Inside the puzzling mystery of the Yuba County Five, the youths who suddenly disappeared in California

In February 1978, five disabled youths disappeared in a California woods 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.

Twitter Podcast/Generation WhyFrom left to right: Gary Mathias, Jackie Huett, Jack Madruga, Ted Weiher and Bill Sterling. The five friends mysteriously disappeared in February 1978.

On February 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 struggled with mild developmental disabilities or psychiatric conditions of some kind, were affectionately 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 buying snacks and drinks after the basketball game. It was probably the last time anyone saw them alive.

After a days-long search, police located Jack Madruga’s car stuck in a snow bank on a remote road in the Plumas National Forest, far from the route the men were supposed to travel between Chico and Yuba City. However, there was no sign of the friends. It wasn’t until the snow melted several months later that his fate was revealed.

In June 1978, the bodies of four of the Yuba County Five were discovered in the woods, scattered within a 20-mile radius of the car. Gary Mathias’ remains have never been found. And to this day, no one has any idea what happened to the youngsters, or why they were in the woods 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, ranging in age from 24 to 32. They all had mild disabilities and lived at home with their families, but were independent enough to spend time alone and take short trips. Madruga had a Mercury Montego in which he used to drive the group.

They all played basketball together at the Yuba City Vocational Rehabilitation Center and were looking forward to participating in a tournament hosted by the Special Olympics in Sacramento on February 25, for historical mysteries. The winners of the competition would receive a week-long trip to Los Angeles and were determined to take home the prize.

jack early morning

Facebook Podcast/Yuba Five CountyJack Madruga was driving the night the Yuba County Five disappeared, but his car was found 50 miles from the planned route.

However, the night before the tournament they had to attend another basketball game. The men hopped into the Madruga Mercury and drove 50 miles to California State Chico to watch the team play UC Davis. After the game, they stopped at a convenience store and bought candy and chocolate milk for the ride home. A witness saw them drive away in the direction of Yuba City, but they never returned.

The next morning, the men’s parents noticed that their children had not returned home. They weren’t the type to stay out all night, and they wouldn’t have willfully missed his basketball tournament. Madruga’s mother called the police and a 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 sheer luck, a US Forest Service ranger found Madruga’s car stuck in a snowbank in the Plumas National Forest on February 27. The remote road was nearly 50 miles in the opposite direction from the route the men should have been traveling.

However, other than the car, there was no evidence that the men had been in the area. It didn’t even appear that they had attempted to move the vehicle, although five grown men should have been able to easily lift it off the bench. for him Washington Post, the car still had a quarter tank of gas, and there were several maps in the glove compartment. The keys were gone.

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 strange story about the night of February 24.

Key Locations Map

Yuba County Five PodcastA map showing key locations related to the case of the Yuba County Five.

According the crime wireSchons was driving down the same remote road to check out his cabin in the woods when he too got stuck in a snow bank. He then suffered a heart attack while trying to free the vehicle from him and collapsed in pain, unable to move.

Around 11:30 p.m., he noticed headlights on the road. She claimed that several men got out of a car along with a woman carrying a baby. She called for help, and the group stopped talking and disappeared. Schons said he saw the flashlight beams again about two hours later, but no one came to his aid.

By the time Schons had recovered enough to attempt to go down the mountain for help, Madruga’s car was at the spot where he had seen the group of men the night before.

It is unclear if Schons actually saw the Yuba County Five, if they really had a woman and baby with them, or if he simply imagined the entire encounter in a pain-induced daze. His story only added to the mystery surrounding the case. Still, it was all the researchers 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 the 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 an eerie scene.

Ted Weiher’s body was lying on a bed in the trailer. He was wrapped in sheets and his feet were severely frozen. Weiher’s body was emaciated and the length of his beard suggested that he had been alive for two or three months after he disappeared.

forest service trailer

Facebook/Yuba County Five Podcast/Sacramento History CenterThe Forest Service trailer where Ted Weiher’s body was discovered.

Strangely, although Weiher had broken into the trailer, he had not opened a locker in the shed containing enough food to feed the five men for over a year. He, too, hadn’t used the matches, fuel, or propane tank located in another shed to keep the trailer warm. It seemed that he had 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. The animals had devoured their bodies. It was not clear if the men had ever made it to the trailer. Shortly after, Jackie Huett’s shoes and spine were discovered just two miles from the trailer. His skull is 100 meters 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 dwarfed them all: Where was Gary Mathias?

gary matias

Facebook Podcast/Yuba Five CountyGary Mathias’ remains have never been found.

To this day, Mathias’s body has never been found. His slippers were discovered in the trailer, suggesting he had been inside at some point, but no other trace of him ever turned up.

“What I was looking for the whole time I was up there were his glasses,” Mathias’s father told the Washington Post. “I didn’t think the bear would eat that.”

Lingering Questions and the Legacy of the Yuba County Five

On the case, John Thompson, special agent for the California Department of Justice, stated: “No explanation. And a thousand clues. Every day you have a thousand potential customers.”

Investigators were unable to find evidence that a woman and baby were on the mountain trail the night the Yuba County Five disappeared. Regardless, the men’s family members remain steadfast in their belief that something nefarious occurred that night.

“There was some force that made them go up there,” said Jack Madruga’s mother, Mabel. They wouldn’t have fled into the woods like a bunch of quail. We know very well that someone forced them to do it. We can’t envision someone taking advantage of those five men, but we know it must have been the case.”

Newspaper article about the Yuba Five

Facebook Podcast/Yuba Five CountyA 1978 article on the Yuba County Five in the sacramento bee.

“They saw something in that game in the parking lot,” Ted Weiher’s sister-in-law said, hypothesizing someone killed the men to cover up a crime. “They may have seen it and not even realized they saw it.”

To this day, the mystery of the Yuba County Five remains unsolved. This presents a frustrating dilemma. Investigators can’t prove that a criminal act occurred that night, but they can’t explain what happened if it didn’t. According to the San Francisco Chroniclethe 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 Sheriff at the time of the disappearance, the incident remains “bizarre as hell.”

After reading about the Yuba County Five, learn about 11 mysterious disappearances that keep researchers awake at night. Then, enter the puzzling disappearance of bryce laspisa in California.

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