The fate of the Yuba County Five is a well-renowned mystery which has spawned countless documentaries, news articles, podcasts and other media – owing to its intrigue.

What we do know is that four men died at some point during the first half of 1974. A fifth man – Gary Mathias – was also with the others, but has never been found.

This article reviews the disappearance of Mathias, and the mystery behind this case. A reader’s poll can be found at the end of the article, which you are welcome to vote in. We can then see what the overall opinion is of our readership to explain what happened.

The circumstances behind what happened to the Yuba County Five has been debated heavily

Background

The Yuba County Five refers to a group of five men from Yuba County in California. They were Jack Huett, 24, William Sterling, 29, Jack Madruga, 30, Theodore Weiher, 32, and Gary Mathias, 25.

The five men all had either mild intellectual difficulties or mental health conditions. They all lived with their parents. All five were friends with one another, and had a shared interest in sports.

The main focus in this story is on 25 year-old Gary Mathias. Gary was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in his youth, and had experienced psychosis in the past. He had previously served in the United States Military, before being discharged.

The Disappearance

On 24th February 1978, the five men were preparing for a basketball tournament. On 25th February, the group met up and went to watch a basketball match between two California teams.

Jack Madruga drove the five approximately 50 miles in his turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego car. The quintet were only wearing light coats and jackets that night, despite the chilly weather.

Following the conclusion of the game, the group drove to a convenience store where they bought snacks and drinks. The group went in just before the store’s closing time of 10pm.

As the group left and their car drove away, this was the final time that the group were ever definitively seen alive.

The next morning, each of the parents got in contact with one another, seeking an update on their sons – who were all worryingly absent. In the evening, after none of the men had returned, the Police were notified.

The Investigation

The Police looked into the disappearance closely. The drive that the men had taken to the convenience store was analysed in case there was any sign of the group or their car.

The Police created a missing persons appeal. They appealed for information on the five men, and the whereabouts of the Mercury Montego car.

Within days, a park ranger from Plumas National Forest came forward to say he had seen the car parked in the forest on the night that the group had last been seen. He led the Police to the car, which was parked on a road in the forest.

The Police scoured the local area, but could not see any sign of the men. The car had wrappers from the food and drink that they had bought from the convenience store, as well as programs from the basketball game they had visited.

Therefore, the Police were able to deduce that the five men had definitely been in the car. However, they also believed that the car had been abandoned by the five men for reasons unknown.

They heavily searched the area around the car, but their efforts were inhibited by a severe snowstorm. After two days, the search was called off due to the inclement conditions, which was becoming life-threatening for searchers.

The Police were confused with the location of the car. The car was found approximately 70 miles away from the convenience store, and was far away the route they would normally take to get home.

Family members were unsure as to why they would have been in this area. Jack Madruga’s parents said that Jack – who was driving – did not like the cold weather and was unfamiliar with the area. Therefore, there seemed to be no reason for them being there.

This was a very confusing element of the case. Another factor that perplexed Police was why the car had been abandoned. The car was in working order.

The Police believed that the car was stuck in snow, and that tyre marks suggested they had tried to spin the wheels to get out of the snow. Yet the Police also pointed out that five men would have easily been able to push out the car, as it was far from submerged by the snow.

The next confusing element was the question on where the keys to the car were. The car was left unlocked. The Police posited that the group may have thought the car was not in working order, so decided to leave the car and seek help.

The Police towed the car back to carry out their own analysis. Interestingly, the car showed no issues at all – including no dents, marks or scrapes. This was despite the car seemingly driven up a long mountain road that had many bumps and holes in. This led the Police to think that the driver was either very cautious, or was very familiar with the road. As discussed earlier, Madruga was not familiar with the road, nor was he skilled enough to negotiate a difficult hill at night without encountering issues.

The case was making headlines, both locally and nationally. Appeals for any potential sightings were made. This led to the next development, when a man named Joseph Shones approached the Police.

Shones said that he had – unintentionally – spent the night in the area where the car had been found on the night of the disappearance of the five men. Shones explained that he had driven up the mountainous road to his family’s cabin, ahead of an upcoming ski trip.

Shones said that he was stuck in the snow. As he tried to push the car out, he started to suffer from the early symptoms of a heart attack. Shones went back into the stationery car and turned on the engine to provide him with heat.

At around half 11 at night, Shones was still in the car, but in severe pain due to his heart pains. He noticed headlights appearing behind him. He saw a car behind him, with a group of people getting out of the car. He recalled that one of the people appeared to be a woman holding a baby.

Shones said that he tried calling out to the group to get some help. However, Shones said they immediately stopped talking and turned their headlights out upon hearing Shones’ voice.

Then, in the early hours of the morning, Shones saw more lights behind him. This time, they were handheld torches. But when Shones called out to them for help, the torches were turned off. These were bizarre actions for a group to take.

Shones was not able to verify if anything else happened that night. He believed that a pickup truck parked behind his car briefly, before driving on down the road, but he told the Police that due to the severe pain he was in, he couldn’t confirm this actually happened.

The pain that Shones was in eased in the morning. His car had ran out of fuel, so he walked to a lodge to seek help. The ranger at the lodge drove Shones back to his car. On the way, they passed the abandoned Mercury Montego – which is where Shones said the group he had seen were based.

When asked about how their sons may act if they heard someone pleading for help, the general consensus from the parents was that the men would have went to help. This suggested that the group that Shones saw by the car may not have been the Yuba Five.

Another development came a few days later. If the occupants of the car had continued on the road, they would’ve eventually reached a small town called Brownsville. A store worker from Brownsville notified the Police that she believed that four of the men had stopped off at the store the day after the disappearance.

She said that Jack Huett and William Sterling were in a telephone booth outside, while two others entered the store to buy snacks and drinks. The store owner said that Theodore Weiher and Jack Huett came into the store. There was no sign of the Mercury Montego.

There were some doubts of this account, as there were inconsistencies between the store worker and store owner’s account. There were suspicions that the duo had looked to win the reward money put up by the parents of those involved. However, the Police did look into their accounts.

The Police were unsure on what had happened to the Yuba 5. There were so many unanswered questions. Mainly though – they were unsure on where the men were.

Some answers were soon provided, albeit tragically, On 4th June – about three months after the disappearance, a body was found. Owing to the warmer weather, snow in the area near where the Mercury Montego was found was melting.

A group of motorcyclists drove past a trailer that was managed by the United States Forest Service. This was around 20 miles from where the car had been found.

They noticed that the front window of the trailer had been broken into. When they opened the door, a body was discovered, which was identified as Theodore Weiher.

This led to the area being re-examined, with the melting snow leading to far more visibility of the area. The road between the trailer and the car was searched, which resulted in further remains being found.

These belonged to William Sterling and Jack Madruga. The duo were found on opposite sides of the road. Autopsies that were carried out found that both had died from hypothermia.

Two days later, the remains of Jack Huett were found. An autopsy showed his cause of death was also hypothermia. His remains were found about two miles from the trailer.

It was expected that Gary Mathias’s remains would soon be found, but they weren’t. The only other thing of note that was found in the area was three Forest Service blankets and a rusted torch by the road. But investigators were unsure on how long these items had been there.

There was no sign of Mathias. Analysis of the trailer though resulted in more questions being asked, but also an idea as to Mathias’s potential whereabouts. It seemed as if there was more to this story than expected.

An autopsy on Theodore Weiher’s body found that he had died from a combination of starvation and hypothermia. He also had signs of frostbite. It was determined that he had been alive for quite some time – potentially a few months. Tragically, it seemed that he was weeks, or maybe even days away from being rescued.

Weiher was found on a bed that had eight sheets wrapped around it. Next to the bed was a table that had some of Weiher’s belongings, including his wallet and jewellery. There were some belongings on the table that Weiher’s family said did not belong to him.

Canned food had been consumed, further adding to the belief that Weiher had been in the trailer for some time. But there was still a lot of canned food that remained untouched.

The Police were confused about Weiher. The fireplace had not been used, despite matches being available. Moreover, thick clothing that would’ve been warmer than what Weiher was wearing was left untouched.

But his parents did say that Weiher lacked common sense due to his low IQ, which could explain why food had been left untouched despite him starving, and why clothing was shunned despite him being cold.

Despite only Weiher being found, it seemed that Gary Mathias had been in the trailer as well. A US military P-38 can opener was found, which Mathias would have known about from his past military service. Also, Mathias’s trainers were found in the trailer. Finally, given Weiher’s frostbitten feet, he wouldn’t have had the strength to put all of the sheets over his own body.

These factors led the Police to assume that Mathias had been there as well. The belief had been that Mathias left on his own accord, potentially to find help, only to die outside in the elements.

Despite further searches, there was no sign of Mathias. The search was soon scaled down, with Mathias presumed dead.

Later Developments

There were hopes that as the snow dried out more, that Mathias may be discovered. But he never was. This led some to believe that Mathias must have escaped and stayed alive.

Despite this, there is no proof as to what happened to Mathias. Furthermore, the Police are still unsure on the exact circumstances that led to the deaths of the other four of the Yuba Five.

There have been accusations of foul play, especially in terms of the Shones account and the fact that the men all had learning difficulties. The fact that the Mercury Montego had no scratches and marks on it led to some suggestions that the car had been driven by someone else up the mountainous road.

It also seemed bizarre that the men had made it around 20 miles from where the car had been left. Were they capable of walking such a long distance?

Down the years there have been various reported sightings of Mathias – though nothing has ever proved concrete. The case has become very well-known, leading to numerous books, documentaries and podcasts analysing the case.

One of the sad elements of this case is that it is believed that Weiher hadn’t been dead for long before being discovered. If only he could have survived a bit longer, rescue appeared to be close.

The vast majority of parents of the men have since died. Tragically, Gary’s sister Sharon died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound aged just 48. Mental illness is believed to have ran in their family.

The case has been likened to the famous Dyatlov Pass incident in Russia, where a group of men died in mysterious circumstances. Only in this case, there was someone unaccounted for.

To this day, Gary Mathias has never been found. His whereabouts remain unknown, but he is presumed dead.

Something happened to The Yuba County Five after they watched a basketball game

Theories

So many unanswered questions – but what did happen to Mathias and the wider group? Numerous theories have been put forward.

We take a look at the evidence for each theory:

Theory One: Gary Mathias succumbed to the elements

The most logical suggestion is that Mathias was the one that lived in the trailer alongside Weiher. This would’ve included him placing the sheets over Weiher.

Perhaps at this point Mathias realised that he needed to do something, or face death. At this point, he may have decided to go out into the elements and seek rescue for himself.

Given the terrible conditions and the mountainous region, Mathias could easily have succumbed to the elements. He could have starved to death, fallen from a height or become severely frostbitten.

Due to the aforementioned conditions, it is possible that Mathias’ body was never found, but is out there somewhere. Animals may have also feasibly consumed his remains.

But this theory does assume a lot, and fails to take into account the eccentric elements of this case. Moreover, some have questioned how feasible it is that his body was never found, whilst the other four members of the Yuba 5 were all found.

It is possible that as part of this theory, Mathias suffered a psychotic episode. While he hadn’t had an episode in two years, he would’ve been without his medicine in the wilderness. This could have impacted the group.

Theory Two: Gary Mathias escaped and remains alive

In the absence of a body, it is feasible that Mathias may have escaped and remained alive. He could even still be alive to this day.

Mathias was believed to have left the trailer to seek rescue. But perhaps he made it to safety without the need for rescue. It seems bizarre that he wouldn’t come back to the surface and reunite with his loved ones, but it is feasible that he wouldn’t.

However, Mathias was known to have a chequered history in terms of past crime. It is debatable over if he could’ve remained under the radar all of this time. Moreover, why would he want to stay away from his parents?

So there is only limited evidence for this theory, but without a body being found, it isn’t possible to discount this theory.

Theory Three: There was foul play involved in Gary Mathias’s disappearance

Something just isn’t right in this case. Why did the group leave the car? Why would they walk in the opposite direction to where they had come from – for a full 20-30 miles? Could they have even walked that far on their own accord?

Then there is the fact that the Shones account made it look as if the group were acting strangely, as if they didn’t want to be caught by anyone. Or how about how the car seemed to be driven by someone with knowledge of the road?

There are so many bizarre circumstances in this case, which has led to some suggestions that there must have been foul play involved by a third party.

If this is what happened, then there could be so many outcomes. But sadly, it seems as if none of the outcomes are positive. Mathias would surely have perished during whatever happened.

However, four of the five were found to have succumbed to the elements, so it would seem strange that none of them were affected by potential foul play.

Reader Vote

With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.

What Happened to Gary Mathias of the Yuba County Gove
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Summary

The case surrounding the Yuba County Five is full of intrigue and confusion. No one quite knows what happened to the group.

The disappearance of Gary Mathias remains unsolved. Whether or not we will ever receive answers in this case remains to be seen.

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