Five Men Disappeared and Four of Them Died in 1978 — What Happened to the Yuba County Five?

Four months after they disappeared, the body of one of the men was found in a trailer wrapped in a sheet.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Apr. 5 2024, Published 2:34 p.m. ET

A production still from Netflix's 'Files of the Unexplained'
Source: Netflix

It really feels like there is a Wikipedia page for everything and honestly, what a gift. If you're curious about large groups of people who have vanished without a trace, just pop on over to the mass disappearances page. Some stories are more widely known than others, like the Roanoke Colony in Virginia. It was settled in 1585 and by 1590, all 121 colonists were gone. All that remained was the word "CROATOAN" cryptically carved into one of the colony's fence posts.

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Hours of conversation can come from dropping theories about what happened to those settlers or, the Mary Celeste ship that was discovered in 1872 sans its entire crew. It's easier to hypothesize when the fate of those involved remains unknown, but what if people turn up dead? That's what happened in 1978 when five men vanished after attending a basketball game. They were later known as the Yuba County Five and all but one of their bodies was found. Here's what we know.

Map of the route the missing boys took the night they disappeared; n aerial view trees near Donner Lake as snow blanketed in Truckee, Calif.
Source: Don Clement for the Los Angeles Times (1978); Getty Images
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What happened to the Yuba County Five?

The evening of Feb. 24, 1978, was very cold yet the five men headed to Chico, Calif. from their homes in Marysville-Yuba City. However, they were dressed for warmer weather. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ted Weiher (32), Jack Madruga (30), Gary Mathias (25), Bill Sterling (29), and Jack Huett (24) were huge fans of the UC Davis basketball team. They were playing Chico State the night those five men vanished.

Four of the men were described as having disabilities that ranged in severity. Mathias had been in the U.S. Army but was diagnosed with schizophrenia. However, he was being treated. His doctor later told authorities that Mathias's symptoms hadn't "resurfaced for the past two years," per the Washington Post. The men all played recreational basketball together at the Yuba City Vocational Rehabilitation Center and were scheduled to play in a tournament on Feb. 25, 1978.

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After the game ended, they stopped at a small market in Chico to buy some junk food for the road trip back home. The store clerk remembered being "annoyed by them" possibly because they popped in at 10:00 p.m., right before closing time. That employee was the last person to see them alive.

Days later, their abandoned car was found "far from the route which would have taken them from Chico to their homes," via the Los Angeles Times. There was no evidence of foul play. In fact, there was nothing at all.

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Four bodies were discovered in June 1978. One of the missing men was never found.

Immediately after their car was located, authorities, volunteers, and family began searching the area. Unfortunately, a blizzard caused the search to be put on hold and ultimately made their efforts far more difficult because the weather was wiping away any possible tracks.

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Four months later in early June 1978, a motorcyclist was riding through the semi-thawed vicinity when they stumbled upon the body of Weiher in a Forest Service Trailer. He was wrapped in a sheet. It was 19 miles from where the car was found.

The following week, search and rescue teams located the partial remains of Madruga, Serling, and Huett two miles from the trailer. They had clearly been picked apart by animals. In a strange turn of events, a Plumas County pathologist was able to construct a timeline based on Weiher's beard growth. It was estimated that he survived between eight and 13 weeks after leaving the car. Sadly, this was just two weeks shy of the motorcyclist finding his body.

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There was no trace of Mathias and his body has never been found. There was evidence that he had been inside the trailer with Weiher, according to the Washington Post. All they had to go on was the fact that Mathias's tennis shoes were inside.

One theory was that he swapped them out for Weiher's because his shoes were bigger and perhaps Mathias's feet were swollen from frostbite. To this day, no one has any idea why they got out of the car and how four of the Yuba County Five were the only ones found.

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