Yuba County Five Mystery

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On a freezing Winter’s night in California, five men drive up a treacherous mountain road and into bizarre true crime legend. What happened next raises enough questions to fill a book.

This and NINETEEN other true crime stories and mysteries can be found in Bizarre True Crime Volume 2, available from Amazon.

At five in the morning on 24th February 1978 during a cold Californian Winter, Ted Weiher’s grandmother, Imogene, was awoken suddenly, not by a loud noise or movement in the darkness, but by a terrible feeling. She couldn’t explain what had woken her but she knew something was wrong.

Imogene went to check on her grandson who had been at a basketball game with four friends the night before. To her surprise, and horror, 32-year-old Ted was nowhere to be seen. She remembered the previous night well; the Winter moon was bright in the sky and the snow drifts were rolling down the mountains.

Ted had been on his way out to meet friends, 29-year-old Bill Sterling, 24-year-old Jack Huett, 30-year-old Jack Madruga, and 25-year-old Gary Mathias. Imogene told him to wear a coat but Ted replied, ‘I won’t need a coat, not tonight’.

Imogene phoned Bill’s mother who confirmed that Bill hadn’t returned home either. More phone calls were made to the other families, and suddenly a terrible realisation dawned on them all. All five men had vanished. But what appeared to be a tragic accident was about to become one of California’s most confusing mysteries.

Gateway Gators

Excited at the prospect of watching a California State University college basketball game, the five men met up beforehand and drove to the University. Fortunately, their team won, and they celebrated the win by heading to a food store and picking up some goodies.

The clerk, who was attempting to close up, said they stocked up on junk food and drove off in a Madruga’s white 1969 Mercury Montego. The clerk was the last person to see them alive as they headed off on the road out of Chico.

All five men had at some point been diagnosed with disability or mental health disorders. Mathias was on anti-psychotic medication after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder five years earlier.

The five friends had been due to play in their own basketball game with the Yuba City vocational rehabilitation centre for the handicapped, the team was known as the Gateway Gators.

The game fell through but they each wore the beige Gateway Gators t-shirts as spectators at the college basketball match. Due to their handicaps, the men were well looked after, never left their families without telling them where they were going, and always returned on time.

The night after they failed to return home, the families of the five men called the police and an investigation was opened. As details of the case came to light, the families of the missing became more confused with every piece of new information.

A treacherous road

Four days after the disappearance, on 28th February, police thought they had struck gold when they discovered Madruga’s Mercury vehicle but it wasn’t quite where they expected it to be. The car was 70 miles away from Chico and the basketball game the men had attended.

It was on a deserted mountain road, just feet from the edge of the snow drifts. The car wasn’t stuck and there had been no damage to it. Bizarrely, the gas tank was a quarter full, which meant the men could have easily turned around and driven back.

The inside of the car was littered with the junk food wrappers, except a Marathon bar, which had been left half-eaten. Inside the glove apartment were four maps of California, all folded neatly. The keys and the men were nowhere to be seen.

The road leading to the mountain was treacherous, unsafe, and in need of dire repair in the late Seventies. Despite the unsafe nature of the road, the car had been driven in what would have been total darkness, for many miles up the side of the mountain, with no damage to the car at all.

Police claimed it would have been possible, if it had been in daylight and the driver had extraordinary skill to navigate the potholes and bends. More surprisingly, the car showed no signs of mud stains or dents, which would have been the result of driving up the road.

The families told police that as far as they knew, the men were not familiar with the road or mountain at all, and only Madruga was the only one to ever drive the car, which he was adamant about. All the men had strict schedules they stuck to and had never gone off the beaten track.

As the police began their search of the mountain, a storm came in and powdered the region with fresh snow. More experienced search teams were brought in, using snowmobiles to navigate the mountain but the storm had made the land impossible to roam.

After nearly losing a man in the drifts themselves, the police called off the search two days later. They hadn’t found a single trace of the men. The families were left to ponder what had happened to them and why they had taken the mountain road in the middle of the night.

Macabre discoveries

It’s an unfortunate circumstance of wintery mountains that those who went missing in the snow are usually found after the thaw. On 4th June, a local motorcycle group were visiting the mountain and came across a deserted service camp, just under 20 miles way from where Madruga’s car was discovered.

Inside the main trailer, the frozen and partially decomposed body of Ted Weiher was discovered on a makeshift bed. He had been covered with eight sheets which had been tucked around his head. His leather shoes were missing and he was found with his gold necklace and wallet which still had cash in.

Beside him was a gold Waltham watch, which was unusual, as the families of all five men claimed none of them had owned such a timepiece. Ted was usually shaven but the growth of beard on his face suggested he had lived for an estimated two months after the disappearance. How he had managed to wander 20 miles through extreme snowdrifts to the camp, was anyone’s guess.

Strangely, the camp was home to emergency food including dehydrated dinners, fruit cocktails, and beans. The outdoor storage shed had been opened and the food had been eaten and emptied. However, the storage cupboard in the trailer had never been opened and contained enough food to keep the men alive for at least a year.

The trailer had a gas tank attached which could have kept the structure heated for many months but it had never been turned on. What happened to the men that the food was never eaten and the amenities were never used?

Once police were informed of the body, it didn’t take search parties long to find the others. 11 miles away from the car, they found the decomposed remains of Madruga, who had been partially eaten by animals, he was found curled up, hugging his watch. The partial skeletal remains of Sterling were found nearby, scattered beside the road.

Two days later, after joining the search, Huett’s father found a spine near the trailer. Searchers then discovered a skull and bones that were confirmed to belong to Huett through dental records. Searchers also found three discarded service blankets from the camp nearby.

But Gary Mathias was missing and no remains were found. It was as if he had disappeared without a trace.

The mystery deepens

Gary’s shoes were found inside the service trailer so it was suspected he had removed Weiher’s leather shoes and worn them himself. When he did this and why he did it would remain unknown. Despite taking anti-psychotic medication, he was known to be keeping his mental disorder under control and showed no recent signs of breaking down.

He had been working at his stepfather’s business, in a job he enjoyed, and also collected Army disability pay due to his disorder. He was well-liked, well known to his friend’s families, and simply loved basketball. So what happened to Gary?

Special Agent John Thompson from the California Department of Justice simply said; ‘bizarre’. He claimed at the start of the investigation they had over 1,000 leads, all of which were going nowhere, or required a huge amount of manpower to follow up.

To assist them, they hired a water diviner, who claimed to have fixed his rods to look for human minerals. The diviner found an abandoned cabin in the woods near the abandoned car and discovered a lighter inside. No trace of Gary was there, nor were there any signs the five men had been in the cabin.

The case was going cold at every single turn. None of the evidence was pointing to a fulfilling conclusion. The gold watch in the trailer may have been the result of a forester leaving it behind. The lighter may have belonged to anybody. Despite shutting the case down on every lead, the mystery still remained.

Where was Gary Mathias? Why drive up the mountain road in the first place? Why walk 20 miles into treacherous territory and leave behind a perfectly working car? The theories and the stories were beginning to circulate.

The Shones statement

While they were yet to be found, psychics came forward and claimed they knew where the men were. One claimed they had been seen in Ontario, another in Tampa Bay, another in Sacramento. One even told police the men had been kidnapped and murdered in a two-story house with red bricks. After the four men were discovered after the Spring, the psychics theories were thrown out.

Then came the Shones statement. 55-year-old Joseph Shones drove up the mountain road just before 6pm, while it was still daylight. He was checking the snowline as he was planning to take his family to his mountain cabin that weekend, before news of the storm came in. He got stuck in snow just metres from the location where Madruga’s car would later be found.

While attempting to dig the car out, Shones suffered a heart attack, which was later confirmed by doctors. He laid down in the back seat of the car with his engine on and the car heater turned up full. In the middle of the night, he was awoken by headlights coming up the road and a strange whistling noise.

He managed to crawl out of his car and look down the road where the vehicle had stopped. Through the haze of the headlights under the moonlit sky, he saw a group of men with a woman and a baby. He heard them talking and called out for help, but as soon as he yelled, the headlights went out and the talking stopped.

A short while later, he saw flashlights near the car and again called out for help, but the flashlights went out with the sound of his voice. In the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, his car ran out of gas and the heating shut off. He managed to walk eight miles down the mountain road to a lodge where he called for help.

As he was coming down the mountain road, he walked past Madruga’s Mercury, which was empty in the middle of the road. It had been in the same location where he had heard the voices and seen the people talking. He recalled a strange whistling noise at the time he had seen the group near the car but couldn’t describe what it was.

The theories and the questions

There’s not many mysteries where the more you read and uncover, the more questions that are raised. The disappearance of the Yuba County Five is one of those mysteries, and the theories, though sometimes wild, are difficult to explain away.

The most common theory is that the men took a wrong turn on the way home and drove up the mountain road by mistake then looked for shelter and died in the process. However, Shones statement seems to contradict they had accidentally driven up there.

A forester had travelled to the trailer camp a day before and would have left snowcat tracks to the camp. It was deemed possible that the men followed it in the hopes of finding shelter. But it doesn’t explain why they left a perfectly good car.

Upon finding the trailer, the men broke in and tried to survive. As time went on, each of them attempted to seek help and succumbed to hypothermia. Except, that doesn’t explain why none of the food was eaten, why the gas wasn’t turned on, or even why a fire hadn’t been lit inside or outside the trailer.

Why, if there was food nearby, did Ted Weiher starve to death? The questions continue to haunt true crime and mystery enthusiasts to this day. Some people, including Madruga’s mother suspected something far more unusual.

Shortly after her son was discovered, Mabel Madruga claimed that; ‘there was some force that made them go up there and someone made them do it.’ Ted Weiher’s sister said, ‘I can’t understand why they didn’t build a fire unless they were afraid of something in the woods.’

Investigators could never prove foul play but also never ruled it out. This book could be made up of all the bizarre questions that the case of the Yuba County Five raises. But two stand out in this author’s mind. Who was the woman that Shones had seen with the men that night on the mountain road?

And more importantly, where is Gary Mathias? For no trace of him has ever been found, dead or alive.

This and NINETEEN other true crime stories and mysteries can be found in Bizarre True Crime Volume 2, available from Amazon.

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