'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.

Tailor-Made Terror: The Mystery of Koumpounophobia, the Fear of Buttons

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Paul is an IT consultant who lives in Georgia. Some years ago, he agreed to meet a woman that a friend of his thought would be perfect for him. They went on a date. She was nice, but Paul told his friend it wasn’t going to work out because she had been wearing a shirt with buttons. Lots of buttons.

Since childhood, Paul has had an aversion to buttons. When his parents took him to church and he was forced to wear a dress shirt, he insisted on covering the line of buttons with a necktie so he wouldn’t have to see them. As an adult, he leaves his work attire buttoned almost to the top, leaving just one undone so he can pull it over his head. That way, he won’t have to touch the rest of them. “The ones I hate most are the four-hole, iridescent buttons,” Paul tells Mental Floss, describing one of the most common types of plastic clothing buttons. “But they are all degrees of disgusting.”

Paul suffers from koumpounophobia, or a fear of buttons—a phobia so rare that only one clinical case has ever been documented in psychiatric literature. Unlike more common ailments like a fear of snakes or heights, those afflicted with koumpounophobia find it difficult to practice avoidance. Buttons are everywhere. On clothes. In stores. Stuffed in closets. Lurking in laundry hampers. If sufferers can somehow avoid wearing them, they’re still distressed by the sight of them on others. A hug from a button-wearer can provoke as much anxiety as the feeling of a spider crawling up an arachnophobe’s leg.

Despite his apprehensions, Paul agreed to see his date again. But before their relationship could continue, he had to sit her down and explain his affliction. “This is weird,” he told her, “but if we keep seeing each other, you need to make an effort not to wear buttons.”

 
 

Koumpounophobia had its moment in the spotlight in 2007, when The Wall Street Journal intimated that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hated buttons. The evidence, according to the paper, included Apple’s debut iPhone, a touchscreen-based device that would revolutionize telecommunications, as well as Jobs’s wardrobe, which consisted mostly of black turtlenecks. While not a disclosed phobia, the button-free preferences of Jobs (who died in 2011) has led some observers to speculate his aversion might have led to radical tech innovations that changed the course of history.

For most koumpounophobes—which may number just one in 75,000 people, a fraction of the 9 percent of Americans who suffer from specific phobias—their disgust for buttons simply changes the course of their day. They avoid looking at, touching, wearing, or thinking about buttons, an aversion that idles at the intersection between terror and repulsion, according to Wendy Silverman, Ph.D., the director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders.

Buttons are seen on a sleeve in close-up
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"There is linkage between phobia, fear, and disgust," Silverman tells Mental Floss. What people think of as fear may instead be a strong loathing. Either way, it results in avoidance behavior. In 2002, Silverman co-authored and published the only clinical paper [PDF] chronicling a case study of an adolescent presenting with a button avoidance.

At the time, Silverman was in clinical practice at Miami's Florida International University and agreed to see a mother and her 9-year-old son. The mother said that her son had struggled with his school uniform, which included a button-up shirt. He refused to touch the buttons or look at them. He didn’t like the smell of them.

“He had the feeling they were just gross,” Silverman says. “Because of the uniform, he was forced into enduring them. They caused extreme distress.”

Silverman learned of a telling incident that happened when the child was 5 years old: During a kindergarten art lesson, the boy had run out of buttons to glue to his poster board. Walking up to a giant bowl of them on the teacher’s desk, he slipped. The bowl tipped over, scattering buttons everywhere.

It’s easy to imagine the embarrassment of the boy, eyed by his classmates after sending the stockpile of buttons flying. But Silverman says that such inciting incidents are hard to come by. For most phobics, they can’t always remember that pivotal moment when an innocuous object became a threat. Memory is unreliable, and therapists don't typically find that learning the origin of a fear aids in helping to treat it. “Typically, it’s not common for kids presenting with a phobia to have experienced a direct event like this. Many times, it’s just them observing someone else or hearing about it.”

A red button appears on red fabric
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According to Silverman, the child had a hierarchy of distaste. Small plastic buttons provoked the strongest reaction; large, jean-style brass buttons were only minimally troubling. The Jobs theory aside, electronic-style buttons—like the kind used on computer keyboards—don’t seem to be a trigger. “It’s a gradient common in phobias,” she says. “If you have a fear of dogs and see a poodle, that’s different from seeing a big dog that’s not on a leash.”

Silverman ruled out obsessive-compulsive disorder in the child’s case, as he didn’t claim any repetitive or persistent thoughts about buttons, and decided to initiate exposure therapy by slowly introducing him to physical interactions with buttons, a common approach for phobias. When he handled them, he received positive enforcement from his mother. Yet his anxiety increased: All he wanted to do was prevent anyone from assailing him with buttons. For years, that was his coping mechanism.

“Avoidance behavior, over time, just makes it worse,” Silverman says. “The mother was buying special clothes and he was allowed to avoid them.” Left untreated, koumpounophobes can come to find that buttons will begin to exact increasing influence over their lives.

 
 

In order to get Ronald, almost 4, to wear buttons, his mother Viv tries to make a game out of it, buttoning her own shirt as he buttons his. Sometimes this works; other times, he becomes so distressed that she gives up. What concerns her most is that Ronald spends his time in preschool being extremely wary of children wearing buttons.

“The way we see it happening is that he just avoids any child with buttons and has a tendency to play by himself at school,” Viv tells Mental Floss. “The teachers probably just don't see the pattern because who would think to tie whether he likes a kid or not to what the kid is wearing? They probably think of him as a bit antisocial.”

A man buttons his shirt
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To hate buttons is to avoid people wearing buttons, something that can have significant social implications for both children and adults. Paul is, in a sense, one possible future for Ronald. His phobia dictates his moods, his relationships, and his stress levels. Forced to wear buttons, he likens it to someone with anxiety over flying. “You sit on the plane but you don’t like it,” Paul says. “It’s not comfortable. You’re aware of it the whole time.”

He has little influence over how others wield buttons. If a person wearing buttons comes in for a hug, he’ll perform only the bare minimum in return. “A side hug, maybe,” he says. His wife—the same woman to whom he admitted his phobia 10 years ago—will sometimes put a button in her mouth to annoy him. People find his discomfort over fasteners funny.

“I’ve had people at work leave buttons on my desk," Paul says. "I don’t like it. A box of random buttons is gross. It’s not there for any reason.” Gratuitous shots of buttons in movies or on television annoy him. “It’s like, why are you showing this in close-up?” If he's forced to touch a button, he’ll wash his hands. “It’s like, ‘I gotta get this button off of me.’”

Contamination might be one possible explanation for why button phobics react the way they do. Paul remembers chewing on his collar as a child. Maybe, he says, a foul-tasting button made him regard all buttons as something off-putting and dirty. It’s enough to provoke unease, but not quite on the level of phobias that can cripple a person’s activities.

“Most people with a button phobia don’t meet diagnostic criteria in terms of distress and disability,” Graham Davey, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, tells Mental Floss. "So in this sense, button phobia will usually be only a mild phobia and can usually be addressed by simply cutting off all the buttons from clothing before wearing those clothes … But I have known people whose discomfort with buttons is generally down to feeling constricted by them, so it may represent a very unusual form of claustrophobia.”

 
 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which suggests modulating thought processes away from the unhelpful behavior, is one way to address an avoidance of buttons. Exposure therapy, a common technique used in CBT, subjects patients to an escalating series of encounters with the thing that causes them distress. If someone has a fear of flying, they might start with looking at a picture of an airplane before sitting in a grounded aircraft and then, ultimately, taking off. In the case of the 9-year-old boy in Miami who was brought in hating buttons, exposure wasn't enough.

"He was still having distress reactions," Silverman says. So she switched to focusing on the disgust portion of his aversion. She instructed him to imagine buttons falling on him and to consider how they felt, looked, and smelled, forcing him to analyze his own feelings and regard them as disproportionate to the objective harmlessness of the objects. His distress, measured verbally by the boy on a one-to-nine scale, began to decrease.

A pile of buttons
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At follow-up at six and 12 months, the boy reported only minimal discomfort when exposed to buttons. The clear plastic kind, once the most troubling, were worn without incident on a daily basis.

While Viv has not pursued professional help for her son, she has shown Ronald videos on button-making that didn’t seem to produce much anxiety. They also made buttons out of Play-Doh. “Maybe we’ll try again,” she says, “after we get through potty training.”

A sense of embarrassment can often stifle such attempts to cope. Paul has seen a therapist for general issues relating to looming middle age but has avoided the button topic, fearing it will sound ridiculous. Sufferers find it easier to practice avoidance, customizing tasks in an effort to reduce exposure. While cognitive therapy and exposure may work, the sufferer has to want it to work.

Paul has learned to iron shirts that are already buttoned up so he doesn’t have to touch them. More distressing than that is the fact his young daughter is beginning to exhibit signs of koumpounophobia. “She’s started to have the same aversion to buttons which has caused a bit of concern for me,” he says. “I’m trying to introduce buttons into her world so she doesn’t have to deal with the constraint.” But Paul also admits he’s most comfortable when his family’s closets are button-free, or close to it. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate buttons wholeheartedly,” he says.

Exposed to the Elements: A Strange 1920s Death on the Scottish Island of Iona

The graveyard at St. Oran's Chapel
The graveyard at St. Oran's Chapel
IrenicRhonda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The woman’s body lay still atop a cross cut into the earth, naked except for a silver chain with a cross around her neck. The police who arrived at the scene that day in November 1929 knew she was not one of them; the Scottish island of Iona is small, and her exotic looks suggested she came from a sun-drenched place far from the misty spit of land the cops called home. If she had been an Ionan, she certainly would not have ventured into the area around Loch Staonaig at night—it was known to be the domain of the fairies.

Though they were law enforcement, the Scottish police may have been chilled by the fact that the body was found next to a fairy mound. Dotted throughout the British Isles, these enchanted hills are often the remnants of Iron Age Celtic structures that have been covered by vegetation over time. Even stranger, the corpse was said to have been covered in small, unidentifiable scratches.

THE HAUNTED ISLE

Her name was Nora Emily Fornario, although friends called her Netta or Mac. The 33-year-old occultist, who had come over from England some three months prior, nurtured a lifelong fascination with magic. Born in Egypt in 1897 to an Italian father and an English mother, she'd spent her adolescence in Italy before moving to London. The British capital was then experiencing a blossoming of interest in esotericism; occult orders had sprung up all over the area, attracting such high-ranking intelligentsia as William Butler Yeats and the infamous Aleister Crowley. Netta became a member of the Alpha et Omega offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and an officer in a Co-Masonry lodge in West London (a Freemason lodge that admitted both men and women). Members of many of these orders dedicated themselves to learning ancient magical rites, going into meditative trances, summoning spirits and demons, and participating in intricate ceremonies that could last for days.

The island of Iona, located in the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland, is said to be one of the spots on Earth where the veil that separates our world from that of the spirits is thinnest. It was a sacred place for the ancient Celts and early Christians alike, being the location where the Celtic Christian illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells was created. Netta reportedly heard about Iona from a story by her favorite author, Fiona Macleod (a pen name for William Sharp), which describes the area around Loch Staonaig as one where the fairies roam free.

Netta told her maid that she was heading to Iona to perform a magical healing ritual and would stay indefinitely. On the island, she found lodging at an isolated farm with an older woman named Mrs. MacRae. With her wild dark hair, clothing inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and extensive silver jewelry, Netta had a distinctively metropolitan look that stuck out in rural Iona. MacRae reported that the young woman spent her days wandering the island's beaches and moorlands. At night, she would enter into mystical trances in hopes of contacting Iona’s spiritual realm. Netta told MacRae that she once fell into a trance that lasted an entire week, and should the same happen during her stay, under no circumstances was a doctor to be called.

MacRae had become used to Netta’s eccentricities, but one Sunday morning in mid-November, she noticed her lodger’s behavior had become frantic. She had the wide-eyed look of someone who was deeply frightened. Netta explained to MacRae that she believed she was being psychically attacked from a distance.

A RUDDERLESS BOAT

Psychic attack—similar to a curse—was a hot topic among early 20th-century occultists. Netta’s friend, the famed magician Dion Fortune, even wrote a book teaching readers how to defend themselves from such attacks, called Psychic Self Defense. In it, Fortune discusses Netta’s demise, saying that she “was going into very deep waters [...] and that there was certain to be trouble sooner or later.”

That Sunday, Netta told her host of a rudderless boat she saw fly across the sky, and terrifying messages she received from beyond the veil while in trances. MacRae noticed that all of Netta’s silver jewelry had mysteriously turned black overnight.

Netta hurriedly packed up all of her belongings and told MacRae that she must leave at once. But ferries to the mainland didn’t run on Sundays, and Netta was forced to wait for the next morning. Upset, she went to her room to rest. When she came back out later she seemed calmer, with a look of resignation on her face. She told MacRae that she had changed her mind, and would remain on Iona.

The following day, MacRae went to check on Netta and found her room empty. When several hours passed without any sign of the young woman, a search party of locals went out to comb the bays, rocks, and moors. But there was no trace of Netta. It wasn't until the next afternoon that a pair of local men reportedly discovered her body on a hillside near Loch Staonaig, a knife lying nearby, and the silver cross—blackened like the rest of her jewelry—around her neck.

Netta’s death certificate states that she died between 10 p.m. on November 17 and 1:30 p.m. on November 19. There was no obvious evidence of foul play. In Psychic Self Defense, Dion Fortune recounted that Netta was “especially interested in the Green Ray elemental contacts, too much interested for my peace of mind.” In certain streams of Western esotericism, the "Green Ray" is said to represent divine nature; elemental is another word for fairy. Chillingly, the cause of death listed on Netta Fornario’s death certificate is “exposure to the elements.”

There were strange reports around the time of Netta's death, but nothing conclusive about what might have caused it. The night of her disappearance, locals said that they saw flashing blue lights emanating from the area where Netta’s body was later found. Others claimed they saw a strange man dressed in a long black cloak. Newspapers mentioned a packet of weird letters the police had discovered among Netta's possessions—but it's not clear what messages they contained, or whatever became of them.

When family members were uninterested in claiming the body, islanders pooled their funds and had Netta buried in a small graveyard near St. Oran's Chapel. She remains there to this day.

A MEDICAL MYSTERY?

Over the course of a century, several theories have arisen to explain the true cause of Netta’s death. The first and most obvious is that the young woman was psychologically disturbed, suffering from hallucinations and paranoia. Her imaginings drove her out into the cold wilderness unprepared, where she met her fate exactly as the coroner said.

The scratches on her body, if they existed (they seem to have been a later addition, and some argue that only her feet were scratched up), are a bit more difficult to explain. It could be that she fell into some brambles, but the posthumous examination didn't contain any reports of thorns being found in her skin. Iona did not harbor large predators, such as foxes, that might have tried to scavenge the body, and no bite marks were found either.

Some internet skeptics go deeper. One theory classifies Netta’s death as a medical, rather than a paranormal, mystery. In this explanation, her suddenly blackened jewelry is a sign of acidic sweat, which could point to acidosis (a medical condition in which body fluids contain too much acid, and which can be caused by diabetes among other ailments). If left untreated, acidosis can lead to confusion—and in severe cases, death. By this analysis what Netta needed was not psychic help, but a doctor.

Ninety years later, it's unlikely any of these theories will ever be confirmed. Whether her death was caused by fairies, a medical crisis, or something yet to be uncovered, Netta took the secrets of her last evening to her grave. Unless more information is uncovered, it may well remain one of Iona’s many enigmas.

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