In February 1978, five disabled young men vanished in a California forest on their way home from a basketball game, and though four of their bodies were found months later, the case continues to baffle investigators to this day.
On Feb. 24, 1978, five men from Yuba City, California — Jackie Huett, Bill Sterling, Jack Madruga, Ted Weiher, and Gary Mathias — made plans to go to a college basketball game in Chico, California. The men, who all struggled with mild developmental disabilities or psychiatric conditions of some sort, were fondly called “the boys” by their loved ones. Soon, however, they became known to the nation as the Yuba County Five.
Surveillance footage from a convenience store captured the group purchasing snacks and drinks after the basketball game. It was likely the last time anyone them alive.
After a days-long search, police located Jack Madruga’s car stuck in a snowbank on a remote road in the Plumas National Forest, far off the route the men were supposed to be traveling between Chico and Yuba City. However, there was no sign of the friends. It wasn’t until the snow melted several months later that their fate would be revealed.
In June 1978, the bodies of four of the Yuba County Five were uncovered in the forest, scattered within a 20-mile radius of the car. The remains of Gary Mathias were never found. And to this day, no one has any idea what happened to the young men — or why they were in the forest to begin with.
Who Were The Yuba County Five?
Jackie Huett, Bill Sterling, Jack Madruga, Ted Weiher, and Gary Mathias were five men from Yuba City, California, who ranged in age from 24 to 32. They all dealt with mild disabilities and lived at home with their families, but they were independent enough to spend time on their own and take short trips. Madruga had a Mercury Montego that he often drove the group around in.
They all played basketball together at the Yuba City Vocational Rehabilitation Center, and they were looking forward to participating in a tournament hosted by the Special Olympics in Sacramento on Feb. 25, per Historic Mysteries. The winners of the competition would receive a week-long trip to Los Angeles, and they were determined to bring home the prize.
The night before the tournament, however, they had another basketball game to attend. The men climbed into Madruga’s Mercury and drove 50 miles to California State University at Chico to watch the team play against UC Davis. After the game, they stopped at a convenience store and stocked up on candy and chocolate milk for the ride home. A witness saw them drive off, headed in the direction of Yuba City — but they never made it back.
The next morning, the men’s parents noticed that their sons had not returned home. They weren’t the type to stay out all night, and they wouldn’t have willingly missed their basketball tournament. Madruga’s mother called the police, and the search for the Yuba County Five began.
The Search For The Five Men Comes Up Empty
There was no sign of the men between Chico and Yuba City. By pure luck, a U.S. Forest Service ranger happened upon Madruga’s car stuck in a snowbank in the Plumas National Forest on Feb. 27. The remote road was nearly 50 miles in the opposite direction of the route the men should have been traveling.
Besides the car, though, there was no evidence that the men had been in the area. It didn’t even seem as if they’d tried to move the vehicle, although five grown men should have easily been able to lift it from the bank. Per the Washington Post, the car still had a quarter tank of gas, and there were several maps in the glove compartment. The keys were gone.
The police immediately began a search of the surrounding woods, but a brutal winter storm forced them to halt operations. Then, a man named Joseph Schons came forward with a bizarre story about the night of Feb. 24.
According to The CrimeWire, Schons had been driving on the same remote road to check on his cabin in the forest when he also got stuck in a snowbank. He’d then suffered a heart attack while trying to free his vehicle and collapsed in pain, unable to move.
Around 11:30 p.m., he noticed headlights on the road. He claimed that several men got out of a car along with a woman who was holding a baby. He called for help, and the group stopped talking and disappeared. Schons said he saw flashlight beams again about two hours later, but no one ever came to his assistance.
When Schons recovered enough to attempt to walk down the mountain for help, Madruga’s car was in the spot where he’d seen the group of men the night before.
It’s unclear if Schons actually saw the Yuba County Five, if they really had a woman and a baby with them, or if he’d simply imagined the entire encounter in a pain-induced daze. His story only added to the mystery surrounding the case. However, it was all that investigators had to work with — at least until the snow melted in the spring.
The Bodies Of The Yuba County Five Are Discovered
On June 4, 1978, motorcyclists exploring the trails of Plumas National Forest came across a Forest Service trailer in the woods 20 miles from where Madruga’s car had been discovered. Curious, they opened the door to explore — and were greeted with a grisly scene.
The body of Ted Weiher was stretched out on a bed in the trailer. He was wrapped in sheets, and his feet were severely frostbitten. Weiher’s body was emaciated, and the length of his beard suggested that he’d been alive for two to three months after disappearing.
Oddly, although Weiher had broken into the trailer, he hadn’t opened a locker in the shed that contained enough food to feed all five men for more than a year. Nor had he used the matches, fuel, or propane tank located in another shed to keep the trailer warm. It seemed that he’d simply spent months waiting to die.
The next day, investigators found the remains of Jack Madruga and Bill Sterling in the woods several miles away. Animals had eaten away at their bodies. It was unclear if the men had ever reached the trailer. Shortly after, Jackie Huett’s shoes and spine were discovered just two miles from the trailer. His skull was located 100 yards away.
The men’s families had countless questions about the discovery. How did they get there? Why had they left the car? But there was one question that overshadowed them all: Where was Gary Mathias?
To this day, Mathias’ body has never been found. His sneakers were discovered in the trailer, suggesting that he’d been inside at some point, but no other trace of him ever turned up.
“What I looked for all the time I was up there were his glasses,” Mathias’ father told the Washington Post. “I didn’t think the bear would eat that.”
The Lingering Questions And Legacy Of The Yuba County Five
Regarding the case, John Thompson, a special agent from the California Department of Justice, stated, “No explanations. And a thousand leads. Every day you’ve got a thousand leads.”
Investigators were unable to find evidence that a woman and a baby were ever on the mountain road the night the Yuba County Five disappeared. Regardless, the men’s family members remain steadfast in their belief that something nefarious occurred that evening.
“There was some force that made them go up there,” said Jack Madruga’s mother, Mabel. “They wouldn’t have fled off in the woods like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that somebody made them do it. We can’t visualize someone getting the upper hand on those five men, but we know it must have been.”
“They seen something at that game at the parking lot,” said Ted Weiher’s sister-in-law, hypothesizing that someone killed the men to cover up a crime. “They might have seen it and didn’t even realize they seen it.”
To this day, the mystery of the Yuba County Five remains unsolved. This presents a frustrating dilemma. Investigators cannot prove a criminal act took place that night — but they cannot explain what happened if one did not. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the case of the Yuba County Five is still active and continues to haunt the Yuba County Police more than 40 years later.
In the words of Jack Beecham, the Yuba County undersheriff at the time of the disappearance, the incident remains “bizarre as hell.”