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The American Dyatlov Incident: Bizarre Unsolved Deaths and Vanishings in the Wilderness

Some mysteries and unsolved crimes seem destined to remain buried out in the wilderness, all potential witnesses gone, their myriad clues floating out among the trees that whisper amongst themselves of the things we can not see. Such unexplained crimes are often infused with bizarre clues that no one can figure out and no one can shed any light on, seemingly doomed to remain specters, crawling about the wilderness to taunt us in some sort of twisted afterlife. One such case that has defied understanding for decades and seems forever banished to the limbo of uncertainty and cold cases is that case of a group of friends who went out to see a basketball game and ended up dead and vanished in a cold, unforgiving wilderness, surrounded by enigmatic clues and unsolved to this day.

The whole bizarre story starts quite innocuously enough, as some of the most mysterious cases often do, with a group of friends simply headed out for a good time, unaware of what awaits them. Gary Dale Mathias, Jack Madruga, Jackie Huett, Theodore (Ted) Weiher and William Sterling were five good friends between 24 and 32 years of age from Yuba City, California, who all shared an intense interest in sports, especially basketball, and on February 24, 1978, they all piled into Madruga’s turquoise and white 1969 Mercury Montego to go see a college basketball game played at California State University, Chico, about 50 miles north of Yuba. They were a rather motley crew, with all of them having some mental disability ranging from severe to minor, and indeed they knew each other from a day program for mentally handicapped adults, but they were all functional in society and especially Madruga was considered just a bit slow and Mathias just had schizophrenia, which he took regular medication for. Indeed Mathias and Madruga had both served in the military and could drive, so there was no particular reason to think anything would go wrong, and no one would have suspected at the time that they would drive off in that car and into the annals of great unsolved mysteries all the same.

The men did make it to the game, which ended at 10 PM that evening, and went to a nearby gas station to buy some snack food before getting on the highway home, this much we know. However, they did not return, and when they missed a basketball game of their own that they were scheduled to play in the following day for their local team “The Gateway Gators,” their families became concerned. The county sheriff’s department began a search of the route the missing men had taken, expecting that they had just decided to stay an extra day or had simply gotten lost or delayed, but no sign of the men or their vehicle was found.

The five missing men

It would not be until three days later, on February 28, when a park ranger totally unrelated to the official search called in to say he had found the missing vehicle on a remote, winding dirt road up in the mountains of Plumas National Forest, contacting the proper authorities after reading the missing persons bulletin. It was quite odd because that road was nowhere near the route they should have been taking home, nowhere near anything really, and considering that they had not been dressed for the cold it seemed odd that they should to have wanted to go there into the snowy wilderness in the first place. When authorities arrived they found that it was even odder still. The car was unlocked, missing its keys, with one window wide open to the chilled wind, and was stuck in the snow, but it was deemed that the five men would have been easily able to push it out, and it was in perfectly good working order and undamaged. Within the car were the discarded wrappers of the junk food that they had bought at the gas station and some maps of California but of the men themselves there was not a trace.

No one in the men’s families could figure out why in the world they had taken that bizarre detour up into the mountains at all. None of the missing had been familiar with the area to their knowledge, and the missing men themselves had made no mention at all of going there, saying that they were just going to watch the game and come home. They were indeed looking forward to their own big game the next day and had wanted to get back as early as possible to sleep up for it, so why would they go driving up into the middle of nowhere on an isolated, treacherous road in the mountains? Also baffling was why they had left the car there in the first place, as it was such a remote, little-traveled area, that was additionally snowed over, and they had been in totally inadequate clothing for the conditions, wearing just light jackets. Why leave a perfectly good car to go off traipsing around in the frigid, forbidding wilderness at night like that? It didn’t make sense. Unfortunately, weather conditions and further heavy snow presented a hurdle to investigation at the time, but this was only the beginning of the weirdness to come.

As the authorities waited for the snow to die down and melt out there were in the meantime some strange leads that emerged. Police received a call from a man calling himself Joseph Schons, who claimed that at around the time of the disappearances he had been stuck in the snow while driving up to a ski cabin he owned in the area. He had tried to push the car out of the snowdrift but he had been alone, and making things worse was that he suddenly had felt the onset of a heart attack, forcing him to merely sit in his car in pain and wait for help. As he had sat there alone on this rugged wilderness road surrounded by a sea of trees and not much else, wondering whether he was dying or not, he said that two cars, one which looked like a pickup truck, had stopped behind him, after which a group of people had gotten out and walked around with flashlights, which they turned off when they heard his pleas for help, before getting into one car and driving off. Bizarrely, he claimed that one of the people appeared to be a woman holding a baby. When the man had finally gotten back to a nearby lodge and his car was towed, Schons claimed it was practically right next to where the Montego had been. It is totally unknown what connection, if any, Schons’ sighting has or what it means, and just serves as another odd clue among many others.

Another intriguing lead came in from a store clerk at the small town of Brownsville, about 30 miles away from the abandoned car, who said that four of the men, who she recognized from police flyers, had stopped by her store in a red pickup truck two days after they had officially gone missing. She said that Huett and Sterling had then used a phone booth before the whole group drove off. The store owner also corroborated this account, saying that two of the men had come into the store and bought burritos and soft drinks, and that they hadn’t thought much of it until they saw the missing persons posters being liberally distributed. This sighting was treated as highly credible, although it was unknown why the men would have been in a red pickup truck while their real car lay abandoned up on that mountain pass. There were various other sightings made of the men all over the area, but the police did not think they were very credible and they turned up no useful leads. There were no solid clues to propel the case, any possible evidence was out there buried in the snow, and all they could do at this point was to wait until the Spring thaw and hope for the best. However, the coming of the thaw would only bring more mysteries still.

By June the area’s high altitude snow had mostly melted away, and it was on the 4th of that month that some motorcyclists were driving through the area when they came across a macabre discovery in an uninhabited ranger’s trailer cabin located just about 19 miles though rough, snowy terrain from the abandoned car. There within the frigid unheated interior was found the body of Ted Weiher, which would prove to have a range of odd clues orbiting it. For one, the corpse was fully clothed except for missing the shoes, which were nowhere to be found, as well as a makeshift shroud of all things ensconcing it, composed of eight sheets which had been tucked around him in a way that he could not have done himself, although whether it had been done before or after he died is unclear. The body was partially frostbitten, which was odd considering there were found to be plenty of matches and flammable material in the cabin, as well as even a fireplace, yet no attempt had been made to start a fire for warmth. There was even a nearby propane tank which no one had made any attempt to use, even though it was directly attached to the cabin, designed for that purpose, and all they would have had to do was turn it on. On the table next to the body was a watch that no one in the family would recognize, and which was missing its crystal.

Plumas National Forest

Interestingly, the dead man had 3 months’ worth of beard growth, suggesting that he had been alive at that cabin for some time, but even more bizarre still was the official cause of death, which was found to be starvation. Indeed, Weiher was discovered to have lost around one hundred pounds before succumbing, despite the fact that he had been literally surrounded by food. Scattered all around the cabin were numerous cans of military C-rations that had been opened, some only half eaten, and there was a locker fully stocked with a full year’s worth of untouched cans of food and freeze-dried rations, so how had he possibly managed to starve to death?

The following day the bodies of Madruga and Sterling were found lying around 8 miles away, with Madruga’s corpse partially eaten by scavengers and oddly in a position of having his hand clasped on his watch, and Sterlings’s body nothing more than a skeleton. Two days later the bones and skull of Huett would be found strewn about the wilderness around the trailer. It was thought by coroners that these men had likely died of hypothermia. The one body that could not be located despite an intensive combing of the area was that of Mathias, although his tennis shoes were found in the trailer.

What happened to these men? Why had they gone up into the mountains and then abandoned their perfectly good car? How had they made their way 19 miles on foot through a blizzard with inadequate clothing to get to that cabin and what had happened when they got there? It is unclear if all of them even made it to the cabin at all, except for Mathias, as his shoes were found there. Why was no heat used and what happened to Weiher? How could he waste away and starve to death with so much food just lying around? Who wrapped him in those sheets and why? Was he wrapped in that shroud before or after he died? Where did his shoes go? Why was he there for so long? Does any of this tie in any way to the sightings made of the men after their disappearance and if so, how? With all of these disparate, odd clues and questions it is hard to know exactly what happened or why, but boy have there been theories, ranging from the sensible to the more far-out.

The main idea as to why they ended up in that area to begin with is mostly written off as that they had simply been lost and taken a wrong turn, although this is a tad strange because they did have maps of the region and there is the fact that the road the car was found on is so far removed from the route they had been taking that they couldn’t have even turned onto it by accident. Another idea is that they had been on their way to visit a friend in the area on the way home and then gotten lost, but why didn’t they just backtrack? One more sinister idea as to why they had taken this detour is that they may have been lured there by another nefarious party for inscrutable reasons, perhaps someone they had met at the game, although there is no evidence at all of this mysterious theoretical individual, and a family member has rather cryptically said of this:

There was some force that made em go up there. They wouldn’t have fled off in the wood like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that somebody made them do it. We can’t visualize someone getting the upper hand on those five men, but we know it must have been. They seen something at that game, at the parking lot. They might have seen it and didn’t even realize they seen it.

What was “it?” Was it perhaps the people in the truck seen by Schon? Something else? Why would they lead these men out into the middle of nowhere? No one knows. Why they should get out of their car to go trudging out into the wilderness is also hard to explain, especially considering that they had passed a functioning ski lodge on the way in just down the road in the direction from which they’d come. Perhaps they panicked or thought that help was nearby? Maybe they had somehow lost the car keys in the snow and went to look for them, getting lost in the process? Who knows? In the end at least Mathias and Weiher were able to reach that trailer cabin, only what happened from there is a puzzle in and of itself.

It is thought that they had gathered here, or at least Mathias and Weiher had, and perhaps decided to try and tough it out until the Spring thaw. Weiher, who had been suffering from severe frostbite, especially on his feet, had possibly been tended to, hence the wrapping him in blankets, or had died and was wrapped out of respect. They may have then decided that they couldn’t wait anymore and braved the wilderness once more. Mathias may have then used Weiher’s more robust leather shoes to go out looking for help with the others while leaving his own behind, with each of the victims succumbing to the elements in the process. Weiher, alone and in pain, may have not been able to get to the food or been unable to open the cans, as the ones responsible for opening them was likely the two who had had Army training. With his friends gone and lacking the means to feed himself, he had then starved to death. This seems reasonable, but then why had they left him alone, and why had they not once ever tried to heat the cabin? What about the uneaten food? Was it perhaps the stress of the situation aggravating their mental disabilities and diminishing their ability to think rationally? Did Huett and Sterling die after leaving the cabin or on their way in? We’ll probably never know.

One theory that is a bit more ominous revolves around the missing member, Mathias, who has never been found. The idea is that since he would have run out of medication he might have suffered a schizophrenic episode and done something to contribute to the deaths of the others, although how this would have played out is hard to figure out. He could have then decided to escape and gone off somewhere to start a new life. Conversely, he may have intentionally run off in order not to pose a danger to the rest of the group, likely dying somewhere out in the wilds and his remains swallowed by the forest to never be found. It is a rather intriguing and spooky take that puts a sinister spin on things, unfortunately there is very little evidence to show this is what happened, and like all of the other theories it fails to explain all of the extraordinarily odd details of this very unusual case.

In the end, although theories buzz about the case and it has been discussed and debated to this day, no one really knows what happened out in those woods that winter in 1978. The incident has never been satisfactorily solved or the pieces of the puzzle fully fit together, and Mathis has never been found. It has become such a bizarre and murky case infused with so many strange clues and perplexing details that it is often compared to the mysterious deaths of 9 ski hikers in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union in 1959, equally pervaded by baffling, unexplainable clues and often called the Dyatlov Pass incident. Indeed the case of the deaths of these 5 men in California are often referred to as “The American Dyatlov,” and the case has become nearly legendary. What happened to these five men? What brought them out there and why did they do what they did? It seems the only one who would know the true answer were the men themselves, maybe the trees, and that the secret died out in that cold wilderness along with them.