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The Mysterious Case of the Yuba County Five

In February 1978, a group of friends from Yuba City, California, were getting ready to travel to Chico, a town just an hour away, to watch their favorite college basketball team.

Five young men hit the road, attended the game, and then mysteriously vanished on their way home. Their disappearance is one of the most baffling cases in the history of California.

Missing persons poster of the five men.

The Boys

Even though these five men were between the ages of 24 and 32, their families, neighbors, and friends still called them boys. All had mild intellectual disabilities but were perfectly healthy otherwise.

The boys shared one particular interest, and that was basketball. They bonded at the Yuba City Vocational Rehabilitation Center, where they played basketball for the Gateway Gators.

Theodore Weiher, also known as Ted, was 32 and the oldest of the group. He was friendly and loved greeting strangers on the street. In February 1978, Ted was unemployed but had worked as a janitor at one point.

According to his family, Ted sometimes didn’t understand the seriousness of certain situations. For instance, he told his brother to let him sleep while the family home was on fire.

Jackie Huett, who was 24 years old, was Ted’s best friend. The young man relied on his parents since he couldn’t read, write, or dial a phone. Luckily, Ted was always there for him to help with these things when Jackie was out of the house.

Jack Madruga was 30 and was the only one in the group with a car and a driver’s license. He was capable of taking care of himself and was fairly independent.

Jack graduated from high school and even spent two years in the Army. Besides basketball, he was passionate about cars and adored his Mercury Montego. 

Bill Sterling, 29, was Jack’s best friend. He was cheerful and sometimes too trusting. For instance, Jack’s mom made him quit his job as a dishwasher because his coworkers were stealing money from him.

Finally, there was Gary Mathias, who didn’t have an intellectual disability but a mental disorder. Gary was 25 years old and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The right combination of medications helped him keep everything under control for the last two years.

Things weren’t always so great, as he was discharged from the United States Army due to his medical problem and went through several difficult episodes in the past.

The Disappearance

On Saturday, February 25, 1978, the Gateway Gators were scheduled to compete in the Special Olympics tournament in Sacramento. The winners would receive a week-long vacation in Los Angeles with all expenses paid. 

According to their families, the boys were thrilled about this opportunity, and most of them laid out their uniforms one day before leaving for the competition.

Surprisingly, the five men made a last-minute decision to drive to Chico on Friday.

Their favorite basketball team, UC Davis, was playing against Chico State University, so they hopped into Jack’s car at around 5:40 PM and made a 50-mile drive north. However, they never made it back home.

In the early morning of Saturday, February 25, Bill’s mom woke up at 2:00 AM, checked her son’s bedroom, and saw he wasn’t there. She called Jackie’s mom, who answered the phone immediately, saying her son wasn’t home either.]

Soon, it was confirmed none of the boys returned from Chico. Jack’s mom called the Yuba City Police Department at 8:00 AM to report her son missing, but law enforcement told her to wait.

Knowing that something was very wrong, the parents of the boys got together and filed missing person reports at 8:00 PM.

Map detailing the key locations in regards to the disappearances. Image by Yuba County Five podcast.

This time, law enforcement asked for the public’s help and sent out the description of Jack’s turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego. Soon, they had their first clue.

Law enforcement confirmed that the boys attended the basketball game and Chico and stopped at Behr’s Market, a store three blocks away from the university.

The clerk was annoyed because they came in just before 10:00 PM, and she was already closing for the night. The boys purchased snacks, soda, and milk, presumably for the drive back home. The clerk watched them get back into their car and head south.

The Abandoned Car

On Monday, February 27, the Yuba City Police Department received a call from a ranger who worked at Plumas National Forest. He informed them that he had seen a car matching the description of the Mercury Montero they were searching for. 

The ranger first noticed the vehicle on Saturday by the forest road but didn’t think twice about it because that area was a popular destination for cross-country skiing.

After seeing the missing persons bulletin, the ranger recognized the vehicle and immediately called in. 

The following day, the police arrived at the location, 70 miles northeast of Chico.

This discovery confused the officers because there was no logical explanation for why the group would make a trip up the mountain without any supplies or warm clothes one day before their big basketball game.

The car was stuck in the snow, but five men could’ve pushed it out easily. The Mercury was unlocked, and one of the windows was rolled down. Jack’s parents said that was odd because Jack always made sure to lock his car.

Car similar to Jack’s turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego.

No keys were left in the vehicle, but empty food wrappers confirmed they headed towards Plumas National Forest after stopping by Behr’s Market. Several maps of California were neatly stacked in the glove compartment.

Investigators thought that the Mercury broke down and the boys had to leave it by road, but the officers hot-wired the vehicle, and the engine was completely fine. Furthermore, there was enough gas in the tank.

The Mercury was taken back to the station, and further examination showed that the undercarriage was in pristine condition, which was almost impossible when riding on an unfamiliar, bumpy mountain road.

It suggested that whoever had driven the car knew the way, but Jack’s parents had a different theory. Jack loved his Mercury Montero and was probably driving carefully that night.

Suspecting that the boys were somewhere close, law enforcement began searching for them on February 28, but a snowstorm hit the area hours later, and the plans were canceled.

They tried looking for them in the next 48 hours, but the weather on the mountain was severe, so the search was eventually called off.

A Strange Sighting

The local media covered the case extensively, and the police received hundreds of calls regarding the missing boys. But one sounded legitimate.

Joseph Schons from Sacramento owned a cabin close to where the abandoned car was found. On Friday, February 24, he drove up the mountain to get everything ready for a family ski trip.

His car also got stuck in a snowbank, and while trying to get out, Joseph had a mild heart attack. He was in severe pain but managed to get back into his vehicle, hoping someone would come to his rescue.

Hours later, Joseph saw headlights behind him. A car was parked down the road, and it was surrounded by a group of people. Joseph thought that one of them was a woman with a baby.

The man tried to get their attention, but the group went quiet when they heard him. He felt better in the morning, so Joseph walked towards a lodge and was driven home.

When he exited his car on the mountain, Joseph did see the Mercury but didn’t think twice about it until he saw the news days later.

The Bodies In The Melting Snow

On June 4, 1978, a group of motorcyclists were riding on the trails in Plumas National Park when they passed by the United States Forest Service trailer.

The group saw a broken front window and opened the main door to check what had happened. As soon as they stepped inside, the motorcyclists saw a body wrapped in sheets on the bed.

The USFS trailer was located almost 20 miles from where the Mercury Montero was abandoned. Since most of the snow had melted, law enforcement returned to the area and now had an easier task ahead of them.

Newspaper clipping features the Yuba County Five.
Newspaper clipping features the Yuba County Five.

The body in the trailer was identified as Ted Weiher, and his overall appearance suggested he was alive for up to three months after the disappearance.

When the boys left for the basketball game in February, Ted was cleanly shaven. But now he had a long beard and was painfully thin. An autopsy would later confirm that Ted had lost 200 pounds and died from starvation and hypothermia.

While Ted’s personal belongings were found around the trailer, his shoes weren’t inside. It’s unclear what happened with his footwear, but it is worth mentioning that his feet were frostbitten and swollen.

The searchers continued to comb the area between the trailer and the sight of the abandoned car and made additional discoveries the following day.

The bodies of Jack Madruga and Bill Sterling, two best friends, were found 11 miles from the location of Mercury Montero. Their remains were scattered, but an autopsy confirmed they died of hypothermia.

By then, Jackie Huett’s father had joined the search despite the warnings from the police officers. Tragically, Jackie’s dad was the one who found his son’s remains after noticing a familiar jacket in a bush.

Jackie was located 2 miles from the trailer and also died of hypothermia. Search parties continued the search for Gary Mathias, but there was no sign of him.

Evidence And Theories

Investigators were even more confused after going through the USFS trailer and the adjacent storage sheds. The entire campsite was equipped with food, warm clothing, and a butane tank for heating.

However, the boys only found opened C-ration cans, while dehydrated food wasn’t touched at all. The lock on the shed with the butane tank was intact.

Even if Ted was unable to open the shed, the trailer had a fireplace, matches, and plenty of paper. But the lack of ashes confirmed that no fire was set.  

Several details suggested that Ted wasn’t alone in the trailer and that Jackie and Greg might have been there at some point. For instance, the C-ration cans were opened by a P-38 can opener used by the military.

Greg served in the Army and knew how to use this nifty tool, so he likely opened the cans. Plus, Ted’s body was entirely wrapped in sheets, which he couldn’t do himself, especially with frostbitten feet.

Greg’s shoes were in the trailer, which suggested he might have taken Ted’s footwear and searched for help.

While it is impossible to tell what exactly happened with the Yuba County Five, investigators have put together a theory that could explain the events that unfolded on February 24, 1978.

None of the boys had ever visited Plumas National Park, and some hated camping. But Gary had friends in Forbestown, and it is possible he wanted to make a quick stop to see them.

One wrong turn could have taken them up the mountain, and they kept going further into the forest. But what made them abandon the Mercury Montero by the road and start a long walk towards the trailer none of them knew about?

On Thursday, February 23, a snowcat was sent to clean the trailer. It is plausible the boys saw the tracks and thought it could lead them to a shelter.

They couldn’t imagine that the shelter would be 20 miles from the road, and the two froze to death during the hike. As to why they didn’t eat all the food at the trailer and campsite, it was suggested that the remaining three were terrified they were trespassing and used minimal resources. 

As for Gary Mathias, he is still missing, and no clues as to what happened to him have been found. 


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