This is Part One of a two-part series on the Missing Five, who disappeared into Plumas National Forest one night while driving back to their homes in Northern California. Four of the five young men were eventually found dead, while one – Gary Mathias – has never been found. Click here to read Part Two.
A Northern California drought broke hard in February 1978, blanketing rural areas of the state in sheets of snow. As if Yuba County residents needed another reason to stay inside, radios and TVs were spewing real-life crime drama: first with filmmaker Roman Polanski’s escape to France in the face of an impending statutory rape sentencing, then when a murder suspect named Ted Bundy was arrested in Florida after twice escaping from Colorado authorities.
By the end of the month, the grisly story dominating the airwaves was one from their own backyard.
On Feb. 24, 1978, five mentally disabled men from around the rural outpost of Marysville – a dot on the map 40 miles north of Sacramento – vanished into the night on their way home from a Chico State basketball game. The disappearance of the “boys,” as they were called by family, authorities and in media accounts despite being well into adulthood, captivated and befuddled the region as it spread from a local interest story to international news.
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More than 100 days passed before the snow melted and search parties found four of the boys’ bodies in rugged Plumas National Forest, midway between Lake Tahoe and Mt. Lassen, about 75 miles northeast of Marysville. At least one had survived for weeks in a remote forest service trailer nearly 20 miles from his group’s car, eventually dying from exposure and starvation despite nearby food and fuel for a fire. Body parts of the others were found nearby.
The grim discovery provided more mystery than resolution. What possessed the young men to drive into the mountains and walk into the dark, cold forest? Why didn’t they take greater advantage of food and kindling found untouched around the trailer?
And, perhaps most perplexing, what happened to the fifth member of the group, a man named Gary Mathias whose body was never found?
Answers about what happened in those woods remain scant 41 years after the boys went missing. But the case, which then-Yuba County Undersheriff Jack Beecham described at the time as “bizarre as hell,” never wandered far from the minds of those involved.
“I have a total of over 50 years in law enforcement. It’s a case that has never lost my thought,” said Beecham, who went on to become Marysville Police Chief and deputy chief of the state Department of Justice’s narcotics bureau. “I often think back to that case. I very much regret that we were unable to find those children – and they were children. But I’m also convinced that we did everything in our power to locate them and find out what happened.”
Investigators in the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office have occasionally revisited the case over the years, with no discernible progress. None of the men had children or spouses. Nearly all their parents have since died. The last update came in 2006, when a man named Mark Mathias checked “yes” on a letter from the sheriff’s office to indicate his brother Gary was still missing.
Though the case remains active, Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson allowed The Sacramento Bee to examine evidence under the condition it would not be photographed or removed from the department’s headquarters in Marysville. The Bee also interviewed several of the Missing Five’s surviving relatives as well as investigators who worked the case, and combed through dozens of news articles from the winter and spring of 1978.
These files, clips and interviews shape a disturbing image of Mathias. Billed in virtually all media reports at the time as another lost lamb caught out in the cold, Mathias was an aberration within the flock, a young man who did not belong with the others. He was violently schizophrenic and had a history of drug use, and wasn’t intellectually disabled like the others.
Was Gary Mathias responsible for his friends’ deaths?
In a case that makes little sense, one aspect seems logical: Of course Jack Madruga, Ted Weiher, Bill Sterling and Jack Huett would have spent their last Friday night together. The four young men had been friends for years since meeting through Gateway Projects, a now-defunct Yuba City organization for adults with special needs. One was rarely found without another by his side.
All four had gone to Sacramento the night before they went missing while Mathias stayed home, according to investigators’ notes. Frequently referred to in news articles as “mentally slow,” or simply “retarded,” it’s unclear whether any of the young men ever had their disabilities formally diagnosed – not that it mattered much to one another.
“They were almost inseparable. They would pal around together, go together. They were described as kind of the studs of their community, you know, the special needs folks,” Beecham said. “They were athletic, very well-liked, very well-respected. (Law enforcement) had no issues with them. They were nice kids, nice people.”
Madruga, 30, worked as a dishwasher at dried fruit company Sunsweet Growers and helped Sterling land a job there, though he was later fired for being unable to use new dishwashing equipment. Family members told investigators Madruga was “not mentally retarded in the common sense of retardation ... merely slow in his thought processes.” He could manage his own finances, and had “unremarkable” service as an Army truck driver from 1966 to 1968, according to case files. He and Mathias were the only two of the group with driver’s licenses.
Weiher, 32, loved making new friends but lacked basic common sense, his brother Dallas said in an interview with The Bee. He once spent $100 on pencils for no particular reason, his parents told investigators, and would question instructions as simple as stopping at a stop sign. When his parents’ house in the town of Linda caught fire, he stayed in bed watching the ceiling over him burn and told his brother to leave him alone because he needed to rest for work the next day, they told investigators. One of his brothers dragged him from the burning home.
“He’d wake me up in the middle of the night and say ... how come Mickey Mantle can hit the ball farther than me?” Dallas Weiher said.
Sterling, 29, had left the house the night he vanished with his $15 weekly allowance and maps of California, Sacramento, Stockton and San Francisco. He worked at Beale Air Force Base as a dishwasher in the early 70s, but his mother made him quit after discovering airmen routinely got him drunk to steal his money, she told investigators. Though the Sterlings had a cabin near Bucks Lake in Plumas National Forest, one fishing trip as a teenager was enough for Bill, who told his parents he never wanted to go again and skipped out on subsequent retreats.
Huett, 24, was the most severely handicapped of the five, his father told investigators. He couldn’t read, write or dial a telephone and depended highly on his mother and Weiher, whom he had known for about eight years. Shy with a speech impediment, he didn’t particularly like being away from home for extended periods of time – certainly not overnight, his father said. Then-Yuba County Lt. Lance Ayers, the case’s lead investigator who died in 2010, was likely referring to Huett when he said that some members of the group had IQs as low as the 40s.
Mathias, 25, was different. He had been a singer in a local band and played football at Marysville High School in the late 1960s. Circumstances of the late ’60s and early ’70s eventually took him down another path.
A night of celebration
The night of Feb. 24, 1978 started out with no known conflict between the boys– only happiness. Elated from watching their favorite college basketball team, UC Davis, secure a road win over Chico State, the boys strolled into Behr’s Market, a convenience store in Chico, just before 10 p.m. to load up on snacks for the ride home, mildly bothering a clerk who had been trying to close. It was the last time they were seen alive.
Ted Weiher’s mother woke up afraid at 5 a.m. the next morning, the Washington Post reported. She immediately called Bill Sterling’s mother, who had been up since 2 a.m. and had already spoken to the Huetts.
Sterling’s parents had tried to talk the boys out of going to Chico that night, they told investigators. The boys had a Special Olympics basketball game the next day in Rocklin through Gateway with a chance to meet “All in the Family” actress Sally Struthers. Several of the boys had laid out their uniforms the night before. Mathias in particular was adamant that his mother not let him oversleep.
But the boys drove off anyway, and the weekend came and went without their return. On Feb. 28, a U.S. Forest Service worker found Madruga’s 1967 turquoise-and-white Mercury Montego at the Plumas National Forest snow line while marking timber. Nearly all the snacks from Behr’s Market had been eaten. The car had a quarter-tank of gas and started right up when hot-wired.
The few roads snaking into Plumas National Forest are rough and bumpy, mostly frequented by loggers’ trucks these days, and rescue vehicles used during the search incurred moderate damage. Yet the Montego – a heavy car even before five grown men climbed inside – barely had any scratches on its undercarriage when found, leading investigators to believe that whoever was driving knew the road well enough to navigate cleanly in the dark. Madruga wouldn’t let anyone else drive that car, his parents told investigators, but he also hated the cold and camping, and wasn’t familiar with the area.
Investigators spent more than three months sifting through snow, chasing dozens of false leads. They consulted a psychic, who told them she saw bodies in green canvas bags – the same color bags later used to retrieve the boys’ bodies. A “body-witcher” was brought in, and his magic rod pointed them to an empty cabin but no clues. A man who told investigators he had been in the woods scouting a campsite claimed to have seen six or seven shadowy figures near the snow line the night the boys went missing. But he had suffered a heart attack at the time and admitted to having hallucinations.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agents spent more than 6,000 combined hours looking for the young men. Dogs, horses, helicopters and snowcats all turned up nothing but dead ends. Roads became more accessible as winter turned to spring and 15-foot snowdrifts over thick manzanita bushes thawed, but the Missing Five’s chances of survival dwindled with each day.
“I was up there one day and the only way I could get out was with a compass,” then-Sheriff Jim Grant told the Associated Press at the time.
On June 4, a small group of motorcyclists out for a Sunday ride came upon a foul-smelling U.S. Forest Service work site near the Daniel Zink Campground, about three miles southwest of Bucks Lake and 19.4 miles from Madruga’s abandoned Montego. Now a nondescript patch of forest, the site held a 60-foot trailer with a broken window someone had shattered to gain access.
Recovery teams spent half a day clearing five huge trees from the roadway before reaching the trailer. Among its noteworthy contents: empty cans of food, extra clothing, wood furniture, paperback books.
And Ted Weiher’s body.
“When you got up in that area, you could smell the death. It was horrible, that stench,” Beecham said.
Weiher, the one whose brother said he lacked common sense, was found under eight layers of sheets on a bed inside the trailer with his hands on his chest. Both pant legs were rolled up above his knees, revealing apparent blood poisoning and gangrene, as well as five toes lost to frostbite. Forensic analysis of his beard growth indicated he survived four to six weeks after going missing, during which time he shed 80 to 100 pounds from his 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame. A brown leather wallet, a ring inscribed with the word “Ted” and a bead necklace lay on the bedside table. There was also a yellow metal watch that Weiher’s family said didn’t belong to him.
Thirty-one cans of food from an outside storage locker had been opened and emptied, according to case files, with no conclusive fingerprints. Another locker that would have had enough meals to last all five men an entire year was unopened. A propane tank outside the trailer could have provided gas and heat, but was also untouched.
Evidence showed a candle had been recently lit. Burnable wood and paper were found throughout the trailer, but no evidence indicated a fire had been started despite Weiher’s cause of death being ruled as exposure/pulmonary edema (often called “wet lung”). The food had been pried open with an Army P-38 can opener, a small sickle-shaped device that only Mathias and Madruga would have had experience using. Mathias’ sneakers were inside and Weiher’s sturdier leather shoes were gone, leading investigators to believe Mathias had been inside the trailer long enough to swap footwear.
Madruga and Sterling were found two days later and eight miles closer to the car on opposite sides of a mountain road leading to the trailer. There was nothing left of Sterling but bones scattered across the forest floor. Madruga’s body had been picked apart by animals and dragged to a nearby stream, car keys still in his pants pocket. The Yuba County Coroner identified Madruga’s cause of death as hypothermia/exposure, but couldn’t determine what happened to Sterling.
Jack Huett’s father, also named Jack, ignored investigators’ pleas not to join them on their recovery mission once bodies started turning up. On June 8, he spotted his son’s jacket not far from the trailer.
When the elder Huett picked it up, Jack’s spine fell out. He was identified by the teeth in his skull, found 50 feet away.
All that was left to do was find Mathias’ body. But after two weeks and with little progress made, investigators called off the search on June 19, 1978, leaving his emotionally battered family without the closure they craved.
The gears of the world kept turning. “Grease” was released that summer starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Mathias’ favorite actress. The East Area Rapist was in the midst of his reign of terror, moving his attention from the Sacramento region to the Bay Area. People forgot about the five boys from rural Northern California, even as their families struggled to move on.
One year after the boys went missing, a letter to the editor titled “Still One Missing, Still A Reward” ran in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Co-written by the families of Mathias, Sterling, Huett and Weiher, the letter alternately mourns the dead, accuses law enforcement of not doing enough to find them in time and wonders what took the boys up that perilous mountain road.
“Questions, but no answers. Bitterness, some. Anger, sometimes. Bewilderment, ALWAYS!” the letter read. “When your son leaves home with friends to go to a basketball game, do you always put your arms around him, give him a kiss and remind him how much you love him? You really should – he may never come back to you.”
This is the first of two parts on Out in the Cold, the story of five young men who went missing in the Yuba County wilderness in 1978. To read the second part, please click here.
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