Gary Mathias was a native of Yuba County, California. Whilst he was stationed in West Germany, as part of the United States Army serving in the late 1970s, Gary developed drug problems which lead to him being diagnosed with schizophrenia and being psychiatrically discharged.
Mathias returned to his parents’ home in Yuba County and began to start treatment at a local mental hospital. It was difficult, to begin with, Mathias was nearly arrested twice for assault and often suffered from psychotic episodes that landed him in a local Veterans Administration hospital. But, by 1978 Mathias was being treated on an outpatient basis with Stelazine and Cogentin (anti-psychotics used to treat schizophrenia), and was considered by his psychiatrist to be a “sterling success case.”
As well as receiving his Army disability pay, Mathias helped out with his stepfather’s gardening business. Besides his family, Mathias was friends with 4 other boys who were slightly older than him, and who either suffered from slight intellectual disabilities (Sterling and Huett) or were considered “slow learners” (Weiher and Madruga, also an Army veteran). The boys all lived either in Yuba County or nearby Marysville, and each boy lived with his parents.
The five men’s favourite leisure activity was sports, and their families said that whenever they got together it was usually to play a game or watch one. They all played basketball together for the Gateway Gators, a team sponsored by a local program for the mentally handicapped.
On February 25th, 1978, the Gators were due to play their first game in a weeklong tournament sponsored by the Special Olympics for which the winners would receive a free week in Los Angles. The five men had prepared the night before, with some laying out their uniforms and asking their parents to wake them up on time.
On the night of February the 24th, 1978, the boys had decided to drive to Chico to support the UC Davis Basketball team in their away game against Chico State. Madruga, the only other boy who had his driver’s licence aside from Mathias, drove the group 80 kilometres (50 miles) north to Chico in his turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego. The men wore only light coats against the cool temperatures in the upper Sacramento Valley at that time of the year.
After the Davis team won their game, the group got back into Madruga’s car and drove a short distance to the Behr’s Market in downtown Chico. Here, they brought snacks along with sodas and cartons of milk. The store clerk remembers the group of men because it was shortly before the store’s 10pm closing time, and she was annoyed that such a large group had come in just before she was starting to close. This is the last time the group of boys were seen alive.
At their homes, some of the boy’s parents had stayed up to ensure their sons came home safely. When morning had arrived, but the boys had not, the police were notified.
Police in Butte and Yuba counties started to search the route the boys took to Chico – but they found nothing. A few days later, a Plumas National Forest ranger told police that he had seen the Montego parked along the Oroville-Quincy road in the forest on Feb, 25th. At the time, the ranger did not think it was significant as many people drive up that road to go cross-country skiing, but after he read about the missing boys he showed authorities on Feb, 28th.
Inside the car, the police found the wrappers and containers of the sweets and soda the boys had brought. They also found programs from the basketball game the boys had attended as well as a map of California. But, the discovery of the car raised more questions than answers.
Firstly, the car was found 110 kilometres (70 miles) away from Chico, and far from any direct route to Yuba City or Marysville. None of the parents could think why their sons would have driven up such a long dirt road, on a cold winter’s night into a remote forest without any extra clothing the night before a basketball game all 5 of them had been incredibly excited about. Madruga’s parents said that he hated the cold weather, and had never been into the mountains. Sterling’s father explained that he had taken the young boy fishing close to the area where the car was found, but the young man didn’t enjoy it and stayed home whenever his dad went fishing again.
Secondly, the police could not understand why the men had abandoned the car. The car had become stuck in some snowdrifts, and there was evidence that the wheels had begun spinning in an attempt to get out of it – but the snow was not so deep and the five men would have easily been able to push it out. The keys were not found with the car, with police suspecting that potentially something was wrong with the car, but no. The police hot-wired the car and it started instantly, the gas tank was a quarter full.
The car was towed back to the police station for further examination, and police found that the Montego’s undercarriage had no dents, gouges or even mud scrapes – not even on its low-hanging muffler – even though it had been driven up a mountain road with many humps and bumps. This means that either the driver had been very careful, or someone very familiar with the road drove the car. Maruga’s parents said that he did not know the road, and he would not have let someone else drive his car. The car was also found unlocked with a window down – something that Maruga would not have done.
There was an effort to search the area where the car was found, but due to heavy snowfall, the search was called off after just 2 days.
In response to local media coverage of the boys, police received tips and sightings. Most of which were dismissed, but two of the sightings are incredibly interesting:
Joseph Schons of Sacramento told police he spent the night 24th-25th Feb near where the Montego was found. He had driven up the road to where he had a cabin, but at around 5:30pm he had become stuck in the snow. In the process of trying to free his car, he realised he was experiencing the early signs of a heart attack so returned to his car and put the engine on to supply heat. Six hours later, Schons saw headlights coming up behind him. Looking out, he saw a parked car behind him with headlights on and a group of people around it – one of which appeared to be a woman holding a baby. He called out to them for help, but they stopped talking and turned their headlights off. Later on, he also saw more lights from behind him, this time they were flashlights, but again he called out to them and the lights went off.
Schons said he recalled a pickup truck parking 20ft (6.1m) behind him briefly, then continuing down the road. He did clarify to the police that he could not be 100% sure of that, since he was almost delirious from how much pain he was in. After his car ran out of gas in the early morning hours, his pain had subsided enough for him to walk 13 kilometres (8 miles) down the road to a lodge, where the manager drove him home, passing the abandoned Montego where he recalled hearing the voices coming from. Doctor’s later confirmed that Schons had experienced a mild heart attack that night.
Although this sounded promising, Weiher’s mother said ignoring someone’s plea for help was not like her son, if he was present. She said he would often help people, and recalled a time when he and Sterling helped someone they knew to get help after overdosing.
If this was the boys, why did they ignore Schons pleas for help? And, if there was, who was the woman holding the child? Why did they turn off the headlights and flashlights?
Another credible sighting was from a woman who worked in a store in Brownsville, about 48 kilometres (30 miles) away from where the car had been abandoned. The women said that 4 of them stopped at the store in a red pickup truck two days after the disappearance. The store owner confirmed her account.
The woman said she could tell that they were from out of the area due to their “big eyes and facial expressions.” Two of the men, who she later identified as Sterling and Huett, were in the phone booth whilst the other two went inside. Additionally, the store owner told investigators that the men who he believed to be Weiher and Huett came in and brought burritos, chocolate milk and soft drinks. Weiher’s brother told the Los Angles Times that while taking a new car and driving to Brownsville was incredibly out of character for them, the owner’s description of their behaviour seemed consistent with them as Weiher would often “eat anything he could get his hands on” and was often with Huett more than the others.
But, Huett’s brother said that he hated using telephones, to the point that his brother would handle calls from him from other members of the group.
If these were the boys, who were they calling? Where did they get the red pickup? Also, where were they going? If there were only 4 of them, who was missing and why?
Sadly, the police did eventually find four out of the five men’s bodies. On 4th June 1978, a group of motorcyclists went to a trailer maintained by the Forest Service. This was around 31.2 kilometres (19.4 miles) away from where the car had been found. A front window had been broken, and when they opened the door they were met with a horrific odour which was found to be the decaying body of Weiher.
What was most puzzling about Weiher’s discovery was how he had come to his fate. No fire had been set in the trailer, despite an ample supply of matches and paperback novels to use as kindling. Heavy forestry clothing which could have kept the men warm also remained where it had been stored. A storage shed outside had a few cans that had been opened, however, in the same shed, there was a locker that contained a great assortment of dehydrated foods which would have kept all 5 men fed for a year had not even been opened. Similarly, another nearby shed that had a butane tank that would have supplied the trailers heating, had also not been opened. Weiher’s family did say that he did lack common sense, and would often question why he would have to stop at a stop sign, or why he would have to leave his bed at night if there was a fire because then he would miss working the next day.
However, it is generally accepted that Weiher was not alone in the trailer. His body was found wrapped in 8 sheets, including his head, which he would not have been able to do himself considering how badly his feet were frostbitten. On the table next to him were some of his personal effects such as his wallet, a gold necklace and a nickel ring with “Ted” engraved on it. Also on the table was a gold watch with its crystal taken out of it, which Weiher’s family say did not belong to him, and a partially melted candle. Gary Mathias’s tennis trainers were also found in the trailer, but Weiher’s shoes were not – perhaps indicating that Gary put on Weiher’s shoes to keep his feet warm? Also, the cans were opened with a P-38 can opener, which only Mathias or Madruga would have been familiar with from their military service.
Weiher was found with a beard, which meant he was alive for around 13 weeks since he last shaved. If he and the rest of the men were alive for over 10 weeks, why did they not try to find help? If Weiher did lack common sense, did Gary or another man not think to find warmth or make a fire? Another question that niggles my brain, is why were Sterling and Madruga found so far away from the trailer? Did they split up, or were they trying to find help?
The next day searchers found Madruga’s and Sterling’s remains on opposite sides of the roads 18.3 kilometres (11.4 miles) from where the car had been found. Autopsies revealed that both men died of hypothermia, with the police speculating that one of the men had succumbed to the desire to sleep (that marks the condition’s final stages), and the other man refused to leave his side and sadly came to the same fate.
Two days later, as part of a separate search, Jack Huett’s father found his son’s backbone just 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) northeast of the trailer. His shoes and jeans helped to identify the body. A sheriff found a skull the next day just 300 feet (91 metres) away from the backbone, confirmed by dental records to be Huett’s. His death is also believed to have been from hypothermia.
In an area northwest of the trailer, roughly a quarter of a mile (400 meters), searchers found three Forest Service blankets and a rusted flashlight by the road. They were unable to determine how long the items had been there. Since Mathias had not taken his medication, photos of him were sent to all the mental institutions across California.
To this day, no trace of Gary Mathias has ever been found.
The leading theory is that Mathias had friends in the small town of Forbestown, and police believe that on their way the boys took a wrong turn near Oroville which put them on the mountain road. Then, for whatever reason, the boys then left the Montego and continued in the direction that they were originally going in. A snowcat had been in the forest the day before the boys went missing to clear snow off the trailer, perhaps the boys followed the trails left by the snowcat in hopes it would lead them to help? It also could be likely that the boys thought the trailer was private property and were scared of being arrested for theft in case they took some of the items.
The thing about this case that really gets to me, is that Gary Mathias has still never been found. If he was out in the snow, why did they not find his remains? Also, if Schons is right and there was a woman and child with the boys, where is she?
The question that needs answering so desperately is this: Why did these 5 young men, who were so looking forward to playing basketball the next day, decide to abandon their car and head into a deep forest, late at night, in freezing weather conditions?
What do you think happened to the Yuba County Five?
True crime, missing, unsolved, military, USA, group disapperance, missing people, disappearance, strange, mystery