On February 24, 1978, five individuals mysteriously vanished in Chico, California, while returning home from a college basketball game. Months later, four of the five missing men’s bodies were discovered frozen to death in a field near civilization, leaving the authorities bewildered as to why they didn’t seek assistance. These peculiar deaths have been dubbed the “American Dyatlov Pass Mystery” due to their resemblance to a strange incident that occurred in the Soviet Union in 1959.
In the aforementioned Soviet incident, nine ski hikers perished in the northern Ural Mountains. Although experienced in their field, they inexplicably ripped their way out of their tents and fled the campsite inappropriately dressed for sub-zero temperatures. Upon finding their bodies, authorities determined that six had succumbed to hypothermia, while the remaining three displayed signs of physical trauma. One victim had a fractured skull, while two others had significant chest fractures. Additionally, one team member’s body was missing its tongue and eyes. The investigation concluded that an “unknown compelling force” had led to their demise.
In contrast, the men who perished in California were not lost in the wilderness; they were merely 30 miles away from home. After leaving the basketball game at California State University in Chico, the five men—Ted Weiher, Jack Huett, William Sterling, Jack Madruga, and Gary Mathias, aged between 24 and 32—boarded a turquoise 1969 Mercury Montego and set off for Yuba City. They had a basketball game of their own the following morning and desired to return home and rest. Although all the men were in good physical condition, each had developmental disabilities and participated in a day program for mentally challenged adults. Gary suffered from schizophrenia and was taking medication to manage his symptoms, while Jack had a low IQ but hadn’t been diagnosed as mentally disabled. Both held driver’s licenses and were veterans of the United States Army.
Previously, Ted Weiher had been employed as a janitor and snack bar attendant but quit at his family’s urging due to concerns about his slow pace causing issues. Ted’s best friend, Jack Huett, relied on him for support and assistance with daily activities, such as making phone calls. Jack Madruga, a high school graduate and Army veteran, had been laid off from his job as a busboy for Sunsweet in November 1977. William Sterling, who was deeply religious, was his closest friend. Gary Mathias worked as an assistant at his stepfather’s gardening business. He had received a psychiatric discharge from the Army after encountering difficulties in Germany five years earlier. He often neglected to take his necessary medication and would occasionally experience disoriented psychosis, resulting in hospitalization at a Veterans Administration facility.
Before embarking on their journey, they stopped at a gas station to purchase snacks. The drive back home should have taken approximately 45 minutes, but they were never seen alive again. The next day, when they failed to return from Chico, their families grew worried and contacted the police. The county sheriff’s department initiated a search for the missing men shortly thereafter.
On Tuesday, February 28, a forest ranger discovered the abandoned Montego on an unpaved road near Oroville, which was two and a half hours away from Chico in the opposite direction they should have taken to reach home. No evidence of foul play was found at the car site. The car was unlocked, one of the windows was down, and it had a quarter tank of gas. Inside the car, candy wrappers, milk cartons, and basketball programs were scattered, while maps were left in the glove compartment. The vehicle showed no signs of damage and was not stuck in the snow—it was simply abandoned.
Despite five days of searching by forest rangers, no trace of the men was found. Unfortunately, a severe blizzard struck the area shortly after the search commenced, effectively covering any potential tracks. Approximately nine inches of snow accumulated on the upper mountain.
Finally, a breakthrough emerged in the case when a man named Joseph Schons came forward to inform the police that he had seen the men on the night they vanished. While driving up the gravel road to his cabin, Schons’ car became stuck in the snow. As he attempted to free his car, he noticed two sets of headlights approaching from behind—a car and a pickup truck. Schons stepped out of his vehicle to signal for help. The two vehicles stopped about 20 feet away from him, and their passengers departed together in the truck. Schons spent the rest of the night in his car before walking back down the mountain in the morning.
However, Schons’ account of the incident was rather perplexing and peculiar. According to his alternate version of events, he was inside his car when he heard whistling noises and observed what he believed to be a group of men, accompanied by a woman carrying a baby, walking in the illumination of another vehicle’s headlights. Schons called for assistance, and the lights suddenly switched off, accompanied by a cessation of the whistling sounds. A few hours later, he spotted flashlight beams outside his car and called for help once again, only for the lights to instantaneously extinguish. Schons remained in his car until it ran out of gas, at which point he walked eight miles to seek help, passing the Montego car on his way. He didn’t think much of what he had witnessed until he learned about the disappearances.
Despite this lead, it did not bring the authorities any closer to locating the missing men. Several months passed before any trace of them was discovered. In June 1978, a motorcyclist passing through the area noticed a broken window on a forest service trailer located 19 miles up the mountain from where the car was found. Inside the trailer, he discovered the body of Ted Weiher, prompting another search of the vicinity.
The day after Weiher’s body was found, searchers located the remains of Madruga and Sterling. They were positioned on opposite sides of the road to the trailer, approximately 11 miles from the abandoned car. Madruga had been partially consumed by animals, while Sterling’s remains were scattered within a wooded area spanning about 50 feet. Only bones remained of him.
Two days later, Jack Huett’s father found his son’s backbone and some items of his clothing along the same road, but much closer to the trailer. The following day, an assistant sheriff from Plumas County discovered a skull roughly 100 yards downhill from the rest of the bones, which the family dentist utilized to identify Jack’s remains.
Gary Mathias’s body was never located, only his tennis shoes, which were found inside the trailer. This suggested to investigators that he may have exchanged them for Weiher’s leather shoes, which were missing.
Despite the advanced state of decomposition of the bodies, autopsies determined that the cause of death was likely exposure to the elements. Ted Weiher’s extensive beard growth and severe weight loss indicated that he had survived for over two months after his disappearance. Several bed sheets were tightly draped over his body, resembling a shroud, suggesting that someone else had been present in the trailer with him at the time of his death.
However, the story takes another bizarre twist. Inside the trailer, authorities discovered heavy clothing, matches, playing cards,books, wooden furniture, and other materials that could have been utilized to start a fire and provide warmth against the freezing temperatures. Strangely, no fire had been ignited. There was also an untouched propane tank connected to the trailer, which could have supplied heat and fuel for cooking.
Furthermore, a storage shed nearby contained a year’s worth of c-rations, individual pre-cooked meals issued to the military, as well as a substantial supply of freeze-dried meals. Surprisingly, most of these rations remained untouched. Thirty-six of the meals had been consumed, but the majority were left uneaten.
John Thompson, a special agent from the California Department of Justice involved in the investigation, aptly described the situation as “bizarre” with no apparent explanations.
Mabel Madruga, Jack Madruga’s mother, expressed her belief to the press, saying, “There was some force that compelled them to go up there. They wouldn’t have scattered off into the woods like a flock of quail. We know, without a doubt, that someone made them do it. We can’t envision someone overpowering those five men, but we know it must have happened.”
To this day, the case remains unsolved, and Gary Mathias is still missing. Numerous questions linger, destined to remain unanswered. How did the men end up on the mountain when the direct route from Chico to Yuba City along Highway 70 through the Central Valley had no snow at that time of year? The journey should have taken less than an hour. Why did they venture in a different direction?
Furthermore, how did they reach the trailer, which was situated 19 miles away from the car? Considering that there was nothing wrong with the car and it hadn’t been trapped in the snow, why did they abandon it? Did someone escort them to the trailer, or did they embark on that lengthy journey in regular shoes without proper outdoor attire? Did they remain together, or did they separate following Ted’s demise?
Moreover, how did Ted succumb to starvation? Most of the rations found in the trailer were untouched, yet Ted suffered a slow and agonizing death due to lack of nourishment. Why didn’t he consume the available food? Could they have been abducted, with their captor preventing them from accessing the rations?
While all the men perished due to exposure, there was a source of heat in the trailer that remained untouched, along with matches and plenty of combustible materials for starting a fire.
The truth of what transpired that night in California—and during the subsequent months—will likely forever elude us. The tale of the “American Dyatlov Pass” will continue to captivate our imaginations and fuel speculation for decades to come.