'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 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.

iStock

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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Cleveland Torso Murderer: The Scariest Serial Killer You've Never Heard Of

Kutsuks/iStock via Getty Images
Kutsuks/iStock via Getty Images

Even in the throes of the Great Depression, there was a lot going on in Cleveland in 1936. Then the sixth-biggest city in the United States, Cleveland had sold itself as the “city of conventions,” welcoming travelers to downtown through its new union train station, with a variety of fancy hotels nearby and a state-of-the-art public auditorium.

For the second time in a dozen years, the city hosted the Republican National Convention, but the big event in Ohio that summer—and the summer after—was the Great Lakes Exposition, celebrating Cleveland’s centennial. The fair, which spread across 135 acres through downtown Cleveland and on the Lake Erie shore, touted local businesses like Higbee’s Department Store, Standard Oil (John D. Rockefeller had founded the company in 1870 in Cleveland), and General Electric, which was showing off its new fluorescent lights. It also spotlighted the handiwork of a serial killer who had been plying his trade for nearly a year.

Killer Attraction

On June 5, 1936, two boys who had cut school to go fishing found a rumpled pair of pants under a tree on the city’s east side. Tied up in the pants was a man’s severed head. The nude, exsanguinated body was found by nearby railroad tracks soon after. The cause of death was decapitation. It was the fourth dismembered body to show up in less than a year, and Cleveland police realized they had a serial killer on their hands.

A morgue photograph of the "tattooed man" from 1936.Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

A plaster cast of the man’s face and a diagram showing all the tattoos on his body were displayed at the Great Lakes Exposition. More than 11 million people attended the exposition in the two summers it was open, but none could identify “the tattooed man,” one of at least a dozen “torso murders” that plagued northern Ohio—and possibly beyond.

The killer became known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, since most of the bodies were found in that area, described by Cleveland News reporter Frank Otwell as “an unwholesome, crooked gash that meanders carelessly through Cleveland’s lower east side.” The crime bedeviled investigators, including Eliot Ness, one of the era’s most celebrated lawmen.

More than 1500 people were questioned in connection with the murders. A shantytown was burned. Ness’s career ended up ruined. And the case remains officially unsolved to this day.

Untouchable Indeed

When Eliot Ness arrived in Cleveland in 1934, he was known as one of the treasury agents who helped enforce Prohibition laws and did battle with gangsters in Chicago, including Al Capone. Because of his “untouchable” reputation, Ness was named public safety director for the city the following year. His mission was to professionalize and revitalize a police department that had become a corrupt, lazy unit of political patronage.

"Untouchable" lawman Eliot Ness.Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

By the time Ness took office, the Mad Butcher had already claimed four victims. The first two were found in September 1935, both decapitated, exsanguinated, and washed; their genitals had been cut off as well. One was never identified. The other was Edward Andrassy. A year earlier, the lower half of a woman’s torso, down to the knees, had washed ashore east of Cleveland. “The Lady of the Lake” was later determined to be the Mad Butcher’s first victim.

Body parts continued to pile up. Lead police investigator Peter Merylo noted similarities between the Torso Murders and other dismemberment killings in western Pennsylvania, theorizing that the killer might be hopping trains and hiding bodies in boxcars (Kingsbury Run and the city of Cleveland had plenty of railroad tracks). Cuyahoga County coroner Dr. Samuel Gerber said the precision with which the bodies had been dismembered led him to believe the killer could have had some medical training.

Ultimately, Ness was drawn to Francis Sweeney, a doctor from a prominent Cleveland family (his first cousin, Martin Sweeney, was a congressman). Residents were terrified, and public pressure began to mount on Ness, who ultimately holed Sweeney up in a downtown hotel and questioned him for weeks, including with a polygraph. Ness felt Sweeney was the murderer, but could never bring it to trial. For years afterward, Ness would receive taunting postcards from Sweeney.

"Rest Easy Now"

The killer was known as the Mad Butcher, but the killings themselves drove Ness mad. Two more bodies—officially, the 11th and 12th victims—were discovered on August 16, 1938, in a spot on the lakefront that could be seen from Ness’s office. Two days later, Cleveland police swept through Kingsbury Run making dozens of arrests and burning down the shantytowns. Ness was excoriated for his actions—but the murders stopped.

Snake Oil Magazine via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In late 1938, the Cleveland police received a letter purportedly from the killer. “You can rest easy now,” it read. “I have come out to sunny California for the winter.” The killer claimed to have killed someone and buried their body on Century Boulevard between Crenshaw and Western in Los Angeles. No body was ever found.

Ultimately, the only person ever arrested for the Torso Murders was Frank Dolezal, a bricklayer who had lived with Flo Polillo, the third victim, and knew Andrassy and Rose Wallace, the only other victims who were ever identified. Dolezal confessed to killing Polillo, but later recanted. He died in custody, officially a suicide, but his death remains suspicious.

In 1947—the same year Ness unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Cleveland—a woman, later identified as Elizabeth Short, was found murdered in Leimert Park in Los Angeles. Short was cut in half, her intestines were removed, and she was drained of her blood—all similar hallmarks to the Torso Murders. She became known as the Black Dahlia, and her murder has one more thing in common with the Torso Murders: It remains unsolved.

Ness died at 54 in 1957, broke and broken; the man who was once the nation’s top Prohibition agent now had a serious drinking problem of his own. Six months after his death, his memoir, The Untouchables, was published and became the basis for a television show a year later. Ness has remained a pop culture icon ever since. Forty years after his death, Ness was given a funeral with full police honors in Cleveland, and his ashes were scattered at Lake View Cemetery on the city’s east side—not far from Kingsbury Run, where the Mad Butcher left a trail of body parts.