Awesome two-part series on Gary Mathias and his four missing friends

Two years ago I blogged about the 1978 disappearance of Gary Dale Mathis and the mysterious deaths of his four friends, who went missing with him from Oroville in Yuba County, California. The comments on that entry are, I think, well worth a read.

I’m happy to announce that the Sacramento Bee has done a really good two-parter on the case.

Part one is titled: Out in the Cold: Four mentally disabled men died in woods. But what happened to the fifth? Part two is Were 4 mentally disabled men set up to die in the California woods?

The articles provide a lot more background information than I had had previously, regarding the disabilities all the men dealt with, and Mathias’s criminal history.

Most people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia are not dangerous to anyone but themselves, but Mathias was a violent man with a history of attacks on both men and women. This probably had more to do with his drug abuse problem than his mental illness. It’s not clear to me whether Mathis was ever violent when he WASN’T under the influence of some illicit drug or other. But both mental illness and violence ran in his family.

The articles posit the theory, put forth by the families of the dead men and by others, that Mathias was in some way responsible for the situation that lead to their deaths. Certainly that’s possible.

Honestly, I don’t think anyone is ever going to find out what happened, and I don’t see any reason to believe Mathias is still alive. But it is an intriguing mystery.

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.