When a True Crime Case Keeps You Up at Night

Production Editor Vanessa DeJesus recounts the disappearance of The Yuba County Five. (Courtesy of Twitter).

Production Editor Vanessa DeJesus recounts the disappearance of The Yuba County Five. (Courtesy of Twitter).

In the week leading up to writing this article, I was agonizing over what new tv show I should write about to fit what the Editor’s Pick column usually covers. But really, other than rewatching old episodes of SVU, most of the media I consume is centered around one thing: true crime. I have spent many a night down the Reddit rabbit hole, and during the zoom university days, I would always surf murderpedia.com during my dryer lectures. This obsession started with true crime podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Histoires and Mysteries (formerly Fat, French and Fabulous) but has since branched out to literally any media about crime I could get my hands on. So, I have decided to share with you of the most gruesome, haunting, confusing and frustrating cases I have ever come across: The disappearance of The Yuba County Five.

On the evening of February 24, 1978, five friends, Jack (Jackie) Huett, 24; Gary Mathias, 25; Bill Sterling, 29; Jack Madruga, 30 and Ted Weiher, 32, piled into Madruga’s turquoise 1969 Mercury Montego and went to a college basketball game at California State University, Chico. The men, colloquially referred to by their family as “our boys,” never returned home that night. 

This case is often called “The American Dyatlov Pass Incident” because of some striking similarities between the two cases. The Dyatlov Pass Incident refers to the unsolved deaths of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains in what was then the Soviet Union. They went missing on February 1, 1959; the hikers were found absolutely ravaged by an unknown force: one was missing their eyeballs, one their tongue and another their eyebrows, among other bizarre and traumatic injuries. The six others died of hypothermia. But that’s another absolutely terrifying case. 

Police began searching for the boys almost immediately. On February 28, authorities found Jack Madruga’s car on a long winding mountain road, deep in the mountains of the Plumas National Forest, well past the snowline. A forestry ranger found the car almost three hours northeast of Chico, the exact opposite direction of the boys’ hometown of Yuba City. There was no evidence of foul play at the site. In fact, the police found that the car was still operational and had a quarter tank of gas left. However, the car was found unlocked, and one window was rolled part of the way down. There was also no damage to the car, which led investigators to believe that whoever drove the car up the mountain would have had to know the route well enough to anticipate every bump and turn in the unlit and rugged terrain. Inside the car, the police found candy wrappers, empty milk cartons and programs from the basketball game the boys had attended that day. 

Instead, they left the basketball game in Chico, drove in the exact opposite direction of home (Yuba City),  abandoned the slightly perturbed car in a snowdrift in the remote Plumas National Forest and were never seen alive again. According to the boys’ parents and the police, there is no feasible or obvious reason for them to have driven further away from home. In fact, the boys, who were a part of a recreational basketball league, had a championship game the next day and, by all accounts, would not have missed it for the world. 

 The initial search was unsuccessful in finding anything beyond the car and was called off prematurely because of inclement weather and postponed until the first thaw. After the snow melted in June 1978, authorities resumed the search for the Yuba County Five. Soon after, they found the heavily decomposed bodies of Madruga, Huett, Sterling and Weiher were found 20 miles from where the Montego was discovered months ago, in and around a forestry services trailer. 

The bodies of Madruga and Sterling were found about 11 miles up the road from where the car was abandoned. There was evidence of animal scavenging, and autopsies concluded that the two men had died of hypothermia. They likely never made it to the trailer. Jackie Huett’s body was found by his father, only 2 miles from the trailer. The police urged Huett’s father not to participate in the search for the boys, but he would not be deterred. Unfortunately, when he uncovered and retrieved Jackie’s jacket that day, his spine fell out of the jacket. The police think Jackie made it to the trailer and left to find help for his friend, Ted Weiher.  Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this case is how Ted actually met his demise. Inside the trailer, Weiher’s body was found on a bed with eight bed sheets stretched and wrapped around him, completely covering his body and head but leaving his lower legs exposed. His feet were badly frostbitten and gangrenous. His shoes were nowhere to be found.

The forestry trailer was stocked with enough food and provisions to support five men for almost a year. There were lockers full of food rations, fuel, propane heat, a fireplace, heavy winter clothes and blankets. There was no sign of Gary Mathias among the bodies or in the trailer except for his sneakers, which were found in the trailer. A medical examiner determined that Ted had lived for 8-13 weeks after his disappearance, based on his beard growth and almost 100-pound weight loss. There had been no attempt at making a fire, despite the freezing temperatures at the time and for months after their disappearance. On the table next to him were some of his personal effects and a gold watch, missing its face, which none of the boys’ families recognized as his. 

There are countless theories as to exactly what transpired on the night of the boys’ disappearance and the circumstances of their demise. Many of them are not worth their salt. But one thing is generally agreed upon: the boys must have seen something either at the basketball game or elsewhere that frightened them and made them flee into the mountains. One of the things that bothers me the most is that Ted Weiher seems to have died of starvation in a trailer surrounded by food and suffering from severe frostbite in a trailer equipped with gas and heat. 

One of the reasons that this case has not gotten the media attention it deserves is that all of the missing men suffered from developmental delays, intellectual disabilities and/or psychiatric conditions. The sad reality of this case is that, at the time, society would have considered it a lower priority to locate these men because of their disabilities. I mentioned this at the very end of my article so as not to take away from the more pertinent facts of the case. Because he was never found, many people have jumped to blame Gary Mathias for the suspicious deaths of the other four boys, but given there is no substantial evidence that suggests foul play; I don’t buy it. I also don’t hold with passing the blame on someone simply because of their mental illness. Gary Mathias is presumed dead but remains a missing person. He would be 68 today.