The Curious Disappearance of the Yuba Five: Murder Or Misadventure?

I would like to think that I pull pieces of puzzles together. I do try and research different sources and at the centre of my intention is respect for the victims. As articles from the early days of the internet are archived it will get harder to do this for the older cases.

Most of my writing concerns proven, unsolved foul play. Here is a famous case from the USA which is unlikely to disappear but I had not heard of it until recently. I have covered this fascinating and tragic story for anyone who stumbles on this page. It might not be a case of murder, nor is it a straight case of misadventure either.

California with a rough indication of the route. They started to the south in Yuba County, went north to Chico and then off to the north east to get to where the car was found.

Brief Circumstances

In 1978 there were a bunch of young men who were firm friends. They loved basketball and played for a team in Yuba County, California. This team was called the Gateway Gators. On the night of the 24th February all five decided to travel 50 miles to watch a college basketball game in Chico.

They got there fine and enjoyed the game. Then they piled back into a big old Mercury Montego and stopped at a late night store. That is the last that was seen or heard of them for quite some time.

Their journey should have been straight forward run back south and have only taken an hour. Instead the car was found on Oroville-Quincy Road. This is a long way from home for these young men and notably almost in the opposite direction. On top of that the road is a twisting, off the beaten track, route. Their had been seen by a park ranger but it was common for people to drive up into the hills for leisure. It was only when the car was circulated as of interest to the police that the connection was made.

So on 28th February the law had the car but there was no sign of the Gateway Gators. This would be a worry for any group should they go missing in this way. These five friends had some extra challenges. All had some form of mental disability. Though they ranged in age from 25 to 32 years all lived with their respective parents or under family supervision. The basketball team they played for was sponsored by a program for people with cognitive difficulties. They are described as a wonderful bunch of lads, but parents and the cops were particularly alarmed that they were now missing in the snowy uplands of the Plumas National Forest.

The Investigation

The young men, Gary Mathias, 25, Bill Sterling, 29, Jack Huett, 24, and Ted Weiher, 32, had been travelling in the car owned and driven by Jack Madruga,30. Jack was the only one with a driving licence and was very proud of the car. I have heard it said in one other source that Gary Mathias also had a licence, but regardless the Madruga family insist Jack would never have allowed anyone else to drive the vehicle.

According to one article the witness Shone places the abandoned car near to the point indicated in the image. Chico is to the west.


The car was abandoned with the window open and the keys missing. Inside were the remains of the drinks and snacks they had bought in Chico. When the cops hot wired the car it started and ran fine. There was petrol in the tank and despite signs it had slid and become stuck in the snow there was no reason it could not have been freed.

A snow storm came down shortly after the search got underway and as a result the effort had to be abandoned. As is often the case the wilderness can hold secrets and the winter weather will make you wait for even a hint of what had happened.

In June a group of motorcyclists were at a point 19 miles from where the car was found. There was a trailer there that was maintained by the forestry people. This was no ordinary (to us in the UK) trailer. It was set complete with equipment including a heating system, emergency food and winter clothing.

One of the windows was broken and the bikers walked over to take a look. In the trailer was the body of Ted Weiher. He had been wrapped in multiple sheets, he had no shoes on and his feet were just short of being gangrenous. A further shock came with the post mortem. It is believed he had survived for 13 weeks after the group disappeared.

None had been dressed for that sort of weather. The plan had been to drive to Chico, watch the game and return home. To add some motivation to their return the basketball team they played on was starting a week long tournament the following morning. People who knew the group all believe they would not have willingly missed the event.

So lightly dressed they all or some of them ended up at this trailer. It had enough food to last even that number a year. Yet the heating had not been turned on, the smashed window had not been covered, only a small amount of food had been opened and none of the heavy clothing had been taken.

Slowly over time most of the rest of the group were found. They were in various stages of being skeletal. Some of the remains had been scattered and showed signs of animal predation. All, it was believed, died of hypothermia.

The exception was ex army vet Gary Mathias. To date his remains have not been found.

Much is made of the fact that Mr Mathias had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He did not have his medication with him at the time and he had been hospitalised in the past following violent psychotic outbursts.

I have a lot of experience of folk suffering with this awful illness and to be honest as a group they are way more dangerous to themselves than they are to others. There are exceptions but I am way more careful around ‘ normal’ people than those with severe mental illness. I write this because some of the accounts seem to hint at Mr Mathias being some sort of natural suspect. He is missing in a vast wilderness, other than that there is nothing known.

Most of the online accounts are now in the hands of people like me. I try very hard not to assert facts I cannot cross reference. Many writers probably do but it is hard to cross reference when you are not sure of the sources.

There is a gentleman who is named all over and he has a strange story to tell.  Joe Shones ( seen elsewhere as Schons) was 55 years old and was driving on that Oroville-Quincy Road that night. His VW got stuck and in an effort to push it out he realised he might be having a heart attack. The purpose of his journey was to precheck a cabin his family owned prior to a trip up there.

Mr Shone was in a lot of pain and sat in his vehicle with the engine running. At some point that night he saw the headlights of a car pull up behind him. The distance between him and the vehicle is said to have been about 20 feet. He needed help and shouted to the gathering of people who got out of the car. They did not respond and the lights were turned off. He also says that another pick up vehicle turned up and later drove past him. In addition, he is reported as stating one of the group was a woman holding a baby. In the accounts Mr Shone does say he was in a lot of pain and it is even possible he imagined some parts of the night.

What is certain is that with his car out of petrol he needed to get out of there as the engine had been providing heat. He felt a little better so he walked down the road into town. He passed the Montego car and no-one was with it. It was later confirmed he had been suffering from a heart attack.

In a Wikipedia account there is mention of some of the group of Yuba men entering a shop and buying snacks. The shop owner and one of his staff gave a credible account. The issue is that the place was 30 miles from where the car had been abandoned. This was in Brownsville two days after the group had gone missing. There are some issues with the behaviour of the men that the family say does not fit, but the police say that these accounts hold up to scrutiny.

The above is a very easy watch telling of the story by Mr Ballen 

My Take

I read an account of how one of the group dealt with a family emergency. It confirmed that some of the Yuba men definitely would have struggled with common sense in challenging situations. In addition, you have the effects of the cold which cannot be minimised. Bad decisions are made as the body shuts down with hypothermia. I wrote an article about the disappearances that take place in high open country in the USA. Many tragic, yet innocent, mysteries can be reasoned out as due to weather and bad luck.

This case is different. The men had issues granted, but two of them were ex army. They had a map of California, they had money and they had each other. It is strange enough that they end up on that country road. Stranger still is the account of the witnesses. If the Brownsville witnesses are correct then something sinister befell those guys. The group known by the families collectively as ‘The Boys’ were dead set on that basketball tournament and they did not disappear as a matter of course. It is said a few of them had already put out their kit for the contest in readiness before they travelled to Chico.

Only four were seen in the shop. Where was the other member of the team? One mention was of the shop worker describing them as ‘wide eyed.’ Was the fifth member being held somewhere? Notably the woman in the store said they got out of a pick up truck. Was that the same one that Mr Shone saw?

One theory from family is they were pursued for some reason from the game in Chico. That would explain their route away from homeward. There is no substance to that though. The location and the way the car was left with the window open indicates a hurried departure from the scene. Were they intercepted by someone who scammed them or forced them away? If you believe the witness accounts that seems likely. Why otherwise would the group not call home or return to the car?

If Mr Shone was delirious in some part and the shop folk in Brownsville identified the wrong people then it becomes a bit more clear. Somehow the lads became lost. Possibly they tried a short cut that wasn’t one. The car became stuck and believing they could not get it out they decided to walk to safety. In the chaos the window was left open or the intention was to return in a short time.

They began the walk but fatally went up hill not down. Every bend and rise would have been seen as the defining point. The point where a side road or house would be seen. The cold stepped in and scrambled reason further. As they wandered they went outside of the initial search area. Eventually they came across the trailer and settled. The food cans were opened with a particular can opener that would have only been familiar to the two ex army members. I had a look at it. The P38 can opener is an unusual design ( to me) I guess it would have puzzled me for a short time.

I am not freezing cold nor have I some of the issues the group had. It is likely that Mr Weiher was set up in the trailer by others who then walked off for help and succumbed to the elements. Alone he was not able to figure out the situation and waited as best he could until death overcame him.

Finally, though, none of the cold theory holds up in entirety. In most cases that are painted as really mysterious it does but there are too many parts that don’t fit. I think the group met bad people to be honest.

A few years ago a young man was in his car travelling 10 miles from one town in Yorkshire to another. At a junction there was a minor incident that led to a two hour cat and mouse chase. Due to cut backs he had to evade the group in the pursuing car yet he could not find a manned police station. In the end he did and the pursuing car drove off.

What if he had been in a vast rural setting and did not know his way about? Add some snow, some manipulation and factor in cognitive impairment?

Something happened that night and they were then dumped back on the hill high and away from where the car was. Possibly those involved thought they would eventually be found. We will never know. This tragic incident is way more of an example of how, along with the weather and vastness of the place, you have people who take advantage of the anonymity it all brings.

What do you think?