Let’s talk about it: Gary Mathias and his four friends

When I initially wrote up the 1978 disappearance of Gary Dale Mathias and the deaths of his four friends several years ago, the case seemed, although incredibly horrific and tragic, to be pretty self-explanatory:

Five mentally disabled guys get lost while driving around in a blizzard, get their car stuck in the snow in a wilderness area, try to hike to safety but instead wind up dying slowly and horribly of exposure and starvation. Only four bodies are found, but that’s no surprise, given the timeline and the wilderness surroundings.

Sad, but not all that mysterious.

Then a little over a week ago I stumbled across this Washington Post article about the disappearance of Mathias and the deaths of his friends (Jack Madruga, Jackie Huett, Theodore Weiher and William Sterling), and I realized the case was a LOT weirder than I had originally thought.

Let’s break down some of the weirdness here:

  1. At least two of the five men were higher-functioning than I had originally believed. Although they were all enrolled in a day program for mentally handicapped adults, Mathias wasn’t (contrary to what I’d heard) mentally handicapped but instead had schizophrenia. And he was apparently quite high-functioning when he was on his meds. Madruga was considered “slow” but hadn’t been diagnosed as mentally disabled. Both Mathias and Madruga had served in the Army and had driver’s licenses.
  2. The group’s car, although it was stopped in the snow on a mountain road, was NOT truly stuck. The engine worked, the car had gas, it was still on the road, and if the men had tried they could have gotten it going again.
  3. There’s evidence to suggest that whoever was driving that car at the time it was abandoned was not lost and knew what they were doing. All the maps were in the glove compartment — you’d think that if they had been lost they’d have consulted the maps. Furthermore, the article notes, This heavy American car, with a low-hanging muffler and presumably with five full-grown men inside, had wound up a stretch of tortuously bumpy mountain road – apparently in total darkness – without a gouge or dent or thick mudstain to show for it. The driver had either used astonishing care and precision, the investigators figured, or else he knew the road well enough to anticipate every rut. Except this definitely doesn’t apply to Madruga, Mathias or any of the five.
  4. They found Weiher’s body in a forest service trailer nearly twenty miles from where the car was abandoned. He’d died of starvation and exposure. Yet inside or near to the trailer were matches, propane, items that could be used for fuel (books etc.), and enough food to last a year.
  5. Next to Weiher’s body in the trailer was a watch that didn’t belong to any of the five men.
  6. Perhaps strangest of all, there was a witness who may have seen the men on the mountain road the night they disappeared. A guy named Joseph Shones drove up the road at 5:30 p.m. and his car got stuck in the snow, just 50 meters from where Madruga’s car was later found. While he was digging himself out, he keeled over from what turned out to be a mild heart attack. He got inside his car and waited there for several hours, with the lights on and the engine running, and at some point he heard “whistling” noises and saw what he thought were a group of men and a woman with a baby, walking in the light of another vehicle’s headlights. Shones called for help and the lights turned off and the whistling sounds stopped. A few hours later he saw flashlight beams outside his car and called out for help again, but immediately the lights went out. Shones stayed in his car until it ran out of gas, then walked eight miles down to get help, passing Madruga’s car on the way. He didn’t think much about what he’d seen until he heard about the disappearances.

The whole thing has me scratching my head — I don’t understand how these young men could have fallen so badly to pieces that they would have abandoned an operable vehicle in the middle of a blizzard, and then starved and froze for months in a building with food and fuel, then abandon said building when one of their number died. And the business with Joseph Shones’s account throws an even bigger monkey wrench into it.

I wonder if they saw something, or thought they saw something, that night that scared the bejesus out of them and made them behave this way. Perhaps some kind of group psychosis.

There’s no evidence of foul play here and no evidence that Gary Mathias somehow survived. I just wonder what caused all this to happen.

Let’s talk about it.

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52 thoughts on “Let’s talk about it: Gary Mathias and his four friends

  1. Abra Gordon June 22, 2017 / 9:50 am

    So strange…who even knows where to start with this one?

    And, now I’m wondering about the possible woman with a baby, why no one ever started a fire, and why, if there was enough food for a good year, one of them lost 80 to 100 pounds before dying of exposure (according to the article).

    For that matter, why would the others (if they were in the building with him) have abandoned the building after the one died? If they were that creeped out by a corpse, it makes more sense to move him outside.

    Where is Gary Mathias? If his body was never found, he could potentially be alive. I wonder how well he functioned without his meds. Is it possible he survived and is living on the streets somewhere? Did he end up at a mental health clinic where he was able to restart his meds and is now living a somewhat normal life? If so, why did he not recontact his family?

    Way too many questions that seem almost impossible to answer.

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 2:17 pm

      I highly doubt Mathias made it off the mountain. Remember it was months before they found the others, and there wasn’t much left of the ones who were found outdoors — decomposition, the weather and wild animals had done their work. I think Mathias is probably still pretty close to the Forest Service trailer but at this point nearly 40 years later there may be nothing left but bone fragments.

      • abra June 22, 2017 / 10:55 pm

        Most likely you are right. He didn’t make it off the mountain. It seems like he would have been pretty close to the others, but maybe they just missed him. Wild animals may have disposed of most of him.

  2. Joanne Ouimet June 22, 2017 / 9:52 am

    This case is baffling. Why did the 5 men drive up that road? Did one of them have long hair, and Shones mistook him for a female? How soon, after the discovery of Weiher’s body, were the other three bodies found, and where?

    Could the watch have belonged to a Forest Service employee? Maybe Weiher was going to steal it, or just use it to keep time?

    Meaghan, thanks again for sharing your Poland trip with us! The way you write, well it made me feel like I was there, too!💜

    Joanne

    • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 11:29 am

      If someone mistook him for a female and decided to silence them later, they would not die in this way

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 1:52 pm

      I explain in the casefile where the other three bodies turned up. There’s more details in the article I linked to. There wasn’t a whole lot left of them by the time they were found, just bones.

      • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 2:44 pm

        Yes, but one of them, Ted Weiher, whose body was found intact, he was died of hungry and exposure, don’t think a killer would dispose his victim this way

      • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 2:47 pm

        I don’t think they were murdered either. I just think they died under very strange circumstances and there are a lot of unanswered questions.

  3. Kat June 22, 2017 / 10:22 am

    This case gets me EVERY time. It is beyond bizarre. I wonder if, as time elapsed, being off the medications caused even odder decisions? I still struggle to get past how they went from a basketball game to a snowstorm. Something went wrong somewhere. Sadly, I doubt we’ll ever know. I’ve learned from some of the happy recoveries here to never say never, but I truly doubt he’s still alive.

    • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 11:30 am

      I think the snow storm occurred on Feb 228, and they disappeared on the night of Feb 24/25, there is no indication there was a snow storm on that night

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 1:55 pm

      Mathias took his meds on a weekly basis and I think he took them last on the day he disappeared, before he left for the game. So there should have been at least a week before the meds were out of his system and his mental illness symptoms reappeared.

  4. Sean Munger June 22, 2017 / 10:36 am

    This is America’s answer to the Dyatlov Pass incident in Russia. I have no explanation, except something very unusual must have happened to them.

    • Shari June 22, 2017 / 12:23 pm

      I was reminded of the same event. The whistling sound, the group disappearance and deaths, leaving a safe place for the cold and exposure…many similarities.

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 1:42 pm

      Michael brought up the Dyatlov Pass Incident too when I told him about this case.

      • Kat June 22, 2017 / 3:14 pm

        That’ll get my vote for freaky case number two. I can’t even imagine what went on there.

    • Elena June 22, 2017 / 5:10 pm

      Dyatlov Pass incident have been explained by two competing theories, both in engrossing detail. in both hypothesis, the tourists are murdered by a group of outsiders, the only difference is, whom these groups consists of. One of the hypothesis is described in a book by Alexei Rakitin, the other one, I am not sure if he wrote a book. Rakitin’s book is a giant tome that has never been translated into English, and probably never will be, due to the cost of such a project.
      In short, the incident is nothing unusual. They were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, and had to be eliminated.

      • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 5:18 pm

        I always figured they were avalanche victims.

      • Medea June 23, 2017 / 2:21 pm

        No, the most convincing explanation is they freaked out as a group, some kind of group panic, because of an avalanche, an animal or something like that. They died of exposure.

      • Elena June 23, 2017 / 6:01 pm

        Please, guys, enough of perpetuating fairy tales that have nothing to do with reality. This incident have been studied by top professionals in great detail. There was no avalanche, no group psychosis, no panic, no Yeti, no animal, nothing like that. Those have long been thoroughly debunked by experts that studied the FACTS. All that FACTS point to is people being KILLED by other people (from outside the group, not each other). Please read a detailed forensic investigation, if you have access to it, if you don’t have access, there is no point in speculating.

      • luna July 16, 2017 / 7:14 pm

        I don’t know where you got your info from but saying they were killed by outsiders is just ridiculous. They died of hypothermia/exposure and even demonstrated paradoxical undressing that goes with hypothermia. Then animals picked at their remains. If they were killed by people then there would have been evidence of that. But every single credible source says they died of exposure.

        Don’t get all your info from conspiracy theories.

  5. marsyao June 22, 2017 / 11:10 am

    They did eat more than a dozen C-rations, I guess it was too much to ask them finding extra food hidden in a lock and set fire

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 1:51 pm

      It doesn’t seem like it would be too much to ask. Remember, two of these guys had been in the Army. They may not have been rocket scientists but they functioned at least well enough for that. You’d think that, even if they initially panicked and weren’t thinking straight enough to start a fire and open the locker, after a day or so they would calm down, take stock of what they had, and make use of it.

      • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 2:46 pm

        Yeah, this is a reasonable point

    • Kat June 22, 2017 / 3:12 pm

      Is it certain it was them? I still think the whole group may have decided to walk out or some such. Or a few of them. I would think they were ok with rational decisions, but I wouldn’t want to be in that situation.

      • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 3:28 pm

        They were people with mental disabilities in a panic mood, far from making rational decisions

      • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 3:33 pm

        I’m not mentally disabled, but my autism regularly causes me to go completely off the rails when I’m in a situation I didn’t expect to happen. A lot of times I’ll break things and do physical harm to myself because I’m panicking and just generally melting down. It’s frightening for other people to see.

  6. Ivana June 22, 2017 / 3:01 pm

    Maybe i is a remote possibility, but some kind of suicide pact? Or they became delusional, and one of them convinced the rest that God wants them to die, for example?

    • Jeremy Black July 29, 2017 / 8:50 am

      Perhaps LSD? Could explain a lot of that bizarre behavior and how they may have found themselves lost and not knowing how to return to the car.

  7. Kat June 22, 2017 / 4:00 pm

    Since some of them were found close together, would it be reasonable that they survived the original accident (not sure I buy witness two, they would have had to roam around a lot in the cold and stuff) and found a way to the cabin and left again for some reason? By that time, it would have been days, if not weeks. Was there ever an aerial search for them? I would think it would be easier than ground.

    • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 5:07 pm

      I guess all of them arrived at that trailer, spent some time there, and eventually all but one of them decided to leave and look for help, but none of them made it

  8. Elena June 22, 2017 / 5:14 pm

    It is so strange that he died of hunger being surrounded by food. May be he fell victim of the same poisonous plant that killed Christopher McCandless (“Into the Wild”), something that prevented absorbtion of protein?

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 5:17 pm

      I don’t think so. If that was the case he would have still been eating all the food, just unable to absorb any of it. It was like he ate a little bit and then suddenly…stopped eating altogether.

    • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 5:21 pm

      Christopher McCandless, as far as I know, most likely died of starvation, he sustained himself nothing but berries in his last days. And in this case, these foods were stored in a lock, they may never think the possibility that there were food stored nearby but out of sight

      • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 5:23 pm

        Maybe. It just seems to me that after a few days, once they’d had time to assess the situation and hunger set in in earnest, they’d be opening everything that they could to see what was available. Yet they didn’t even have it in them to start a fire.

      • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 5:32 pm

        Other four people could have left the next day, they may think that they could find some residence in a short distance, but they got lost, and actually did not go very far before dying from exposure

  9. Elena June 22, 2017 / 8:09 pm

    After reading the WaPo article, I am puzzled by Joseph Shones’ behavior. He drives there alone to check the snow line, because he wants to bring his wife&daughter that weekend. Where exactly did he want to bring them? He has a heart attack and lies in the car for a few hours. Then he walks 8 miles (!!!) down to a lodge. After a heart attack, no small feat! He has a drink there (what, no food?), then continues up the road. On foot again? Where was he going up the road? Back to his car, so 8 miles up hill? (after a heart attack!!!!!!!) He passes “the boys” car on the way up to his car, but does he pass it on his way downhill? Or did it appear on the road after he visited the lodge? Does he bring anyone to help him push his car? Does he call a tow truck? Does he purchase gas for his car on the way from the lodge? How does he get back home to his wife&daughter?
    There well may be innocent answers to these questions, the article is just confusing. It is not particularly well written, and could use a bit of editing. In any case, we will never find the answers, because if Joseph Shones was 55 almost 40 years ago, he is probably not alive today.

    • marsyao June 22, 2017 / 9:39 pm

      And who would drive on a mountain road to check road condition that early? He said he arrived there at 5:30 am, then he must have left his home before 5 am!

      • Anon June 23, 2017 / 1:44 am

        What I took from the article was he went to the lodge, had a drink, then continued up the mountain to check out the snow line where he became stuck. He tried to dig the car out, had a mild heart attack, stayed in the car for a few hours, (seeing the group of people, etc. during this time) when the car ran out of gas he decided to walk back to the lodge he stopped at on his way up. I was a little confused at this point but I think the group of boys car was behind him a ways and he saw it when walking back to the lodge. I don’t think he walked back and forth between the lodge and his car. I also took it that Shones was up there at night (5 p.m.) not early morning. I’ll probably read through the article again to clarify these points.

      • Elena June 23, 2017 / 6:02 pm

        The article says that he arrived there at 5:30 PM.

    • Anon June 23, 2017 / 2:04 am

      As unbelievable as it may sound, many people suffer heart attacks without knowing it. They usually chalk it up to indigestion or something and go on with their day. They only find out later, even years later, when having an EKG for a surgical procedure or a visit to the ER for chest related problems that occur at a later time. I fathom Shones visited an ER after this incidence for exhaustion and/or exposure and his heart attack was discovered when routine tests were done.

      • Elena June 23, 2017 / 6:15 pm

        This is true, but the article quoted him saying that he had a heart attack, which prompted him to quit moving. “Shones said he lay in the car until it ran out of gas, and then while it was still dark he walked back eight miles to the lodge called Mountain House, where he had stopped for a drink before heading up the road. Just below his Volkswagen, in the place where he had heard the voices, he passed the Mercury Montego sitting empty in the middle of the road.” So, a few hours after he had to lie down, he finds strength to walk 8 miles to the lodge, then 8 miles (presumably UPHILL) back to his car. I wonder if he had a courtesy to use a phone at the lodge to call his wife who was undoubtedly sick with worry at this point. So, he has what amounts to be a mountain hike of 16 miles (!!!!!!!) right after he fell ill with a heart attack. Wow.
        The fact that later on it was determined that he did have a heart attack does not really mean much, because at 55 he could have had a heart attack or several at any point prior to the EKG. The EKG could not have pinpointed his location where he suffered an attack.
        So, he does not see the Mercury on his way down to the lodge, but does see it on his way up to his car. Interesting.
        Nothing about what he says makes any sense. I hope he was investigated by the dedicated detectives.

      • Anon June 24, 2017 / 1:23 am

        The article states he walked BACK DOWN to the lodge he had (past tense) a drink at BEFORE heading up to the snow line. He had a drink at the lodge, went up the mountain, got stuck then walked back down to the lodge he had stopped at prior and walked passed the boys vehicle on his way down which happened to be about 50 yards behind him. The article is clearly jumbled but I was able to see the order in which things occurred. My whole point in mentioning his heart attack was the disbelief you had in the fact that he was able to walk such a distance after suffering one. Obviously, as this article shows, people are able to walk 8 miles in freezing conditions after having one. And yes, a prior heart attack can show up on an EKG at any time but not pinpoint when, I was only trying to relay the fact that it can happen without a person even knowing. A heart monitor, EKG and tests such as a troponin, in conjunction with each other, will better pinpoint if a heart attack is happening in present time. It is my opinion Shones’ troponin level was elevated when he went to the hospital, (one of the routine tests I mentioned) as well as changes on a heart monitor AND the EKG. As a member of the medical field I’m pretty familiar with old and current MI’s and how they differentiate between the two.

  10. terromangerro June 22, 2017 / 10:54 pm

    I havent read through all of the comments to consider the many aspects of the case, but the first thing I thought of has to do with how the one man was in a cabin surrounded with things needed for survival and yet didn’t seem to utilize any of them. Twice in my life, was so sick that I couldn’t figure out the basic things (both times involved very high fevers). Once, I didn’t “know” how to use my phone so I just lie on the floor in and out of consciousness where I stayed for I think ten hours. I came to the next morning and didn’t have the strength to get up but I was able to knock on the wall where my apartment neighbor was able to hear me and got to me and took me to the hospital. If I’d suffered the same thing in a desolate cabin, I’m sure I would not have been able to take advantage of the survival basics even if they were three feet away. It doesn’t explain the unknown watch, but it is a viable explanation for why that man didn’t use the things available for his survival.

  11. terromangerro June 22, 2017 / 11:06 pm

    First off, I don’t think there was any foul play here. It is definitely odd that a car in good working order was ditched, so that part bothers me. Maybe there was some light foul play involved with that part? Maybe something happened on the road, like they were forced off by some jerk, and they feared a fight so they took off into the woods to hide and couldn’t get back to the car? Far fetched for sure. The part of leaving the car based on reports of the scene does bother me the most.

    As to the one who died in the cabin, he might have been so sick that he couldn’t utilize the food and fire items (see my comment above). But also, his state of mind and body might have both been at their absolute limits. I can’t imagine what it took for him to make it 20 miles in those conditions and his mental state may have been justifiably tenuous.

    He could have been getting close to death when he got to the cabin, and once inside he doesn’t find any means of communication (I recall the mention of matches and food in the cabin, but none of any communications means), and he thinks that even if he can survive a while longer, nobody will come to rescue him. After all, he’d gone twenty long freaking miles without seeing a soul other than maybe his friends. He could have lied down to rest, already gravely ill, and didn’t wake up.

    • Meaghan June 22, 2017 / 11:20 pm

      The only problem with your “already very sick from frostbite etc. and he just lay down and didn’t wake up” theory is the fact that Weiher had a couple of MONTHS’ growth of beard when he was located. They used the length of his facial hair to judge how long he survived in the trailer.

    • Elena June 23, 2017 / 6:05 pm

      He also lost 80-100 pounds, which cannot be done in a few days. They probably determined that by his dead weight, also by stretch marks and such. He had to be alive for a considerable amount of time to lose that much weight.

  12. Medea June 23, 2017 / 2:08 pm

    I don’t think it is really mysterious. Dyatlov Pass is a good comparaison, As a group, they probably freaked out and forgot everything they knew about survival because of an avalanche or something like that. They had food, warmth clothing, etc. and they all died. Or Christopher McCandless; he died very close to rescue. And god knows what his reasoning was to go there and stay there until he died. Maybe Gary Mathias and co were on some kind of survivalist thing like that. If you don’t know how to survive and\or panic, or wrongly assess your situation, it is very easy to die in the winter in wilderness. From outside, it is always easy to say they could have done this or that, but they just don’t.

    • R.A. August 12, 2017 / 2:52 am

      Sure, it’s not mysterious at all if you just ignore all the mysterious parts. Like Weiher surviving months before finally succumbing to the cold, having lost 100 lbs in body weight due to starvation, when there was enough food for a year nearby. Like Shone’s report of the whistling and the woman with a baby, or the flashlights outside his car that vanished when he called for help. Like the car that showed no sign of having been driven up the decaying mountain road where it was abandoned. Like five men abandoning a perfectly good car that wasn’t stuck and wasn’t out of gas to wander 20 miles through a frozen wilderness.

      You know. Aside from those things, not mysterious at all.

  13. fyrwokr August 30, 2017 / 3:47 pm

    The condition of Weiher’s body, the facial hair and the weight loss could simply be from freezing to death. Dehydration and freezing shrinks the body – meaning weight loss and the appearance of longer hair and nails.And some people obviously have faster beard growth – he may have been one of these. I really find it hard to believe he was alive as long as they claim in those kinds of temperatures. As to the rest – c-rations can freeze and with no fire or heat they would be hard to eat and digest. As to why they were there and did what they did. There is no reasonable explanation. For me the biggest question is why not walk back DOWN the road to the lodge.

  14. Huett September 9, 2017 / 12:42 am

    My husband’s brother was one of these boys, I have been in the Huett family for 20 years.. there are stories of a situation that happened where the boys were forced up the road. All the stories I’ve heard have all been close to the same from all members of the family. Forensics are much better now, I wish someone would look into this case and give closure to the remaining family members. I do believe there was some sort of foul play. I am always praying that even after all these years answers come out.. this has been a very hard and devastating trauma to the families involved. My husband was also involved with the search and was there when remains were found. He was 18. My father in law speaks of this often and my mother in law has been silent for years. For my loved ones who have been left without answers, I think it would be great if someone with current investigation experience could look into this… has anyone ever realise that shone said 5 people. One woman. Would mean 4 boys on the road, one could have already been missing before they made it to the snow?? Stories are one of the boys was beaten and thrown off a bridge. The other 4 ran due to town bully. It’s just stories… but why did this not air on unsolved mysteries… parents were afraid… afraid of who or what.. the guy who had states evidence was found dead with chlorine in a fluid he drank. A lot of stuff surrounding this that no one shows in these articles. And notice how it’s just left cold.. completely left… but someone knows.. and that someone is still out there.

    • Dan Standish September 9, 2017 / 2:47 pm

      Wow, that is a lot of info that hasn’t been heard before. Has any of this been presented to local LE ? Or have they been a hindrance ? Who was the guy that had states evidence ? How did they get to the Daniel Zink Campground – had they ever been there before. To walk that far in the winter, in deep snow. Why walk further into the mountains ? This needs fresh eyes with all the evidence as known and all of the “what if’s” and local rumour’s laid out

  15. Huett September 9, 2017 / 9:06 pm

    It is hard to know truths, but when multiple families are afraid to air unsolved mysteries episode due to possible backlash, should start putting up some question marks don’t you think. I know my mother in law wanted answers and my father in law was willing to sign the release, why would other families opt out but still want to know the truth. Because 5 families were involved, without consent from all, it wouldn’t air.. stories again of “town bully” and families afraid to come forward. The guy who just so happen to die ” suicide” I believe also had information he wanted to bring forward.. never happened.. I know Jackie would NOT have just gone along. He was very young mentally and was always home. My father in law said he told investigators to search those same areas for months. And they wouldn’t.. said weather was bad. But at first thaw hikers came along and we have bodies.. These boys were afraid of someone or something that happened that night after the game. Baby clothes in the car?. Woman seen by witness?… one of the boys had a sister I believe who broke up with a not so nice guy.. stories were told she would pay but her family would pay first..yes, I know it all sounds crazy.. almost movie material.. but honestly I been hearing these stories from friends and families for twenty years. Like I sad forensic are better now. Wish someone could ask the right questions. Also, where is all the news on this.. papers, articles? Books? Normally this kind of story don’t just get swept under the rug.. but it has, almost 40 years and nothing. It’s very odd wouldn’t you say.. it has bothered me for years.

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