Gary Dale Mathias, Jack Madruga, Jackie Huett, Theodore (Ted) Weiher and William Sterling, disappeared February 24, 1978, Oroville, Plumas National Forest, California.
On February 24, 1978, a group of friends from Yuba City in California; Gary Dale Mathias, Jack Madruga, Jackie Huett, Theodore (Ted) Weiher and William Sterling; set out on a trip to watch a basketball game, left after it finished and then somehow drove up a mountain into the wilderness and were never seen again. This story has been described as the American version of the very mysterious Dyatlov Pass incident. This involved the unsolved deaths of nine ski hikers in the northern Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union (now Russia) between 1 February and 2 February 1959. The area in which the incident took place was named Dyatlov Pass in honour of the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov.
The group aged between 24 and 32 years of age, had developmental disabilities and were all enrolled in a day program for mentally handicapped adults, but that did not mean that they were unable to function in society. Gary had schizophrenia and was on medication to control his symptoms and Jack had low I.Q. but hadn’t been diagnosed as mentally disabled and both of them had served in the U.S. Army and had driver’s licenses.
Ted Weiher was employed for a while as a janitor and snack bar clerk but quit at the urging of his family, who thought Weiher's slowness was causing problems. Jackie Charles Huett, had a slight droop to the head, was sometimes slow to respond and a loving shadow to Weiher, who looked after Huett in a protective sort of way and would dial the phone for him when Hyett had to make a call. Jack Antone Madruga, a high school graduate and Army veteran, was laid off in November 1977 from his job as a busboy for Sunsweet Growers. William Lee Sterling, was Madruga's special friend, deeply religious, would spend hours at the library reading literature to help bring Jesus to patients in mental hospitals. Gary Dale Mathias, was an assistant in his stepfather's gardening business and an army veteran with psychiatric discharge after drug problems that developed in Germany five years before.
Mathias took Stellazine and Cogentin, both used in the treatment of schizophrenia. Police records showed he had become violent on occasion and was charged with assault twice. After his return from Germany, he would fail to take his drugs and lapse into a disoriented psychosis that usually landed him in a Veterans Administration hospital. "Went haywire," is how Bob, his stepfather, put it.
On Friday, February 24th, they drove about 50 miles north from Yuba to Chico to attend a college basketball game. When the game ended at the California State University at around 10 pm they stopped three blocks away at Behr's Market, mildly annoying the clerk (who was trying to close up), and bought one Hostess cherry pie, one Langendorf lemon pie, one Snickers bar, one Marathon bar, two Pepsis and a quart and a half of milk.
The next day when they failed to return from Chico, their families became concerned and called the police.
They were supposed to play a basketball game of their own on February 25, part of a tournament, with a free week in Los Angeles if they won. Their clothes had been laid out the evening of the 24th, before they left for Chico with "Gateway Gators" on them, from the Yuba City vocational rehabilitation centre for the handicapped where they all played basketball. Weiher had asked his mother to wash his new white high-topped sneakers for the tournament saying "We got a big game Saturday. Don't you let me oversleep."
The county sheriffs department began searching for the men.
On Tuesday, February 28th, a forest ranger found Jack Madruga’s car abandoned the car on an unpaved road near Oroville, in the Rogers Cow camp area, past Elke Retreat, at an elevation of 4,500 feet. The turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego was located around a 2.5-hour drive from Chico, in the opposite direction from the route they would have been expected to drive home and way up in the mountains in the Plumas National Forest.
Police found no evidence of foul play at the site of the car, but the car was unlocked, one window was down and the keys were nowhere to be seen. Candy wrappers, milk cartons and basketball programs were in the car but maps were left in the glove compartment. There was no obvious damage to the car despite the bumpy unmade road, it had around a quarter tank of gas and it was not stuck in the snow. The driver had either used astonishing care and precision, the investigators figured, or else he knew the road well enough to anticipate every rut.
Forest rangers searched the area for five days and found no trace of the men but soon after the search began, a severe blizzard moved into the area, covering any potential tracks. Around nine inches of snow dropped on the upper mountain. The search teams nearly lost men themselves two days later, as their Snow-cats struggled through the drifts.
A man called Joseph Schons contacted the police after he heard about the disappearance to say he had seen the men between 11:00–12:00 pm on the Friday that the group disappeared. He was driving up the gravel road to his cabin when his car became stuck in the snow and unfortunately whilst trying to push his car out, he suffered a heart attack. The story from here is a little confusing. In one version, whilst he lay in his car, at about 11:30, he saw two sets of headlights coming up behind him - one was a car, and the other a pickup truck. He got out of his car to flag them down. The two cars stopped about 20 feet from him. The passengers then left together in one car. Joseph spent the rest of the night in his car before walking back down the mountain in the morning. In a second more mysterious version, whilst inside the car he heard “whistling” noises and saw what he thought were a group of men and a woman with a baby, walking in the light of another vehicle’s headlights. Schons called for help and the lights turned off and the whistling sounds stopped. A few hours later he saw flashlight beams outside his car and called out for help again, but immediately the lights went out. Schons stayed in his car until it ran out of gas, then walked eight miles down to get help, passing Madruga’s car on the way. He didn’t think much about what he’d seen until he heard about the disappearances.
A woman reported seeing the five men in a red pickup truck on Saturday and Sunday, about an hour’s drive from the site of their abandoned car. She owned a store there, where two of the men came in to buy food. One of them made a phone call from a nearby phone booth, and the other two stayed in the truck.
Then nothing for months as the spring snows melted on the mountains.
In June 1978, a man riding his motorcycle through the area noticed a broken window on a forest service trailer. The trailer was located about 19 miles up the mountain from where the car was found. 19 miles in heavy snow is quite a hike without proper equipment.
A forest service Snowcat ran up the road to the trailer on February 23rd, leaving a packed path in the snow that the men might have followed.
Inside the trailer, he found the body of Ted Weiher. Search and rescue teams then began combing the area around the trailer.
The day after Weiher's body was discovered, searchers found the remains of Madruga and Sterling. They lay on opposite sides of the road to the trailer, 11.4 miles from the car. Madruga had been partially eaten by animals and dragged about 10 feet to a stream: he lay face up, his right hand curled around his watch. Sterling was in a wooded area, scattered over about 50 feet. There was nothing left of him but bones.
Two days later, just off the same road but much closer to the trailer, Jackie Huett's father found his son's backbone along with a pair of Levis and ripple-soled "Get Theres" shoes. An assistant sheriff from Plumas County found a skull the next day, about 100 yards downhill from the rest of the bones which the family dentist used to identify the remains.
Huett's remains were located northeast of the trailer, like Sterling's and Madruga's. Northwest of the trailer, about a quarter mile away, searchers found three wool forest service blankets and a two-cell flashlight lying by the side of the road. The flashlight was slightly rusted and had been turned off. It was impossible to tell just how long it had been there.
They found no sign of Gary Mathias. His tennis shoes were inside the forest service trailer, which suggested to investigators that he might have taken them off to put on Weiher's leather shoes - particularly since Weiher had bigger feet, and Mathias' feet might have swollen with frostbite.
Although the men’s bodies were heavily decomposed, autopsy results determined that they had likely died from exposure.
It appeared that Ted had lived 8-13 weeks after his disappearance based on the length of his beard and around 100 pound weight loss. He weighed just 120 pounds at the time of his death. Several bed sheets in a shroud were tightly tucked over his body, indicating that someone else had been with him in the trailer as he could not have bundled himself up in this manner. His leather shoes were off, and missing. A table by the bed held his nickel ring with "Ted" engraved on it, his gold necklace, his wallet (with cash inside) and a gold Waltham watch, its crystal missing, which the families say had not belonged to any of the five men. Ted's feet were also badly frostbitten.
But then the story takes an even stranger turn. Inside the trailer, authorities found heavy clothing, matches, playing cards, books, wooden furniture, and other materials which could have easily been used to start a fire. But there had been no apparent attempt to start a fire despite the freezing temperature on the mountain. A propane tank connected to the trailer, which could have provided a ready source of heat and cooking fuel, was untouched. "All they had to do was turn that gas on," says Yuba County Lt. Lance Ayers, "and they'd have had gas to the trailer, and heat."
In a storage shed outside, there was a year’s supply of c-rations. These were individual canned, pre-cooked, and prepared meals issued to the U.S. military. The men consumed 36 of the meals, but left the majority of them untouched. In addition, there was a huge supply of freeze-dried meals. One of the c-ration cans had been opened with an Army P38 can opener.
"Bizarre," says John Thompson, the special agent from the California Department of Justice who had joined the investigation. "And no explanations. And a thousand leads. Every day you've got a thousand leads."
"There was some force that made em go up there." Jack Madruga's mother Mabel says firmly. "They wouldn't have fled off in the wood 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," says Ted Weiher's sister-in-law. "They might have seen it and didn't even realize they seen it."
There are many questions about this weird case.
Why did the men get lost that night and end up on the mountain?
Chico to Yuba City is a straight down Highway 70 through the Central Valley in low lying land with no snow at this time of the year. A 46 mile drive, around one hour. The car was found several thousand feet up in an area above the snow line in a completely different direction. Why did they abandon the trip to Yuba? Were the forced to go up the Bucks Lane on the way to Palmetto City, did they decide themselves to take a detour or someone did they take a wrong turn?
What happened around the car?
The group's car was left open, with gas in the tank and in working order. Did they somehow leave the car and lose the keys. This could explain the strange story told by Joseph Schons where he said he saw flashlights around a car. Could they have been searching in the snow and been freaked out by his cars for help in this isolated area?
How did the group end up around a trailer 19 miles from the car?
Ted Weiher was found in a trailer 19 miles from the car and Madruga, Sterling, and Huett were found in the locality but several miles away. How did they walk in normal shoes without outdoor clothing so far in snow several feet thick? Were the group together and then decided to separate after Ted's death to try and find help?
Why did Ted Weiher apparently starve to death?
Some of the rations in and around the trailer were eaten but much of it was untouched. Ted apparently had a slow and agonising death from starvation having lost over half his body weight. With so much food close by why wasn't he eating. Had the group been abducted and the perpetrator was preventing access to food or was Ted suffering from gangrene caused by frostbite.
A good video by John Lordan Brain Scratch published Jan 5th 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjRT1AqntLc