You’ll frequently find this story referred to as the “American Dyatlov Pass”, named after the infamous Dyatlov Pass incident where a bunch of people in Russia were killed in an avalanche and then the story got embellished into something unnecessarily sinister. Unlike Dyatlov Pass, the tale of the Yuba County Five is actually mysterious and has a lot of genuinely eerie details.
On the 24th of February, 1978, five friends—Gary Mathias, Jack Huett, Bill Sterling, Ted Weiher and Jack Madruga— were returning from a basketball game at California State University. The men, aged between 24 and 32, all had mild intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses and had met via an organization called Gateway. They played in a basketball team called the Gateway Gators and were due the next day to play in a match sponsored by the Special Olympics; the winning team would get a paid week-long trip to Los Angeles. On the way back to their homes in Yuba County, the men stopped at a gas station just before closing time and bought some snacks. This was the last time any of them were definitively seen alive.
The men’s parents alerted police when they failed to return home and a search began. A few days later, a park ranger working in Plumas National Forest reported an abandoned car matching the one the men had been travelling in, stuck in snow. And then things got odd.
This is one of those stories where there’s a ton of physical evidence (including, as we’ll see, the bodies of four of the men), but every piece of it raises more questions than it answers. In the case of the car, right off the bat its location didn’t seem to make any sense--it was on a winding dirt trail miles away from the route the men would have taken from Chico to where they lived, leading to nothing but a deserted, snow-covered forest. The men were familiar with the route and had several California road maps with them. How and why they got so badly lost is a mystery.
On top of that, the car wasn’t actually “stuck” in the snow per se. The wheels spun freely, but police determined that the five men—all of whom were athletic and two of whom had been in the army—could have easily pushed it clear. The bottom of the car was free of damage, which police believed could only have been possible via intimate first-hand knowledge of the heavily-rutted road, which none of the men had.
And then there’s the biggest mystery of all: why had the five men abandoned their car and then headed higher up the mountain, instead of back down, the way they had come?
At this point, it’s important to emphasize that while the men did have intellectual disabilities that probably played a factor in why they ended up in their predicament, they were also fully capable of travelling on their own. “They wandered off into the snow because they didn’t know any better” doesn’t seem like a satisfactory answer.
Believe it or not, the situation with the car gets even weirder. While the gas station attendant who sold snacks to the men is the only person definitively known to have seen them before their disappearance, a man named Joseph Schons came forward with an odd story. According to Schons, he had been on the same road as the men that night, checking out skiing conditions at a lodge he owned. While trying to free his car from snow, he realized he was having a heart attack, so he got back into the car and turned the heat on.
Six hours later, he saw a car pull up behind him. Six people got out; one of them looked like a woman holding a baby. Schon called for help, at which point the car headlights went out. Later he saw flashlight beams and again called for help; again, the lights went out. And just to make things creepier, Schon apparently heard strange “whistling noises”. We’ll get back to him and his mystery lights later.
An extensive search for the men in the forest turned up empty, mostly due to the extremely heavy snow. It would take until the summer thaw for their fate to be discovered. In June, motorcyclists at a camp site detected a horrible smell coming from a forest service trailer; inside they found the body of Ted Weiher. The condition of his corpse indicated that he had survived in the trailer for weeks and had died of starvation. His shoes were missing and his body had been covered with sheets by someone else. And there was a watch nearby that didn’t belong to him or any of the other men, because of course this case has vague hints pointing at outside involvement.
But wait, it gets weirder! It appears that while sheltering in the trailer, the men had ignored multiple flammable materials to start a fire, heavy winter clothing, and, strangest of all, a massive store of dried food that would have kept all of them alive for over a year. A nearby shed contained a butane tank that could have started the trailer’s heating system by opening a single valve.
Further searches of the area found partially-eaten remains belonging to Madruga, and Sterling’s bones. Given the weather conditions at the time of their death, they almost certainly succumbed to hypothermia. Two days later, Jack Huett’s father found his clothes and part of his spine; his skull was then located by a Sheriff's deputy. No remains of Gary Mathias were ever found.
To begin with, a few of the big mysteries surrounding the case might not be so mysterious after all. The watch found with Weiher’s body is often cited as evidence of foul play or some outside party being involved, but we don’t know when it was left in the trailer; it could have just belonged to one of the park staff. The fact that it was found at the same time as Weiher’s body doesn’t mean it was left there when he died.
Schon’s claim of seeing a sixth person on the road behind his car--a woman carrying a baby--is also cited as evidence of outside involvement, but remember, the guy was having a heart attack. By his own admission, he was delirious with pain. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw bigfoot strolling past his car. Assuming he didn’t make the whole thing up, I think he did see our missing five that night--it would be way too much of a coincidence otherwise--but he was probably just mistaken about the sixth person.
Next, I’m skeptical about the sheriff's claim that the lack of damage to the underside of the car indicates familiarity with the road. I don’t know how you could come to that conclusion without performing experiments or something, and I think it’s perfectly plausible that whoever was driving simply avoided scraping the underside purely by coincidence.
All that aside, we move into murkier territory when it comes to two of this case’s biggest questions: why did the men take such a huge detour from their route, and why did they walk up the mountain instead of staying in their car or turning back?
It turns out that Matthias had friends in the town of Forbestown, and police speculated that the men, intending to visit them, might have taken a wrong turn at Oroville. Just looking at the locations on a map, this makes sense: there’s literally a fork in the road outside Oroville (as you can see in the expertly-crafted image on the right), with one road leading to Forbestown and the other to the road where the car was found. And maybe the men headed further up the road because they thought they’d reach Forbestown that way?
On the other hand, there are some problems with the theory. The last sighting of the men was just before 10 PM, and according to Google maps the drive from Oroville to Forbestown takes half an hour (on today’s roads; it may have been longer in 1979). Half ten at the earliest seems late to be visiting someone spontaneously, even without considering that the men had a highly anticipated basketball game the next day. And if Matthias had friends in Forbestown, wouldn’t he be familiar with the route, at least enough to know that heading up-hill into a forest wasn’t the right way to go?
Another confounding aspect is why none of them men used the provisions in the trailer. Weiher’s parents stated that he was completely lacking in common sense--he once had to be dragged out of bed to escape a fire because he was more concerned with oversleeping the next day and missing his job--and speculated that he may have hesitated to eat food that didn’t belong to him, even as he was starving to death. Okay, fine. But Weiher wasn’t alone. There was at least one other person with him until he died (his body was covered in sheets, remember), and the physical evidence in the trailer suggests it was Mathias, who had served in the military and who had opened some of the cans of food with a can opener used by soldiers. Would he have let himself or his friends starve rather than “steal” food?
Of course, I’m shooting down these ideas, but it’s not like I have anything else to offer in their place. Ultimately, we probably will never know the answers to these questions. I do, however, have a general theory as to why the men ended up in such a dire situation.
The only explanation I can think of for why the men would abandon their car and push onwards up the mountain is if one of them was sick or injured, to a sufficiently alarming extent that they believed they had to get help immediately. I can imagine a scenario where one of them--let’s say for the sake of argument--started experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath after they passed by Oroville. Whoever was driving turned back, intending to get help in the town, and ended up on the side-roads that ultimately funneled them onto the road into Plumas National Forest. The men got out and carried on on foot, maybe supporting the sick/injured member of the party, and quickly found themselves succumbing to cold weather that they weren’t dressed for. It’s entirely plausible that not all of them made it to the trailer in those conditions. Whoever did would have remained inside, hoping that someone would come and find them. No one ever did.
As to what kind of emergency might have befallen them on the drive from Chico to Yuba, I have no idea. We know they weren’t in a car accident, as their vehicle was undamaged. With four out of the five sets of remains either missing or only very partially recovered, it would be impossible to validate this theory even if it was true.
Spooky or Not?
Based on the available evidence, I'm going to designate this case…
It's the unknowables that make this spooky to me. There doesn't seem to be any single theory that explains all of the evidence, and when you throw in all of the strange red herrings things get downright eerie. That five adults can get into mortal peril on a routine drive through safe and familiar territory is sobering.