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'Bizarre as Hell': The Disappearance of the Yuba County Five

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Joe Shones was having a heart attack. The 55-year-old Californian had felt fine just a few minutes previously, navigating his Volkswagen on a desolate mountain road near Rogers Cow Camp in the Plumas National Forest to see if weather conditions were good enough to bring his family along for a weekend excursion the following day. But as he drove further into the night, snowdrifts slowed his tires. When he got out to push his car, the exertion brought on a searing pain in his chest. It was February 24, 1978, and Shones was miles from help.

As he sat in his car wondering what to do, he noticed two sets of headlights, one belonging to a pickup truck. Hoping he could flag down the passerby, he exited his vehicle and began screaming for help. He would later say he saw a group of men, one woman, and a baby. They continues walking, ignoring him. Hours later, back inside his car, he saw what he thought were flashlights. When he went back outside to yell into the darkness, no one responded to the sound of his voice.

Hours into his ordeal and with his car still stuck and now out of gas, Shones felt well enough to begin walking down the mountain road and toward a lodge roughly eight miles away. He passed a 1969 Mercury Montego, but the vehicle had no occupants. Perhaps, Shones thought, it belonged to the group he had seen earlier.

At the time, Shones was preoccupied with his own emergency. But authorities would later realize the biggest story to emerge from that dark, desolate road wasn't his brush with death. It was the fact that Shones had likely wound up being the last person to see Ted Weiher, Gary Mathias, Jack Madruga, Jack Huett, and Bill Sterling alive.

FIVE BELOVED "BOYS"

How these five men came to be on an inhospitable mountain road more than 50 miles from their homes in and around Marysville and Yuba City, California, was just one of the mysteries surrounding their disappearance. None of them was known to have any business on that part of the mountain. All five had intellectual disabilities or psychiatric issues to various degrees; all of them lived with family, who kept a close eye on them. They were often lovingly referred to as “boys,” despite being from 24 to 32 years of age. An impromptu road trip was definitely out of character.

If authorities couldn’t make any sense of how the group's day had ended on February 24, they at least had some idea of how it began. Madruga, who owned the Mercury, drove his four friends to a collegiate basketball game at the California State University, Chico. All were fervent basketball fans, and even had a game of their own scheduled for the following day, playing on a team representing the rehabilitation center they all frequented.

At 32, Weiher was the oldest, a former janitor who was closest to the youngest of the group, 24-year-old Huett. Sterling and Madruga, an Army veteran, were another set of best friends. Mathias had been in the Army, too, but was discharged because of psychiatric problems. He was schizophrenic, a condition controlled by medication he hadn’t bothered to bring along. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be home in time for his next dose.

The game ended around 10 p.m. The “boys” stopped at a convenience store for junk food: Hostess pies, soda, candy bars. All five piled back into the Mercury and took off. But instead of driving south toward their homes roughly 50 miles away, they inexplicably drove east. And they traveled for a very long time. When Shones spotted their abandoned Mercury, the car had been driven roughly 70 miles away from the Chico basketball game.

A 1969 Mercury Montego is parked on grass
A 1969 Mercury Montego similar to the one driven by Jack Madruga.
Sicnag, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the early morning hours of February 25, Shones made it to the lodge and was able to get medical treatment. There was no reason to mention having seen the Mercury until newspapers began to blare out notices about the five men who had gone missing that Friday. When Weiher and Sterling didn’t come home, their mothers began calling the parents of the others, and soon the police were involved.

On Tuesday, February 28, authorities found the Mercury on the same mountain road where Shones had last seen it, and where a park ranger had reported its location after hearing the missing persons bulletin. The junk food had been consumed, save for one half of a candy bar. The keys to the vehicle were gone. It had enough gas to continue on, but a snowbank had likely caused its tires to spin out. Madruga and the four other able-bodied men should have been able to dislodge it without a lot of difficulty. Instead, it looked abandoned. Around them, police saw nothing but rugged, dense forest, hardly an appealing option for the lightly dressed young men.

“This case is bizarre as hell,” Yuba County undersheriff Jack Beecham told reporters.

Organizing a search party in the midst of winter was no easy task, especially when it meant combing through rough terrain filled with rocky surfaces, wooded paths, and snow-covered slopes. Helicopters surveyed the area from above. On the ground, officers tried to use horses to get around on the rocky roads. They entertained a number of eyewitness sightings of the men, including one where they were driving the pickup Shones had mentioned, but none seemed plausible. Their families raised a $2600 reward for information, petitioned psychics, and waited by their phones, but heard nothing. Not until the thaw came.

THE BODY IN THE TRAILER

In June of that year, a small group of weekend motorcyclists came across an abandoned forest service trailer on a campground site. Curious, they went inside. They found a body tucked into a bed, draped in sheets from head to toe. When authorities lifted the veil, they found Weiher, his shoes missing and his feet badly frostbitten. The trailer was over 19 miles from the Mercury.

Soon, police found two other corpses—those of Sterling and Madruga—4.5 miles away from Weiher's remains. Police believed their bodies had simply given up before they found shelter while Weiher and others marched on. Madruga had held on to the keys to the car.

Huett’s bones were found not long after. There was no sign of Mathias, aside from his tennis shoes, which had been left in the trailer. Almost certainly, he had taken Weiher’s leather shoes, though police had no real idea why.

If police and the families of the men were expecting closure from the discovery of their bodies, they weren’t about to get it. What puzzled them most was how Weiher was found emaciated, despite the fact that the trailer been stocked with plenty of canned and dried food and a can opener. From his beard growth, they knew Weiher had been living there anywhere between eight and 13 weeks. Yet only about 12 cans had been opened, and he had not bothered to turn on the propane tank, which would have provided heat for the entire trailer. Several paperback books—perfect for fires—were also left untouched. No one had even bothered to cover the broken window they had smashed in to get inside.

Tire tracks appear on a snow-covered road
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Talking to Shones proved even more frustrating. It was reasonable enough that he had seen the men strike out from a car they believed to be stuck, but who was the woman and the child? Shones would admit he was very ill at the time of the sighting and could have hallucinated some of the details, but that didn’t explain why the men bothered to abandon the car at all, or why they didn’t acknowledge Shones’s cries for help—unless he had somehow imagined the whole thing.

"TRICKED OR THREATENED"

“Why” was a common question for investigators and the relatives of the men, but no answers were forthcoming. Why did the men turn east in the first place? Why didn’t they attempt to move the car once it got stuck, instead of walking to nowhere in the middle of the night? Was it by chance they came across the trailer, or did someone lead them there? Why not start a fire for warmth? If Mathias went for help, where was his body?

Authorities would later discover that a Snowcat vehicle had pushed snow aside to cut a path toward the trailer on February 23, which may have given the men some hope they were in an area where Forest Service employees might soon return. There was also the theory that Mathias convinced the group to head toward Forbestown, an area between Chico and the mountain road, so he could visit a friend who lived there. It was possible that Madruga had missed the turn-off and gotten lost, driving deeper into darkness until the snow ground the Mercury to a halt. The men, panicking, may have believed their car was stuck and that they needed to get help.

A year after their disappearance, police were no closer to solving the mystery. Mathias's body has never turned up. There was never any accounting for their strange decision to turn toward unfamiliar territory. Weiher seemingly walked nearly 20 miles to the trailer in frigid conditions, despite having left his coat at home. None of the men thought to walk downhill, from where they came, and instead faced the treacherous and unfamiliar path ahead.

Police never ruled out foul play, nor did the families. Melba Madruga, Jack's mother, told The Washington Post that she believed "some force" had led the group astray. "We know good and well somebody made them do it," she said. To the Los Angeles Times, she said it was impossible for her to believe Madruga would ever drive his car, which he prized, into an area where it might be damaged. He had even left a window rolled down, something he would never normally do. "I'm positive he never went up there on his own," she told the paper. "He was either tricked or threatened."

Ted Weiher's sister-in-law has theorized that the men may have seen something take place at the basketball game that prompted someone to chase them. Police were never able to establish evidence for pursuit, but no one could shake the idea that the men seemed to be determined to move forward. Why do that unless something more frightening was right behind them?

"Bizarre as hell" was Beecham’s summary. To date, there hasn’t been any evidence to contradict him.

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FBI
Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity
FBI
FBI

For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Lies, Blackmail, and Murder: The Mysterious Life—and Death—of ‘Madame X’
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Three screams pierced the night air—loud enough to be heard over the waves crashing on the rocky beach below—and Olive Dimick froze.

It was February 4, 1929, and she had just said goodnight to her next-door-neighbor Kate Jackson, after spending a night out at the movies with her. The two women lived in a cluster of cliffside bungalows overlooking Limeslade Bay in Wales, on a headland known as Mumbles. The area is said to derive its name from two shapely rock formations just offshore; according to town lore, they once looked to French sailors like les mamelles, or a pair of breasts rising from the water.

It took just a few seconds for Olive to realize the screams sounded like her neighbor, and that they were coming from the direction of her backyard. She rushed over, where she found her friend crouched on her hands and knees, bleeding from her head and moaning. Kate's husband, a fishmonger named Thomas, stood over her, half-dressed.

The pair carried Kate into the kitchen, where Olive attended to her. At about 11:45, Thomas called a doctor, who arrived around midnight and said that Kate should be taken to the hospital. Once there—Thomas, Kate, and Olive travelled in a taxi, the doctor in his own car—Thomas made a very curious remark. When the doctor asked through the taxicab window how Kate was doing, Thomas replied that she was sleeping peacefully, and then added: "I have been married to her for ten years, and I still don't know who she really is. She has never been open with me."

This was not just a simple issue of marital miscommunication. Kate Jackson's identity—her background, her source of income, even her name—was ever-shifting. To her husband, she was an aristocrat born in a foreign land. To neighbors, she was a best-selling novelist and journalist. But to the local police, and soon a jury, she would become a murder case that has yet to be solved.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The woman who would become Kate Jackson was born Kate Atkinson in the late 1880s to John Atkinson, a laborer in Lancaster, and his wife, Agnes. Sometime in her teens, she left Lancaster with a dream of becoming an actress on the London stage. She lived for a while with an artist named Leopold Le Grys, who later described her as uneducated, but "clever, and a good talker."

Never one to pass up an opportunity for the dramatic, she caught the attention of union official George Harrison in 1914 by fainting after witnessing a minor car accident on Charing Cross Road. She told him she hadn't eaten in three days, and so he took her to lunch. They became involved, and the next year she asked him for £40 for an abortion. Then she said there were complications from the procedure, so she needed more. For one reason or another—perhaps there were more procedures, perhaps she threatened to expose the affair, perhaps he was paying for her sexual services—Harrison sent her as much as £30 (over $4000 in 2018 dollars) a week over the course of a decade. All of it was embezzled through his position as the secretary of a cooper's union.

Harrison was far from the only man in Kate's life. When she met the man who would become her husband in 1919, Kate told him she was Madame Molly Le Grys, the Indian-born youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. That wasn't all: She also said she was a writer under contract with publisher Alfred Harmsworth, an early-day Rupert Murdoch-type who pioneered tabloid-style journalism. It was a mutual deception, as he gave her a fake name of his own: Captain Harry-Gordon Ingram. Really, he was Thomas Jackson, a World War I veteran surviving on a pension.

The pair married later that year, and Thomas moved into Kate's palatial farmhouse in Surrey. Kate always seemed to have money—even after Harrison was put on trial in 1927 for embezzling £19,000 (over a million British pounds in today's dollars) from his union, £8000 of which reportedly went to Kate. She was called to give evidence at the trial, but was not identified; the police called her "Madame X," in hopes that she would return at least some of the money Harrison had stolen and given to her. (It's not clear what her husband thought about all this.)

Kate indeed signed over her beautiful house as restitution and moved with Thomas to a humble bungalow named Kenilworth. They adopted a daughter, Betty, whose origin was another of Kate's mysteries: She told Thomas that Betty was the illegitimate daughter of a lord, and he apparently asked no follow-up questions.

Though her setting was less rarefied, Kate was still behaving like a belle in a Gothic melodrama. She dressed in silk, her homes were luxuriously decorated, she tipped generously, and she spent more than her husband made in a week on her fresh flowers. The source of her income at this point is unclear: Harrison was serving a five-year prison stint, so he likely wasn't sending her cash any longer. But she was still receiving regular bundles of banknotes every Wednesday—money she may have earned through sex work, or possibly blackmail of other lovers/clients. Thomas later said that they mostly lived happily, except one time when she threw a flower pot at his head and threatened him with a knife for getting too friendly with Olive Dimick.

To Olive and her other neighbors, Kate explained the money by saying that she was a writer and the daughter of nobility. She let drop that she was secretly Ethel M. Dell, a well-known but critically reviled romance writer mocked by the likes of Orwell and Wodehouse. The real Dell was famously secretive; she was never interviewed and rarely photographed. So how were her neighbors supposed to fact-check their new friend? Besides, Dell's stories were quite racy, filled with passion and throbbing and exoticized visions of India, befitting Kate's made-up aristocratic origins.

"A PLEASANT SURPRISE"

Back at the hospital, Thomas Jackson left quickly, saying he had to return to his daughter. Kate spent six days there without ever fully regaining consciousness. When questioned about the identity of her attacker, she repeated the word Gorse, although it's not clear what—or who—she meant. She died on February 10, 1929, at the age of 43.

Police who arrived early in the morning after the attack found a tire iron under a cushion in the house, which Thomas later suggested Kate had hidden as a "pleasant surprise" (it's not clear if he was being ironic, or if he considered it a potential gift for his tool box). They also found a number of threatening letters. One read:

"Lest you forget. This is to tell you that we are watching you and we will get you. You husband-stealer. You robber of miner's money that would have fed starving children; you and that man of yours, I suppose he is somebody's husband, too. When we get you we will tar-and-feather you, and for every quid you have taken from us you will get another lump of tar and one more feather. We will show people you are as black outside as you are in. We don't mind doing quod [prison time] for you, you Picadilly Lily. We will get you yet."

It went on like that. Though he had been cooperative and there was no indication the letters were written by him, police arrested Thomas promptly. The next month he was charged with murder.

When the trial commenced in June 1929, the prosecution's theory was that Jackson, tired of his wife now that she was bringing in less money, had argued with and then attacked her as she was removing her coat. The prosecution pointed out that his story was weird—who hides a tire iron in a couch as a surprise?—and his behavior after her attack, including not summoning police immediately and not staying long at the hospital, was sketchy. They pointed to triangular cuts in her coat that looked like they could have been made with the tire iron. It was also alleged that all of the mystery in her life was entirely his creation, and that Kate never claimed to be anyone other than she was. The letters were ignored.

In his defense, Jackson produced expert witnesses who said it might not have been the tire iron that killed his wife. He spoke of her fear of attack after the threatening letters, saying that she was nervous to be left alone at night. Another neighbor, Rose Gammon, testified that Kate had been jumpy; Gammon recalled seeing Kate jump out of a bath, put on a robe, grab her gun, and walk out onto her dark veranda to investigate a noise (it's not clear if Gammon was spying on her neighbor, or how else she might have witnessed a bath).

The judge was firmly against Jackson, but during the trial, the fishmonger became a folk hero of sorts. He was charming and witty, playing up the grieving-single-father angle by emphasizing his concern for poor Betty. After just half an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." The crowd went wild. As he left the courtroom after his verdict, a crush of women pressed upon Thomas, trying for a kiss.

The police never pursued any other leads, convinced that they had missed their shot at the true villain. And maybe they were right. Perhaps Kate's husband was her killer. Or perhaps it was a man who suffered from her blackmailing—"Gorse," or someone else. Perhaps it was a member of the union who felt she hadn't paid enough restitution. Kate Jackson had made a lot of enemies in her four decades, which helped make her death as mysterious and complicated and sad as her enigmatic life as Molly, and/or Kate, and/or Madame X; she was truly the stuff of the novels she never actually wrote.

Additional Sources: The Times of London: February 12, 1929; February 25-26, 1929; March 13-14, 1929; March 20-22, 1929, July 2-8, 1929; Still Unsolved: Great True Murder Cases; A-Z of Swansea: Places-People-History

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