiher

The car was stuck in a snow drift, with some evidence that the men had tried to free it. However, investigators were confident that the five men should have been easily able to push the car free if they had attempted to do so. The keys were missing, but when hot-wired by police the car started without problem and still had a quarter tank of petrol. An examination of the undercarriage found that there were no dents or marks despite the long drive over a badly rutted road. This meant that either the driver had been extremely cautious, or was very familiar with the road. Madruga had no knowledge of the area. The car had been left unlocked with one window open, something that Madruga’s parents stated was completely out of character for their son.

Possible Sightings

Further search efforts were called off two days later due to ongoing snowstorms. A police appeal for information had a number of responses, with two that investigators felt were pertinent. A man named Joseph Schons told police that he had travelled up to the area the car was found on the 24th February to check the conditions ahead of a planned ski trip to a cabin he owned in the area. After his car got stuck, he suffered a mild heart attack while trying to free it. Spending the night in the car, six hours later he was roused by headlights behind his car. Looking out, he saw a car parked behind his, surrounding by a group of six people including what he thought was a woman holding a baby. On calling out for help, the group stopped talking and switched off their headlights. He later saw flashlights but they were again switched off after he called out to them. A little while later, Schons told police that he thought a pickup truck had parked behind him before driving off again, but was unsure due to being delirious from pain. The group’s parents stated that it would be very out of character for them to ignore someone in need.

An image of Gary Mathias from close to his disappearance. Image: Missingveterans.com

The second sighting police judged to be pertinent came from a woman in Brownsville, 30 miles from where the car had been found. She claimed to have seen four of the missing men stop at a store two days after their disappearance. Driving a red pickup, she said that two of the men made a call at a telephone booth outside the store, before purchasing food and driving off. The store manager confirmed her account, who said that two of the men, who he thought to be Weiher and Huett, had bought food and drinks from him. Huett’s brother questioned the sighting, stating that Huett had an extreme aversion to using the telephone.

A Grim Discovery

No further sign of the men was found for over three months. On 4th June 1978, a group of motorcyclists visited a Forest Service campsite nearly 20 miles from where the car had been found. They found the window of a trailer located there broken. Inside, they found a body, which was identified as Ted Weiher. Searches of the surrounding area were launched, leading to scattered remains identified as those of Madruga and Sterling being found the following day along the route between the cabin and where the car had been abandoned. Both were found to have died from hypothermia. Close friends even amongst the group, Police theorised that one of the two men may have collapsed from hypothermia and the other had refused to leave him. Madruga was found to have his car keys in his pocket. The remains of Jack Huett were found two days later. Sadly, his own father was the one to find a human spine around two miles from the trailer, that was identified as his son’s after his clothing was found nearby. No trace of Mathias has ever been found.

Conditions on the Oroville-Quincy Road in December 2021. Image: CHP Oroville

Weiher’s body showed he had died from a combination of starvation and hypothermia. He had lost nearly 100 pounds in weight, and his extensive beard growth suggested he had survived at the cabin for between eight and 13 weeks. Despite the cabin containing matches and books that could be used to build a fire, the trailer’s fireplace was untouched, as was several sets of cold weather clothing. A small number of ration cans had been opened and consumed, but a locker stocked with a year’s supply of food had not been opened. A valve that would have started the trailer’s butane heating system had been ignored. 

Investigators theorised that along with Weiher, Mathias and possibly Huett had also reached the cabin. The ration cans had been opened with a P-38 can opener that only Mathias or fellow veteran Madruga would have been familiar with. Weiher’s shoes were missing and Mathias’ tennis shoes where found in the cabin, meaning he likely took Weiher’s more sturdy footwear. Weiher’s body had also been wrapped head to toe in layers of blankets. A gold watch was found close to Weiher’s body, which on inspection all five men’s families stated that it did not belong to them.

It appeared that the group, after becoming stranded, had opted to follow the tracks of a Forest Service Snowcat that led eventually to the trailer. Along the difficult walk through deep snow drifts, Madruga and Sterling succumbed to hypothermia. Reaching the trailer, the men may have believed that it was private property and that they would have been in trouble with the police if they stole food or clothing. Mathias and Huett may have attempted to walk out on foot once Weiher died.

Investigator Theories

What caused the men to divert so far off track and end up stuck is unknown. Mathias was found to have friends in nearby Forbestown and the men may have tried to visit them before taking a wrong turn and ending up on the road up into the mountains. Another theory is that Mathias, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and could be prone to violent outbursts, had been the reason for the diversion and the men abandoning the car. Finally, there remains the possibility that a third party forced the men to divert away from their route home. 

Jack Beecham, former Yuba County Sheriff. Image: Appeal Democrat

The two sightings previously described only further confuse the issue, as neither appear to match up with the most likely theory that the Yuba County Five simply took a wrong turn. Madruga’s mother later stated that she adamantly believed “there is some force that made them 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”. Weiher’s brother, on the other hand, believes that Mathias led the other four men into the mountains to die. Jack Beecham, the former Yuba County Sheriff, appears to agree. Talking to the Sacramento Bee, Beecham said he believed that the men were forced or manipulated, and while we will never know for sure if Mathias had a role in that, he personally believes that he did. He also claimed that some of the other parents voiced concerns about Mathias’ potential involvement in the deaths of their sons. 

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