The Bizarre Disappearance of the Yuba County Boys

Shenba

Nothing makes sense in one of the most obscure and notable unsolved cases of the 20th Century

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The 5 men missing in Yuba countyTwitter

On a cold stormy February night of 1978, 55-year-old Joe Schons was on his way to his mountain cabin. He was planning a family ski holiday next week and wanted to check the snow and ski paths before the weekend.

However, since it was stormy, he got stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. Panicking, he got out of the car and tried to push it off the snow. But he couldn’t do it alone, and eventually started noticing signs of a heart attack.

Joe immediately got back into his car and turned on the engine to run the heater. He was suffering from pain and was delusional. He just laid there waiting for help.

After a while, Joe noticed a pair of headlights. Thanking his lucky stars, he got off the car and screamed for help. He saw five men and a woman holding a baby standing by a pickup truck. Despite his screams, the group ignored him.

Tired, Joe got back into the car and waited for someone else. And that’s when he noticed the five men walking past his car, ignoring him. Joe also saw another pair of flashlights and asked for help again. They, too, neglected him.

With no energy left, Joe spent the night in his car. Just when he was feeling better, he ran out of gas. As the storm had also subsided, Joe decided to walk to his cottage for help. Eight miles later, Joe found the help he needed, and he got back home safely.

But little did he know, he was the only person who got home safely that day. He also didn’t anticipate being the only witness to what turned out to be one of the strangest cases of the 20th century.

Yuba County 5

The Gateway Gators was a collegiate basketball team at the rehabilitation center of Yuba City, California. Its players were in their 20s or early 30s and suffered from some form of mental issue.

  • Gary Mathias: 25-year-old soldier diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has had violent outbursts and attacks but was treated and released from the psychiatric ward.
  • Bill Sterling: 29-year-old man with intellectual disability.
  • Jack Heutt: 24-year-old man with physical and mental disabilities.
  • Ted Weiher: 32-year-old man showed signs of autism.
  • Jack Madruga: 30-year-old slow-learner. He also absolutely loved driving his Mercury Montego and would let no one handle it.

Even though they had learning disabilities and violent outbursts, the five men were independent and shared a unique bond. They spent a significant amount of time together. All five of them loved basketball, and it was often the most pressing topic in their conversations.

D-Day

The Gateway Gators were training hard to take part in the Special Olympics. As part of their practice, the boys often watched matches played by college teams. They liked to learn moves and strategies from these players.

As they had a big match coming up, on the 24th of February, 1978, the five men went to see the game between UC Davis and Chico State. Their favorite UC Davis crushed Chico State, and the five guys had a wonderful time.

On their way back home, they stopped at a convenience store to buy some snacks. And this is the last incident that made any sense because no one knew what happened to them after that.

Initial Investigation

Ted’s mother woke up early morning, worried not to find her son in bed. She called Bill’s mother only to discover that he wasn’t home too. Soon, the parents found that none of the boys had come home the previous night.

Now, this is very uncharacteristic of the men. While they were high functioning and independent, they never stayed late. So, when the boys didn’t come back, it was worrisome, and the parents registered a police complaint.

The search was on, and newspapers and radio stations reported the missing. On seeing the news, Joe Schons immediately informed the police that he had seen the car in the mountains. Soon after, a forest ranger found the abandoned vehicle.

The car seemed in perfect condition, with no scratches or dents. It had sufficient gas in it and started right away when hot-wired. So, it didn’t have any mechanical problems too.

Though the families insisted the men had never been to that part of the state, the evidence proved otherwise. The police found a neatly folded map of California in the car, which explained that the men knew where they were going. Plus, since there were no damages to the vehicle, the police also thought that the driver knew the roads well enough to drive without accidents.

It really confused the police that the men chose an unknown path instead of a more straightforward route to Yuba, drove down the treacherous mountain path without a single scratch on the car, and stopped in the middle of nowhere during a storm for no apparent reason. They also didn’t know where the five men went after leaving the car.

Chasing the clues

The police questioned Joe Schons. He narrated the events of the night and how his help cries were ignored. He also mentioned that he saw the five boys walk with a woman and a crying baby.

The police then tested Joe to check if he really had a heart attack that night to validate his story. The EKG test proved Joe suffered from a mild attack that night.

With Joe’s story checking out, the police renewed their search efforts. But that didn’t bring any success. And since this happened in the 1970s, the police resorted to some unconventional methods.

They consulted a psychic to find the five boys. She told them she saw bodies in green canvas bags. The police tried to follow the clue that turned out to be a dead end. They also called a Body Witcher, a magician who finds dead bodies. He pointed to a cabin that turned out to be empty.

There were several bogus reports, and the police had spent over 6000 hours searching for the men. At this point, the police thought that the boys had gone off the grid voluntarily, even though it made little sense for the men to leave everything they owned.

Summer 1978

Several months passed with no word on the boys. Just when the families were starting to lose hope, the summer heat melted the snow.

A group of motorcyclists was out in the mountains for a sunny ride. They stopped at a trailer for some rest, and they smelled a staunch, putrid smell coming from inside the trailer.

The police arrived at the scene. Upon entering the trailer, the team found Ted in a decomposed state under eight blankets. He had lost nearly half of his weight and had a long beard. Forensic experts concluded Ted had spent at least 8–12 weeks in the trailer. He then died of pneumonia.

Now, the police were perplexed to find Ted there. The trailer was about 19 miles away from the car. How did he walk all the up here in that storm? The trailer had enough food to last him several months. Yet, only a few cans were opened. So why didn’t he eat properly? The trailer also had pieces of wood for a fire. But he never used them, despite being frostbitten.

Nothing made sense in Ted’s death.

The police found Madruga’s tennis shoes in the trailer. While it confirmed that he was at the trailer, his body wasn’t found.

More bodies

A search party was formed again to check the trails that led up to the trailer from the car.

The team found Bill and Madruga’s bodies about 11 miles from the car. Autopsies confirmed that the two men died of hypothermia.

Two days later, Heutt’s father finds the son’s backbone near the trailer. And on searching that area, the team found Jack Heutt’s remains.

While the search party found four of the five men, it never discovered Gary’s body. They found a rusted flashlight and three blankets about 400m from the trailer, which they assumed was Gary’s. But they didn’t know why he dropped them and where did he go after that.

The police knew the men tried to reach the trailer, but only Ted and Gary succeeded. But why did they go there in the first place?

All they had were a bunch of confusing, unanswered questions.

Brownsville Sighting

Brownville is a small town about 30 miles from Madruga’s car. On seeing the flyer of the missing men, a woman who worked at a convenience store came forward and told the police that she had seen four of the five boys two days after the disappearance.

She said that Huett and Sterling were in the phone booth, and the other two were at the store buying drinks and burritos. The store owner also confirmed the story.

Even though the police believed the story, Huett’s family dismissed it. They claimed Huett hated making phone calls, and there was no way he could’ve gone to the booth. They assumed that the woman fabricated the story for the reward money mentioned in the flyer. Plus, it made little sense for the men to go back to the mountains to die.

Lost Hope

The police and the family members desperately tried to understand what happened. However, with no evidence or clue to move forward, they lost hope of ever finding answers.

The investigation and search operation opened up a can of unanswered questions, and experts were making their best guesses. But since it was the 1970s, only bare technology was available. So, most conclusions made were mere assumptions. The bizarre story also attracted several true crime enthusiasts, who tried to ascertain what may have happened.

Here are some theories put forth for some of the most common questions.

1. Why did they drive to the mountain?

The boys were never lost. Remember, the police found the map folded.

Several theories explain why they went to the mountains. But the most logical one reports about Gary’s friends who lived in a nearby town. So, maybe the boys took a wrong turn on their way to visit Gary’s friends.

2. Why did they ignore Joe Schons?

  • Some speculate that the boys were up to some devious plan, and that’s why they ignored Joe.
  • Some claim that the boys were scared of the screams and wanted to get away as soon as possible.
  • Others believe that the boys walking past Joe were his hallucinations.

3. Who were the woman and the crying baby?

Some believe that the woman and the baby were Joe’s illusions. Now, let me remind you that Joe was suffering from a heart attack. So, chances are he imagined things.

A few others believe that the group Joe saw wasn’t the Yuba boys. Since he was already in pain, he must’ve confused the groups.

4. Where is Gary Mathias?

That’s the billion-dollar question.

While none knew his whereabouts, the search team tried to gather clues. The police firmly believed that if they could find Gary, they’d solve the case. However, they never found him, and only theories were formed. Some of them included:

  • Gary was also dead. But since the mountains were vast with thick forests, one could easily get lost. So, the police never found his body.
  • Gary has done strange things throughout his life. He once escaped the psychiatric facility through a sewer pipe. He also walked 500 miles from his grandparent’s house and his house. So, some allege that he might have taken Ted’s shoes and ran away.
  • Another theory suggests that Gary had planned this incident. He had a schizophrenic episode that made him do it. Plus, despite him being never found, his family kept things under the hood. There were no statements, interviews, or comments about his disappearance. So many believe that his family hid him somewhere safe.

Lastly

This is clearly one of those cases where you have a million questions but no straightforward answers.

What happened to these men was unfortunate and disturbing. Even when they had mental disabilities, they knew how to live life independently. Perhaps it was too much freedom for them?

Even today, people don’t take mental illness seriously. The social stigma and reluctance to get treatment are high. Had these men been taken care of properly, the probability of a gory incident would’ve been way less.

It further strengthens the fact that mental illness is a pressing issue, and one should take proper care of themselves and their loved ones. It’s fun to be spontaneous, but not at the cost of someone’s life.

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