The Unexplained Deaths Of The Yuba County Five

On February 24, 1978, 24-year-old Jack Huett, 30-year-old Jack Madruga, 25-year-old Gary Mathias, 29-year-old Bill Sterling, and 24-year-old Ted Weiher, left their homes in Yuba City, California, to go to a basketball game at California State University, Chico. As reported by The Washington Post, the men were expected to return to their homes after attending the game. Unfortunately, all five seemingly vanished into the wilderness under specifically unusual circumstances.

Through the years, authorities conducted an extensive investigation into the case, and eventually managed to construct a partial timeline of the men's movements on the night they vanished and the following days and weeks. However, more than 45 years later, law enforcement officials are still unsure why and how the men ended up stranded more than 70 miles away from the location of the basketball game and 50 miles from their homes. It is also unclear why they seemingly chose to put themselves in the line of danger, when they had several opportunities to prevent their ultimate demise.

The remains of four of the men were eventually found. However, due to advanced decomposition, it was not entirely clear how all of the men died. Despite conducting a wide-scale search and recovery operation, Gary Mathias vanished without any trace and remains missing. Although there are several theories about Mathias, his actual fate may never be known.

Four of the men met while while attending Gateway Projects

As reported by The Sacramento Bee, Jack Huett, Jack Madruga, Bill Sterling, and Ted Weiher, met through a program for developmentally disabled adults called Gateway Projects. By all accounts, the four men, who their family and friends referred to as the "boys," were the best of friends. Although all four of the men lived at home with their families, they spent most of their free time together and specifically enjoyed watching and participating in sports, including basketball, together.

According to his father, Huett was more profoundly disabled than his friends. However, despite being heavily dependent on his family, and preferring to stay close to home, Huett enjoyed spending time with his friends.

Unlike Huett, Magruda was "not [intellectually disabled] in the common sense ... merely slow in his thought processes," according to his family. Magruda was in the United States Army for two years, had a driver's license, and had several jobs through the years.

Weiher's disability also seemed to involve his thought process, as he would often act without any apparent forethought about the consequences of his actions. When questioned by authorities, The Sacramento Bee reports Weiher's family recounted an occasion when he was unwilling to leave his bed, despite the house being on fire, as he needed to get some rest.

Sterling's family said his disability often led to him being easily influenced by others, and made him susceptible to being taken advantage of. 

Gary Mathias was different from his friends

Unlike the rest of the "boys," Gary Mathias had been diagnosed with several types of mental illness as opposed to any developmental disabilities. As reported by The Sacramento Bee, Mathias' mental health issues started in high school, when he was hospitalized after he had a bad experience with a hallucinogenic drug.

As reported by The Washington Post, Mathias was not diagnosed with any specific mental illness until approximately five years prior to his disappearance. At the time, Mathias was serving in the United States Army and was stationed in Germany. Authorities said he was diagnosed with psychotic depression and schizophrenia and reportedly used illegal drugs, which may have contributed to or aggravated his mental health issues. Mathias ultimately received a psychiatric discharge from the Army.

Following his diagnosis, Mathias was prescribed medication to treat his mental health symptoms. However, at times he would either forget or refuse to take his medication, which led to violent outbursts on several occasions. Mathias' doctor and family said he eventually been taking his medication regularly, and had stayed out of trouble for the two years leading up to his disappearance. At the time of his disappearance, he had been working for his stepfather, who owned a landscaping business. According to his family, he enjoyed spending time with his relatives and playing or watching basketball with the four "boys," who he met at Gateway Projects.

What happened the night the Yuba County Five went missing?

Authorities estimate Jack Huett, Jack Madruga, Gary Mathias, Bill Sterling, and Ted Weiher left California State University, Chico at approximately 10:00 p.m., directly after the conclusion of the basketball game. All five of the "boys" were likely in a great mood, as the team they were rooting for won the game. After leaving the university, The Washington Post reports Madruga drove himself and the others several blocks to Behr's Mark Convenience store, where they bought some snack-sized pies, a few candy bars, and some drinks. The clerk later said she specifically remembered the boys because they came into the store while she was in the process of closing for the evening.

By all accounts, the men all planned to return home after the game, as they were expected to take part in a basketball tournament the following day. They were all especially excited about that contest, as the winning team would be awarded a free trip to Los Angeles. 

When the men failed to return home as expected, their families reported them missing. Four days later, Madruga's turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego was found abandoned on a treacherous mountain road in the Plumas National Forest, 70 miles from the university. However, the five men were nowhere to be found. 

The search for the Yuba County Five

Authorities did not find anything in or around the abandoned vehicle to suggest there was any foul play involved in the so-called Yuba County Five's disappearance. As reported by The Sacramento Bee, the keys were nowhere to be found; however, the car started immediately when authorities bypassed the ignition system. They also noted the vehicle had around a quarter tank of gas. Although there was heavy snow in the region, and the car was parked against a small snow bank, law enforcement officials said the car was not actually stuck in the snow. 

The boys were clearly not prepared to spend the night in a remote wooded area in the middle of the winter. They were all wearing light jackets and had not packed any extra clothing. As reported by The Los Angeles Times, Gary Mathias also did not have his medication – which he was required to take several times each day. Authorities also said wrappers left inside the vehicle suggested the men ate the snacks they bought at the convenience store.

The Sacramento Bee reports law enforcement conducted an extensive search of the remote area. For months, teams searched the region on foot, on snow machines, and with helicopters, with no luck. The five men seemingly vanished into thin air. With few options left, The Sacramento Bee reports some of the families resorted to consulting a psychic and a "body-witcher," who searched for the boys using a type of divining rod.

Joseph Shones may be the last person who saw the Yuba County five alive

In the course of their investigation, authorities learned 55-year-old Joseph Shones may have seen the Yuba County Five the night they went missing. As reported by The Washington Post, Shones was driving down the same road where Jack Madruga's abandoned vehicle was later found, when his own vehicle became stuck in a snowbank. When Shones got out of his vehicle and attempted to free it from the snowbank, he began experiencing pains that were consistent with a heart attack. As he had no means to call for help, and did not feel well enough to walk, Shones said he left the engine running and lay down in his car to rest.

Sometime later, Shones said he heard an unusual noise and exited his vehicle. According to Shones, he saw several men and a woman, with an infant in her arms, walking down the otherwise deserted road. Although he called out for help, Shones said the people never responded. He eventually got back into his car and lay down again until the vehicle ran out of gas.

Shones said he eventually felt well enough to walk the eight miles to a lodge, where he sought help. According to Shones, he passed Madruga's abandoned vehicle along the way. It was later confirmed that Shones did, indeed, have a heart attack that night. The Sacramento Bee reports Shones may have been hallucinating due to his medical state.

Ted Weiher's body was the first to be found

On June 4, 1978, nearly five months after the Yuba County five vanished, Ted Weiher's body was found inside an old trailer nearly 20 miles away from the abandoned vehicle. Authorities noted Weiher had lost a significant amount of weight and appeared to have frozen to death. The Sacramento Bee reports a medical examiner concluded Weiher had blood poisoning and gangrene, which likely resulted from severe frostbite. It is estimated that Weiher survived between four and six weeks before dying of exposure.

As reported by The Washington Post, the trailer, which was previously occupied by Forest Service personnel, was furnished, and had at least one bed, several blankets, and clothing. Storage sheds on the property contained ample food rations to have provided all five men with enough food to last through the winter. However, only a few of the rations had been opened. Furthermore, nobody attempted to turn on an available propane tank, which would have kept the trailer warm.

Law enforcement officials said the rations that were opened required an Army P38 can opener, which it is unlikely Weiher knew how to use. As Jack Madruga and Gary Mathias both served in the Army and likely knew how to use the can opener, one or both of them were likely present in the trailer with Weiher at some point. Authorities also confirmed Mathias' shoes were found inside the trailer and Weiher's shoes were missing.

Madruga and Sterling's bodies were found eight miles away from Weiher's

Two days later, on June 6, Jack Madruga and Bill Sterling's remains were found eight miles away from the trailer where Ted Weiher was found. As reported by The Sacramento Bee, Sterling's body had been reduced to bones, likely due to exposure to the elements and animal activity. The condition of his remains made it impossible to determine his cause of death.

Although Madruga's body appeared to have been dragged toward a stream, and he also had signs of extensive animal activity, a medical examiner was able to conclude he died of exposure and hypothermia.

Law enforcement officials said both men were found in the same vicinity, just off the road leading to the trailer where Weiher was found. Madruga's car keys were still in his pocket and he was clutching his watch in his right hand. According to The Washington Post, Madruga and Sterling's remains were found 11.4 miles from Madruga's abandoned car.

Huett's remains were found by his father

With the discovery of Jack Madruga, Bill Sterling, and Ted Weiher's remains, Jack Huett's family was even more anxious to find out what happened to him. As reported by The Washington Post, Huett's father, who was also named Jack, was insistent on conducting his own search of the region where the other men were found.

Although authorities advised Jack Sr. that it would be best to let them conduct their search without his assistance, he scoured the area in the hopes of finding his son. Two days after Madruga and Sterling's remains were found, Jack Sr. found his son's coat along the same road, but several miles closer to the old Forest Service trailer. When he lifted the coat up, his son's spinal bones fell out of the coat and onto the ground. Several of Huett's other bones and articles of clothing were scattered around the vicinity. However, his skull was not found until the following day, around 100 yards from the rest of his remains. The Sacramento Bee reports Huett's remains were ultimately confirmed to be his using dental records.

As the snow continued to melt, authorities found other evidence throughout the region, which may have provided clues to the Yuba County Five's movements in the days following their disappearance. For example, several heavy blankets and a flashlight were found approximately 1,320 feet away from the trailer. However, it could not be conclusively proven whether the items were utilized by the missing men.

Gary Mathias was never found

Although the specific movements of the Yuba County Five in the days and weeks following their disappearance may never be known, The Sacramento Bee reports authorities are fairly certain Gary Mathias was in the abandoned Forest Services trailer with Ted Weiher, as Mathias seemingly took Weigher's shoes, which were better suited for hiking through the forest, and left his own sneakers behind. However, no other sign of Mathias or his whereabouts was ever found.

In addition to searching the region where his friends' remains were found, authorities contacted several mental health institutions to be on the lookout for someone matching Mathias' description. As he had a history of mental health concerns and required daily medication, his family was concerned that he may have become agitated and/or disoriented within days of his disappearance. His family also noted he did not take his wallet with him to the basketball game and was not carrying any other form of identification.

Twenty-eight years later, Mathias' brother, Mark, filled out a questionnaire from the Yuba County Sheriff's office, in which he indicated Mathias was still missing. As of 2023, which was 45 years after Mathias vanished, The Doe Network reports Mathias is still considered to be an "endangered" missing person. Although it is generally assumed that Mathias suffered the same fate as his friends, it has been suggested that he may have been somehow responsible for his friends' deaths.

Was Gary Mathias responsible for his friends' deaths?

Gary Mathias' history of mental illness and run-ins with authorities, along with the other differences between him and his friends, led to speculation that he may have been involved in their disappearance and ultimate deaths. As reported by The Sacramento Bee, Gateway Projects was specifically meant to be for those with developmental disabilities, which Mathias did not have. Former Yuba County Sheriff Jack Beecham said, "I know parents at the time told us ... that they had deep concerns about Gary being involved in this ... he just was a different personality type. He didn't meld with the other four, according to [the parents]."

Two unusual phone calls, which were received by Yuba City resident Lynn Reese, also raised suspicions. According to Reece, the caller, who was male, said he "hurt those guys bad." The following day, the man called again and said, "Those five guys are all dead." Authorities believe the call was a prank, but they have never identified the caller.

During a later interview, Beecham said he believes the Yuba County five, " ... were either forced or manipulated ... where does Mathias come into that? Maybe he had nothing to do with it – we'll never know. But I think he did." Mathias' friend Janet Enzerra further raised suspicions that Mathias could have hurt his friends. During a 1978 interview, Enzerra said Mathias told her he had a recurring dream, in which "he and several other people would disappear."

Authorities have more questions than answers in the Yuba County Five case

Despite spending decades trying to understand exactly what happened to the Yuba County Five there are still more questions than answers. Although they had several maps inside the car, the men ended up driving 50 miles in the wrong direction, to a remote area where none of them had any reason to go. Their car was not actually stuck and they had plenty of gas to go elsewhere, as opposed to leaving the car and walking 20 miles through the dense forest. According to The Washington Post, authorities were also perplexed by the condition of the vehicle's undercarriage. As the road was extremely rough, with numerous potholes and large bumps, the car was unusually free from any expected damage or mud.

It is also unclear why the men separated, as they all would have fit comfortably inside the Forest Services trailer – where they also had access to plenty of food and a heat source. Even if they could not figure out how to operate the propane tank, they had access to matches, kindling, wood, and even paperback novels, which they could have burned for heat.

Shones' account of seeing several men on the road the Yuba County Five went missing is also intriguing. Although there was never any indication a woman or an infant was traveling with them, and Shones later said he may have been hallucinating, his story adds another layer to the mystery.