The disappearance of Gary Mathias

S02EP07

SYNOPSIS

An obscure one this week with the lesser-known case of Gary Mathias and his four friends from Yuba City, CA. Five guys who went to a basketball game and ended up disappearing on a mountain road, 70 miles away, with no explicable reason as to how they got there, nor what led to their eventual fate.

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SE2EP07: The Disappearance of Gary Mathias

In 1978, five young men left the Yuba City area of California on a fifty-mile journey yo California State University to watch a Basketball game. After the game, they stopped off at a small local store to buy some snacks, the clerk, feeling slightly put out as she was trying to close up at the time, served them nevertheless. It was, to be the last time anyone could confidently attest to seeing them alive. Dubbed as the American Dyatlov Pass, this is the case of the disappearance of Gary Mathias. Though it bears only a small resemblance to its Russian Counterpart, it remains just as much of a mystery. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.

The Yuba City five

Yuba City lies in the Northern area of California. A small valley city, it has a population of around 65,000 and benefits from a warm climate. It sits at an elevation of less than 20 metres and surrounded by the mountains and hills of the Sutter Buttes, a small volcanic mountain range that rises to around 650 metres. Yuba City was home to the Gateway Project, a vocational rehabilitation group that aimed to help and support people with disabilities. Among the patrons of the Gateway Project were five young men, Bill, Jack, Ted, Jackie and Gary. The young men were close friends and played on the projects basketball team, the Gateway Gators, together.

Hailing from Yuba City itself, William Lee Sterling was 29 years old. Born in April 5th, 1949, he was Known as Bill to his friends. he was 5’10” and weighed 170 pounds. He was deeply religious and often could be found reading religious texts. He had been diagnosed with mild developmental disabilities.

Jack Antone Madruga was 30 years old and close friends with Bill. Born June 18th, 1947, he lived in the nearby town of Marysville, just two and a half miles from Yuba City. He stood 5’11” tall and weighed 190 pounds. Jack was a High School graduate and had served in the US Army, though in more recent times had been working at Sunsweet Growers on a factory line, though he was eventually fired. Whilst he had no official diagnosis, his family believed him to have mild learning disabilities. He drove a turquoise and white, 1969 Mercury Montego which was his pride and joy.

Jackie Charles Huett also lived in Marysville. He was the youngest of the group, aged just 24 years old and stood 5’9” weighing 160 pounds. He had been diagnosed with mild learning disabilities and was best friends with Ted, the pair often described as close as brothers.

Theodore Earl Weiher was 32 years old, born on May 26th, 1946. He had attended Marysville High School. Known simply as Ted to his friends, he was a friendly guy, with a reputation for relentless positivity. He was outgoing and had been working in a snack bar, though his family had urged him to quit on account of the stress levels they presumed he suffered due to his learning disabilities, which he had been diagnosed for previously. He lived in another nearby town to Yuba city called Olivehurst that lay 5 miles to the East of Yuba City.

Gary Dale Mathias was aged 25, stood at 5’10” and also lived in Olivehurst alongside Ted. He wore thick glasses which were prescribed for his poor eyesight that was so poor, his family suggested without them, he would be very close to seeing double. He was a US Army veteran, though he had been discharged due to psychiatric reasons in 1973 whilst serving in Germany, he was later diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia, a condition which for some time gave him many difficulties and had been known to suffer violent outbursts. After treatment, he had been able to control his outbursts and had learnt to cope with his illness, though he was taking medication daily, morning and night to help. He had gone for two years with a handle on his schizophrenia and with the outbursts under control had begun working part-time as a labourer for his father-in-law’s small landscape gardening business.

Whilst all five men had been attending the vocational rehab and lived at home with their parents, they were high functioning and seemed to have been coping well with their various developmental disabilities and mental health difficulties. Both Jack and Gary had driving licenses, played basketball for the Projects team and had a level of independence away from the care of their families.

Together on the evening of 24th February 1978, they piled into Jacks Mercury Montego and got ready to embark on the 50-mile drive North to Chico, to see a basketball game at California State University. As he left his house, Ted shrugged off his Grandmothers protestations to take a coat with him. “I won’t need it tonight” he told her as he joined the other 4 men in the car.

Around 10pm that same evening, with the basketball game over, the five men pulled into a local store named Behrs Market, three blocks from the University and bought a Hostess Cherry Pie, a Langendorf Lemon Pie, a snickers and Marathon bar, 2 bottles of Pepsi and a bottle of milk and then took off into the night.

At 8 am the following morning, 25th February, Imogene Weiher, Ted’s mother woke to find his room still empty. Concerned, she called Juanta Sterling, Bill’s mother who had been up all night waiting for her son to return, which she confirmed he was still yet to do. The pair phoned around the rest of the groups family and after confirming with all that none of the men had returned home. The boys had missed their own basketball game with the Gateway Gators, a game which they had all been looking forward to for a long time. Gary had been reminding his mother about it all week, “We got a big game Saturday, don’t you let me oversleep” he had reminded her daily. Understandably, the families were now quite concerned and at 8 pm that night, Jack’s mother called the police to report the men missing.

The police made enquiries and on Tuesday the 28th of February discovered the Mercury Montego. The car had been abandoned 70 miles East of Chico and North East of Yuba City in on a bumpy mountain road that wound up through the Sierra County mountain range. Some distance from their route home. The car was parked by the roadside and abandoned on the snow line, unlocked and with one of the windows wound down. Around the car sat 11 inches of snow, but by the roadside, snow had drifted and sat between four and 6 feet deep. There was no trace of the five men. The wrappers from the snacks they had bought in Behrs Market the night before were the only trace left, alongside one of the candy bars, which was half eaten and left on the backseat. There were four maps in the glove compartment, one of California. The cars keys were gone, though when the police hotwired the car to see if it had had engine trouble, they found that it started first time, still had a quarter tank of gas and despite some evidence that the wheels had spun in the snow some time previously, it easily drove out of the low drift. Under further inspection, they noted that there was no damage to the undercarriage, meaning that the boys had driven extremely carefully along the bumpy, pothole-filled track before seemingly abandoning the vehicle and disappearing into the night, poorly dressed for the cold mountain conditions.

The police made initial attempts at early searches, but the poor weather conditions hampered their efforts, at one point becoming dangerous for the search and rescue teams themselves. After several delays and postponements, the searches were called off and remained fruitless. One week later, however, after the police and families had put out requests to the public for information, including photographs of the missing men, leads and proposed witnesses began to filter in.

Witnesses

As leads from across the entire country came in, the police filtered through each one, unable to make any hard connections. That was until an account from one Joseph Shones.

Joseph Shones was 55 years old and had been visiting his cabin on the mountainside on the evening of the 24th of February. He intended to take his family to stay in the cabin the following weekend and had wanted to check the snow line in advance. On his way back down the mountain road at around 5:30 pm, his car, a Volkswagen Beetle became stuck in one of the deep ruts on the road and during his attempts at freeing it, Shones suffered a mild heart attack. Thinking his best bet for survival and getting any form of help would be to get back in his car, he climbed into the seat, laying down but left the engine and heating running. At around 11:30 pm, he saw headlights on the road below his car, in one account given to the Los Angeles Times, he told of how he saw two sets of headlights twenty feet behind his car, one from a car and one from a pickup truck. He attempted to shout for help, but the headlights went out and the group of people standing at the two cars left back down the road together in the pickup. In another account given to the Washington Post, Shones does not mention a second vehicle but speaks of a set of headlights, a group of men and bizarrely, a woman with a baby. Regardless, in both accounts, the end situation is the same, with the lights going out after his calls for help. Shones later admitted that he was unsure what he had seen as he was suffering severe pain and was in a loose state of consciousness at the time.

Later that still, around 1:30 am, Shones goes on to say that he had seen flashlights outside his car and a whistling sound. Again he called for help, but upon hearing his cries, the flashlights extinguished and the group of people vanished.

Eventually, Shones’ car ran out of gas from running idle all night and so he stumbled from the vehicle and walked 8 miles to a cabin where he was able to find help and was taken to a hospital and recover. As he left his car, around twenty yards down the road he walked straight past a 1969, turquoise and white Mercury Montego.

To add fuel to the fire, a second witness came forth, also around a week later with a sighting of the men. The woman was a store clerk at “Mary’s Country Store”, in Brownsville, 30 miles Southeast of where the car was discovered. She reported seeing five men matching the photographs released by the police at around 2 pm on Saturday the 25th of February. Jack and Bill, she claimed, were using a phone in the store whilst the others sat in a red pickup truck n the parking lot outside. The story was corroborated by her boss and the police found her to be a credible witness, however the families of the men doubted the veracity, stating that the behaviour, specifically that of Jack using the phone, would have been completely out of character as they knew it, as Jacks brother often had had to take responsibility for Jacks calls in the past, such was his adversity to using a phone himself.

Becoming desperate, the aid of a psychic mediums were even called in to assist the police in the search, despite protestations from some of the men’s families. Regardless, the leads from the mediums lead only to a house that did not exist and a far-fetched tale of kidnapping which lead nowhere. The investigation was left with nothing but questions. It was discovered that Gary had known some people in Forbestown, lying to the East of Yuba, the police initially speculated that it could have been feasible that the men had decided to visit Gary’s friends and gotten lost, turning up the mountain pass and becoming panicked, however the families of the men hotly debated this theory, stating that the boys would absolutely not have done so with the big Basketball game for the Gateway Gators coming up the following day. Furthermore, family members of both Bill and Ted told of how the boys hated the outdoors and had always stayed at home on previous camping trips and hikes into the outdoors and upon further investigation, Gary’s friends in Forbestown stated they hadn’t seen Gary ion over a year. Yuba County Undersheriff Jack Beecham said of the disappearance:

“This case is bizarre as hell. As time goes on, foul play becomes a greater probability. It’s hard to lose five people, that’s for sure.”

But lost they were and it remained that way for another four months,  until one weekend in early June.

Discovery & Search Parties

On Saturday, June 4th, a group of weekend bikers were out riding their motorcycles when they pulled up at an abandoned forest trailer park. Hoping to catch some time to relax, they were instead greeted by a grotesque smell and upon investigation, found a 60-foot trailer, with a broken window. Inside laying on a bunk bed and wrapped in 8 layers of blankets was the body of Ted Weiher. On the bedside table sat his ring, necklace and wallet, alongside a gold watch which was never identified to have belonged to any of the five men. He wore no shoes, nor were his shoes in the trailer and his feet were badly frostbitten. There were a dozen empty cans of C-Rations on the floor, some that had been opened with an army issue tin opener. Police estimated from his weight loss and hair growth, that he had survived for up to 13 weeks in the trailer, slowly starving and freezing to death. The discovery soon led to more questions, however. The trailer park was 19.4 miles uphill from the abandoned car, which meant that Ted had had to walk almost twenty miles in snow drifts of up to 6 feet just to reach the cabin. Though there were matches and ample flammable books, papers and furniture in the trailer, no attempt at starting a fire had ever been made and even more curiously, a full propane tank that had not been switched on.

“All they had to do was turn on that gas”, said Yuba County Lt. Lance Ayers.

The rations too posed questions. They were taken from a storage shed on the parks grounds, however in the same shed, was an unlocked locker, full of rations and food with enough stock to have fed a group of people for over a year, but it was all left completely untouched. One final puzzling discovery in the trailer was that of Gary Mathias shoes, though there was no other sign of Gary anywhere to be found. Police speculated that it could have been possible that Ted took Gary’s shoes, though they were much too large for his feet.

Two days later, the skeletal remains were found 4 ½ miles south of the trailer by the roadside. The bones had been scattered by animals but were quickly identified as the remains of Jack and Bill. and two days following that, the remains of Jackie were found 2 miles from the trailer by his own father who had joined the search and rescue team. His bones were again scattered and a preliminary identification was based on Jackie’s Levis jeans and shoes, though the following day, Plumas County Assistant Sheriff discovered a skull 100 yards further down from the initial discovery which was positively identified as that of Jackie by his dental records.

Despite continued searches, no remains of Gary Mathias were ever found. Police put out descriptions to all the local hospitals and mental health facilities, but to no avail. If he was still alive, he had been so for almost four months, with no money, no identification and crucially, no medication for his schizophrenia. To this very day, Gary remains a missing person, lost on the mountainside that tragically took the lives of his four friends.

Questions on top of questions

The case of Gary Mathias remains a mystery. Though a certain degree of closure was achieved for four of the men’s families, the family of Gary Mathias has been left hanging for over forty years. Outside of the outcome of the boy’s deaths, there are still numerous questions remaining about the circumstances that led them to flee a car, parked 5000 feet up a mountain, 70 miles east of their last known location and at least 30 miles from anywhere they had planned to be. Once, when Lt Lance Ayers was asked what you do in a case like this, he simply replied:

“You do a lot of hand shaking and a lot of drinking.”

One of the biggest questions that remains is how the men ended up on the mountain road in the first place. One of the most obvious theories would be that they simply took a wrong turning and refused to turn back. It is fairly common in cases of missing persons, that when an individual becomes lost, they will press forward rather than turning back, blinded by the false hope that salvation could be just around the corner and the daunting task of retreading ground you’ve worked hard to overcome so far. Criticism of this theory, however, runs deep. Locals have said time and again that the turning from the main road onto the mountain road would simply not be a route you could end up on accidently in the event that you have to go out of your way to get onto the road in the first place.

Further to this, the men’s own families stated that they do not believe the boys would have voluntarily ventured onto the mountain road on account of their dislike of the great outdoors and tendency to stick rigidly to habits.Jack’s mother Mabel said:

“There was some force that made them go up there. They wouldn’t have fled off in the wood like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that somebody made them do it”

Then there is the car, left unlocked and with a window open. The car was Jack’s pride and joy and leaving it in such an insecure situation voluntarily would not have been consistent with his usual diligence. The state of the car too, raises questions. The undercarriage was left entirely undamaged, despite it being a low riding vehicle, filled with five men. Police speculated from this that either Jack drove incredibly carefully, knew the road or allowed someone else to drive who did. Contradicting this is Jacks Brother, who insists that Jack would never have allowed anyone else to drive his car.

And all of this leads to the largest question of all, if the car was running fine, not stuck and not out of gas, why was it abandoned in the first place?

Just who or what had been seen by Joseph Schones whilst he lay in his car, waiting for help, the men in the pickup, the woman with the baby and the phantom flashlight carriers. The men’s parents again insisted that if the men had heard someone calling for help, they were sure they would not have ignored him.

Car aside, why then, had the men trekked a further twenty miles up a mountain hillside to reach the trailer park and when they were there, why not make the most of the comforts, lighting a fire, for which there was ample equipment to do so or eat the food in the trailer park locker, that had been left untouched, despite evidence the men had been in the shed..

Why not simply turned on the propane tank, in turn firing up the trailers heating system?

Who’s watch was it that sat on the bedside cabinet and why had the men seemingly split up and dashed off into the surrounding area, all to perish.

Last but not least, what did happen to Gary Mathias? Only his shoes were ever found and no evidence existed that showed he had been with the group at any time.

Conclusion

The case of Gary Mathias and the Yuba City men is a tangled web of questions with little to no evidence, police can’t prove foul play was involved and yet without foul play, nothing makes a great deal of sense. With very little media coverage at the time of the event and almost no solid answers, we are left to speculate on what may have been. Gary himself remains a missing person until this day and the case as cold as the snow that fell on the mountainside that fateful night that tragically and eventually took the lives of at least four men.