'Bizarre as Hell': The Disappearance of the Yuba County Five

iStock
iStock

Joe Shones was having a heart attack. The 55-year-old Californian had felt fine just a few minutes previously, navigating his Volkswagen on a desolate mountain road near Rogers Cow Camp in the Plumas National Forest to see if weather conditions were good enough to bring his family along for a weekend excursion the following day. But as he drove further into the night, snowdrifts slowed his tires. When he got out to push his car, the exertion brought on a searing pain in his chest. It was February 24, 1978, and Shones was miles from help.

As he sat in his car wondering what to do, he noticed two sets of headlights, one belonging to a pickup truck. Hoping he could flag down the passerby, he exited his vehicle and began screaming for help. He would later say he saw a group of men, one woman, and a baby. They continues walking, ignoring him. Hours later, back inside his car, he saw what he thought were flashlights. When he went back outside to yell into the darkness, no one responded to the sound of his voice.

Hours into his ordeal and with his car still stuck and now out of gas, Shones felt well enough to begin walking down the mountain road and toward a lodge roughly eight miles away. He passed a 1969 Mercury Montego, but the vehicle had no occupants. Perhaps, Shones thought, it belonged to the group he had seen earlier.

At the time, Shones was preoccupied with his own emergency. But authorities would later realize the biggest story to emerge from that dark, desolate road wasn't his brush with death. It was the fact that Shones had likely wound up being the last person to see Ted Weiher, Gary Mathias, Jack Madruga, Jack Huett, and Bill Sterling alive.

FIVE BELOVED "BOYS"

How these five men came to be on an inhospitable mountain road more than 50 miles from their homes in and around Marysville and Yuba City, California, was just one of the mysteries surrounding their disappearance. None of them was known to have any business on that part of the mountain. All five had intellectual disabilities or psychiatric issues to various degrees; all of them lived with family, who kept a close eye on them. They were often lovingly referred to as “boys,” despite being from 24 to 32 years of age. An impromptu road trip was definitely out of character.

If authorities couldn’t make any sense of how the group's day had ended on February 24, they at least had some idea of how it began. Madruga, who owned the Mercury, drove his four friends to a collegiate basketball game at the California State University, Chico. All were fervent basketball fans, and even had a game of their own scheduled for the following day, playing on a team representing the rehabilitation center they all frequented.

At 32, Weiher was the oldest, a former janitor who was closest to the youngest of the group, 24-year-old Huett. Sterling and Madruga, an Army veteran, were another set of best friends. Mathias had been in the Army, too, but was discharged because of psychiatric problems. He was schizophrenic, a condition controlled by medication he hadn’t bothered to bring along. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be home in time for his next dose.

The game ended around 10 p.m. The “boys” stopped at a convenience store for junk food: Hostess pies, soda, candy bars. All five piled back into the Mercury and took off. But instead of driving south toward their homes roughly 50 miles away, they inexplicably drove east. And they traveled for a very long time. When Shones spotted their abandoned Mercury, the car had been driven roughly 70 miles away from the Chico basketball game.

A 1969 Mercury Montego is parked on grass
A 1969 Mercury Montego similar to the one driven by Jack Madruga.
Sicnag, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the early morning hours of February 25, Shones made it to the lodge and was able to get medical treatment. There was no reason to mention having seen the Mercury until newspapers began to blare out notices about the five men who had gone missing that Friday. When Weiher and Sterling didn’t come home, their mothers began calling the parents of the others, and soon the police were involved.

On Tuesday, February 28, authorities found the Mercury on the same mountain road where Shones had last seen it, and where a park ranger had reported its location after hearing the missing persons bulletin. The junk food had been consumed, save for one half of a candy bar. The keys to the vehicle were gone. It had enough gas to continue on, but a snowbank had likely caused its tires to spin out. Madruga and the four other able-bodied men should have been able to dislodge it without a lot of difficulty. Instead, it looked abandoned. Around them, police saw nothing but rugged, dense forest, hardly an appealing option for the lightly dressed young men.

“This case is bizarre as hell,” Yuba County undersheriff Jack Beecham told reporters.

Organizing a search party in the midst of winter was no easy task, especially when it meant combing through rough terrain filled with rocky surfaces, wooded paths, and snow-covered slopes. Helicopters surveyed the area from above. On the ground, officers tried to use horses to get around on the rocky roads. They entertained a number of eyewitness sightings of the men, including one where they were driving the pickup Shones had mentioned, but none seemed plausible. Their families raised a $2600 reward for information, petitioned psychics, and waited by their phones, but heard nothing. Not until the thaw came.

THE BODY IN THE TRAILER

In June of that year, a small group of weekend motorcyclists came across an abandoned forest service trailer on a campground site. Curious, they went inside. They found a body tucked into a bed, draped in sheets from head to toe. When authorities lifted the veil, they found Weiher, his shoes missing and his feet badly frostbitten. The trailer was over 19 miles from the Mercury.

Soon, police found two other corpses—those of Sterling and Madruga—4.5 miles away from Weiher's remains. Police believed their bodies had simply given up before they found shelter while Weiher and others marched on. Madruga had held on to the keys to the car.

Huett’s bones were found not long after. There was no sign of Mathias, aside from his tennis shoes, which had been left in the trailer. Almost certainly, he had taken Weiher’s leather shoes, though police had no real idea why.

If police and the families of the men were expecting closure from the discovery of their bodies, they weren’t about to get it. What puzzled them most was how Weiher was found emaciated, despite the fact that the trailer been stocked with plenty of canned and dried food and a can opener. From his beard growth, they knew Weiher had been living there anywhere between eight and 13 weeks. Yet only about 12 cans had been opened, and he had not bothered to turn on the propane tank, which would have provided heat for the entire trailer. Several paperback books—perfect for fires—were also left untouched. No one had even bothered to cover the broken window they had smashed in to get inside.

Tire tracks appear on a snow-covered road
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Talking to Shones proved even more frustrating. It was reasonable enough that he had seen the men strike out from a car they believed to be stuck, but who was the woman and the child? Shones would admit he was very ill at the time of the sighting and could have hallucinated some of the details, but that didn’t explain why the men bothered to abandon the car at all, or why they didn’t acknowledge Shones’s cries for help—unless he had somehow imagined the whole thing.

"TRICKED OR THREATENED"

“Why” was a common question for investigators and the relatives of the men, but no answers were forthcoming. Why did the men turn east in the first place? Why didn’t they attempt to move the car once it got stuck, instead of walking to nowhere in the middle of the night? Was it by chance they came across the trailer, or did someone lead them there? Why not start a fire for warmth? If Mathias went for help, where was his body?

Authorities would later discover that a Snowcat vehicle had pushed snow aside to cut a path toward the trailer on February 23, which may have given the men some hope they were in an area where Forest Service employees might soon return. There was also the theory that Mathias convinced the group to head toward Forbestown, an area between Chico and the mountain road, so he could visit a friend who lived there. It was possible that Madruga had missed the turn-off and gotten lost, driving deeper into darkness until the snow ground the Mercury to a halt. The men, panicking, may have believed their car was stuck and that they needed to get help.

A year after their disappearance, police were no closer to solving the mystery. Mathias's body has never turned up. There was never any accounting for their strange decision to turn toward unfamiliar territory. Weiher seemingly walked nearly 20 miles to the trailer in frigid conditions, despite having left his coat at home. None of the men thought to walk downhill, from where they came, and instead faced the treacherous and unfamiliar path ahead.

Police never ruled out foul play, nor did the families. Melba Madruga, Jack's mother, told The Washington Post that she believed "some force" had led the group astray. "We know good and well somebody made them do it," she said. To the Los Angeles Times, she said it was impossible for her to believe Madruga would ever drive his car, which he prized, into an area where it might be damaged. He had even left a window rolled down, something he would never normally do. "I'm positive he never went up there on his own," she told the paper. "He was either tricked or threatened."

Ted Weiher's sister-in-law has theorized that the men may have seen something take place at the basketball game that prompted someone to chase them. Police were never able to establish evidence for pursuit, but no one could shake the idea that the men seemed to be determined to move forward. Why do that unless something more frightening was right behind them?

"Bizarre as hell" was Beecham’s summary. To date, there hasn’t been any evidence to contradict him.

A ‘Valentine Phantom’ Has Been Covering Portland, Maine, in Paper Hearts for More Than 40 Years

Corey Templeton, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Corey Templeton, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Portland, Maine, has a secret admirer. Each Valentine's Day, flyers and banners with pink and red hearts appear in random spots around the city. According to Bangor Daily News, no one has claimed responsibility for the anonymous valentines in 41 years.

The first evidence of the so-called "Valentine Phantom" (who is sometimes referred to as the "Valentine Bandit") surfaced in Portland in 1976. Paper hearts were found plastering the streets on the holiday, with no clues indicating where they came from. The mystery only grew as the hearts returned every year on February 14. There's no pattern dictating where the hearts are placed; they've been found on everything from snowbanks to landmarks. Massive banners have also been hung up in prominent places. In the past decade, giant hearts have emblazoned the Portland Public Library and the ruins of Fort Gorges in Casco Bay.

In 2017, Bangor Daily News landed an exclusive interview with the Valentine Phantom. The mysterious force is actually a crew of Valentine's Day-lovers with connections to various sites and buildings around the city. The perpetrators declined to share their identities, telling the outlet, “Most people are dying to be in the paper. This is the opposite. This is not ego-driven.”

The Phantom has done more than spread good feelings to fellow Portlanders on Valentine's Day; they've sparked a nationwide trend. Similar anonymous heart flyers have appeared in Montpelier, Vermont, and Boulder, Colorado.

[h/t Bangor Daily News]

The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

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