The US Version of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The Yuba County Five
Today is a special day. Why?
Because we have our first Guest Write Up!
One of our readers reached out with a topic they wanted covered…and even asked to write it. They did fantastic…so fantastic that I’m going to send the Wednesday Riddle solve to the end of the post and let our anonymous Guest take it away from here:
What do you get when five friends make a pitstop on the way home from a basketball game?
Nothing, apparently…because they disappeared, never to be seen from again.
It’s actually quite tragic, and baffling. (And not as uncommon as you would think. There are other instances of unexplained disappearances; links at the end.)
Be warned: this mystery has no answers, just questions.
The 5 Men and the Disappearance
The five friends were Jack (Jackie) Huett, 24; Gary Mathias, 25; William (Bill) Sterling, 29; Jack Madruga, 30; and Ted Weiher, 32.
On the night of February 24, 1978, the five left their homes in Yuba, CA in Madruga’s white and turquoise 1969 Mercury Montego. Their destination was a basketball game in Chico, CA between UC Davis and California State University, Chico.
They were avid basketball fans, often gathering together to watch or play basketball. In fact, they had their own game to play on the next day, February 25. It was part of a local program for the mentally handicapped and was sponsored by the Special Olympics.
You see, Mathias was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in the Army and based in Germany, and was subsequently psychiatrically discharged. Huett and Sterling had slight intellectual disabilities, and Weiher and Madruga - who was also an Army vet - were unofficially considered “slow learners.”
Anyway, they left the game and stopped at Behr’s Market in downtown Chico to buy one Hostess cherry pie, one Langendorf lemon pie, one Snickers bar, one Marathon bar, two Pepsis and 1.5 quart of milk. The clerk remembered them because she was annoyed that the men arrived right before closing at 10pm.
That was the last time they were seen alive. The morning of February 25 came and went, and when none of their guardians - who they lived with - heard from them, they notified the police.
The first to be discovered was the car, on February 28, parked along Oroville-Quincy Road in the Plumas National Forest…not anywhere near or on the way to Yuba. Question #1 (and #2): how did they end up there, and why?
Maybe they were stuck in snow? But no, the snow was not so deep that five strapping, young men couldn’t push the car out. Maybe the engine stalled? The keys were missing, but when police hot-wired the car, the engine started immediately. Maybe they ran out of gas? Nope, it was one quarter full.
The questions piled on when they examined the car further at the station and noticed no dents, gouges or even mud scrapes on its undercarriage, which should have been present given the Mercury Montego’s low-hanging mufflers, the bumpy mountain road (which is now paved, apparently), and the five grown men riding in it.
They concluded that either the driver was extremely careful or the driver was familiar with the roads (none of the men were familiar with that area). The car was also unlocked and a window rolled down when police found it, which is uncharacteristic of Madruga.
Actually, the car was the only thing found for a while. The police were sent on wild goose chases with several reported sightings - one putting them in Arizona and Nevada - but only two were deemed credible.
First, Joseph Schons, who had indeed gotten stuck in the snow on the night of February 24 about 150 feet up the road from where the Mercury Montego was found, was experiencing a mild heart attack while attempting to free his car. He went back in the car, kept the engine running to provide heat and lied there, waiting for the pain to pass. Around midnight, he saw headlights coming up behind him and he saw the car park, headlights on and a group of people around it, one of which looked to him like a woman holding a baby.
Question #3: who the heck was holding a baby?! He called for help and received an icy response: they stopped talking and turned their headlights off. Later, he saw lights from flashlights and received the same cold response when he called out for help. In the early morning, when his car ran out of gas and his pain subsided, he walked 8 miles (this author wishes she could walk 8 miles, let alone do it in the early morning after managing a minor heart attack and sleeping in a car) down the road to a lodge that he had passed the day before. When the manager drove him home, they passed the abandoned Mercury Montego at the point where Schons had recalled hearing the voices hours before.
Second, a store clerk about 30 miles from where the car was found told deputies that four men matching the description from the fliers the families had posted had stopped by the store in a red pickup truck two days after the disappearance. The store owner corroborated her account. But nothing came from it. Question #4-6: Were those the same men? If so, who was missing? And how did they get the red pickup truck?
Maybe something foul was afoot?! But alas, no…unless you meant the smell.
Months later, on June 4, after the snow had melted, a group of motorcyclists went to a trailer camp maintained as shelter by the Forest Service off the road about 19 miles from where the Mercury Montego was found.
The trailer’s window had been broken and when they opened the door, the odor of decay overwhelmed them. The body was later identified as Weiher’s.
The next day, searchers found remains belonging to Madruga and Sterling on opposite sides of the road about 11 miles from where the car had been. Autopsy showed they both died of hypothermia, but Madruga’s body had been partially consumed by scavenging animals, while Sterling’s bones were scattered over a small area.
Two days later, Huett’s own father found his son’s backbone two miles northeast of the trailer. His shoes and jeans were found nearby and his skull was about 300 ft away, confirming his identity through dental records. Huett too succumbed to hypothermia.
That’s four out of the five men. The fifth man - Mathias - was never found, dead or alive.
So, what do you think? Was there foul play or did a drive take a wrong turn?
Investigators still have no idea what exactly happened to the five men: why they ended up near the Forest, why they left the car on foot, and what happened after they left the car and how long they had been dead.
The prevailing theory is that they left the car and followed a trail made by a Forest Service snowmobile the previous day in the direction of the trailer camp, hoping to find shelter nearby (reminder: the trailer was 19 miles from where the car was found). Madruga and Sterling succumbed to hypothermia about half way there, while the other three made it to the trailer, only to find it locked, so they broke a window to enter.
Here comes the sad part: they probably thought they would be found soon and since they were literally breaking and entering, they may have feared arrest for theft if they used any of the stuff there – and there were enough foodstuff in the trailer and in a storage shed outside to sustain five grown men for a year, a butane (gas) tank, and a fireplace with matches and paperback novels to use as kindling to keep warm – all of which remained unused. But they probably stayed in that trailer for 3 months, based on Weiher’s beard length and his drastic weight loss (he was 200 lbs when he left Yuba the night of Feb 24 and he was a little over 100 lbs when they found his body on June 4).
The theory posits that after Weiher died (and they assumed he died first because they found him with eight layers of sheets on top of him, including his head), Huett and Mathias attempted to return to civilization by foot and met their fate. Maybe Mathias made it, maybe not. All we know for sure is that his shoes were found in the trailer and he probably took Weiher’s shoes, since those could not be found.
An anticlimactic ending to a question-filled mystery. (I think they call that Occam’s razor.)
Anyway, I didn’t even cover all the speculative evidence found, like the gold watch without its crystal; you can learn about the disappearance in detail below at one of the links.
-Andy & Mark (and Anonymous Guest!)
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Let’s solve those riddles:
I am weightless but put me in a bucket and I will make it lighter. What am I?
Answer: a hole!
A man goes out in heavy rain with nothing to protect him from it. His hair doesn’t get wet. How does he do that?
Answer: he’s bald!