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