Armchair Detective: The Elke Retreat Incident (Gary Dale Mathias & friends)

This one’s quite a story. Some tales end in mystery, and some become mysterious part-way through, but this one goes further, and more or less has nothing but mystery from the outset. We’ve just passed the fortieth anniversary of the tragedy that struck Gary Mathias and his four friends in a remote part of Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, and that seems to have stimulated writing online about it. Here are the best sources I can find. Both seem to draw heavily on this Washington Post article written around the time of the incident.

Five young men ranging from 24 to 32 in age, one (Mathias himself) a US Army veteran with schizophrenia, the others either formally diagnosed with learning disabilities or informally considered “slow”, set off one Friday to drive about fifty miles from their home town of Yuba City to Chico to watch a college basketball team play. The men were all themselves members of a basketball team for the handicapped, and were themselves looking forward to playing an important game on the Saturday.

They saw the college game, then bought snacks in a nearby shop. And that was the last place they were seen alive. On 28 February 1978 their car was found abandoned near Elke Retreat, on an unpaved road above the snow-line in the Sierra Nevada, a long drive from Chico and more or less opposite from the way they would have gone to get back from Yuba City. The search for the men had to be abandoned after a few days because of a blizzard, and in the end it was not until the snow had melted in June (good grief!) that four bodies were found.

One of the men, Ted Weiher, was found in a Forest Service trailer, nearly 20 miles further on from the abandoned car. He was wrapped in sheets, lying in a bed, and based on beard growth it was estimated that he might have lived up to 13 weeks after he was last seen. There was ample dehydrated food in a storage shed adjacent to the trailer, but most of it had not been eaten and, although the trailer had in it matches, items like books and furniture that could have been burned and even a heating system fed by a butane tank outside, no attempt seemed to have been made to heat it.

The bodies of two of the others were found near the road between the site of the trailer and the car, and that of a third a couple of miles to the north-east of it. “Bodies” here mostly means bones, really – they had been partly eaten by wild animals, too. As for Gary Mathias, he’s never been found, although his tennis shoes were in the trailer, suggesting he had at least been there.

Well, what do you make of that? There are obvious similarities with the Dyatlov Pass incident, but at least there we know why the group of hikers were where they were. Here, we can’t even be sure of that.

As an armchair detective, you don’t have any forensic evidence beyond what’s already public, so most of what you can do comes down to working out “assuming everyone here was acting like rational human beings, what’s the likely sequence of events?” There is a major wild card here though; everyone involved either had some kind of mental disability or a mental illness. At some point in any scenario, therefore, they may well have not been acting rationally (not that anyone acts rationally all the time anyway, especially not if lost, frightened and/or beginning to succumb to hypothermia).

There is an obvious temptation to read a sinister meaning into the absence of Gary Mathias’ body, but the bodies of people who go missing can sometimes simply be very difficult, even impossible, to find. In one recent case in England, a pensioner-cum-local celebrity  was missing for eight months before his body was found, and it was lying in woods near a busy shopping centre in Bristol, not in a remote wilderness. It isn’t something I would necessarily consider relevant.

As they say,”when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” If you find someone dead in a wilderness area, they might possibly have died for all kinds of reasons. They might have committed suicide, been murdered by another person, been attacked by wild animals, been abducted in a UFO and left for dead. However, the most likely reason for their death – for any death – is always going to be natural causes, whether aggravated by being out in the wilderness or not. The most likely reason these men died is therefore natural causes. Since none of them seem to have had a relevant medical condition, those natural causes probably arose from the circumstances they found themselves in – cold, exhaustion and hypothermia.

In fact, the autopsies of the three men found lying near the road concluded that they had died of hypothermia. You have to wonder how well that can be determined when what you have to go on is mostly bones, but at least that suggests that there were no obvious signs of violence to be found. Ted Weiher was found to have died from hypothermia and starvation.

Some of the relatives of the men, at least at the time, dropped dark hints that the deaths were not entirely natural – “There was some force that made ’em go up there,” said one mother. “They wouldn’t have fled off in the woods like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that someone made them do it.” However, all those comments really prove is that the relatives,  totally understandably, had been to hell and back over what happened and were angry and bitter by the time The Washington Post reporter, who seems to have been the one who got hold of the relevant quotes, came calling.

I just don’t believe that murder works this way. If you told me I had to kill five people, somehow rounding them all up or chasing them into a wilderness area late at night and stranding them all there to die would not be at the top of my list of ways to do it. Honestly, it’s more like the way villains in Bond movies try to kill James Bond – conveniently inefficient.

Apart from it being quite a risk to take on five men, even if you’re armed and they aren’t, you’re taking a risk that you might get caught en route, a risk that they might not lie down and die as expected, a risk that you might strand yourself out there with them if your own car breaks down…Murderers often bury their victims in remote places (notably, none of these men was buried); they don’t actually commit the murders out there that as often, and when they do, they usually make sure they kill the victims.

However, the relatives were on to something here. The single biggest mystery in this case is why these men were up in the mountains at all, since they had no obvious reason to be there. It has been suggested that Gary Mathias had friends in Forbestown, half-way between Chico and Yuba City, and if they had been planning on visiting them, the group might easily have missed the turn-off in the dark and ended up on the road into the mountains.

But if that was the case, the friends in question said they had not seen Mathias for a year, and he didn’t phone them before hand to check whether dropping in on them late at night with four friends was OK or phone home to warn his own relatives of a change in plans. Who acts like that? (Possibly a schizophrenic at the start of a psychotic episode, although at the time of the incident Mathias was on his meds, so far as we know, and his symptoms seemed under control).

When the case was discussed on the online forum Reddit, a lot of posters suggested that the obvious answer was that the men decided to go up into the mountains to take hallucinogens/get high and that this explains some of the disastrous decisions made that evening. I think that probably says more about some posters on Reddit than anything else. It is true Mathias did have drug problems before his mental illness was diagnosed, but no-one else involved seems to have such a history. And, after all, they were all looking forward to playing a basketball match the next day. Tripping balls the night before doesn’t sound like great preparation for that.

Again, the wild card is in play here; maybe it sounded like great preparation to this particular group. However, was it really necessary to go deep into the mountains in winter to drop acid? I can’t believe there weren’t quiet places nearer to Yuba City where the locals would go to take drugs out of sight of prying eyes. Places like that are like Lovers’ Lanes; every community has them.

Frustratingly, we may never know exactly why the group took the most crucial decision they made that evening. My best guess would be that somehow they took a wrong turn, although I have no idea why they were trying to turn off at all, or why they didn’t realise their mistake earlier (there were maps in the car when it was found). The next mystery is why they abandoned the car and set off to walk 20 miles in the wrong direction. When the police found the car, it was in snow, but not really stuck in it, at least not in such a way that five men couldn’t have pushed it free. The car keys were missing, but the car worked fine when hot-wired and there was still plenty of petrol in the tank.

Why didn’t Mathias and the others just turn around and drive back, or at least leave the car and try walking back? There was an inhabited lodge only 8 miles behind them. Interestingly, there was a witness to this stage of events, a man called Joseph Schons who, on the evening in question, was busily engaged sitting in his car about 150 feet having a mild heart attack. I’m really not making that up, and incidentally, a lot of the writing about the case I’ve read casually throws in “having a mild heart attack” like it ain’t no thing.

Whilst Schons’ condition may limit how reliable his testimony is, he mentions headlights and a car behind him, with a group of people standing around it, and later using flashlights. It sounds pretty much like the group around their car trying to make it move, even though he thought one of them was a woman with a baby (it was probably a man with long hair holding some stuff). He tried calling for help, but they ignored him and turned off their lights, head- and later flash-.

This reluctance to reveal themselves may be one piece of evidence in favour of the drug theory; or it may just show that, stuck in the snow (as far as they were concerned) getting cold and starting to panic, they simply weren’t thinking straight any more. Perhaps, once again, their various disabilities were also limiting their ability to cope with the demands of an extreme and stressful situation. It is also possible that at some point, presumably after they turned off the headlights, they lost the car keys in the snow and were unable to find them, which would be one reason, even if not a great one, for abandoning the car.

Schons basically ended up doing what Mathias and the others should probably have done – staying in his car until the petrol ran out and then, heart attack having abated a bit, walking back to the lodge. At some point, the Mathias group decided to cut and run,  probably heading in the (wrong) direction they did because there were snowcat tracks leading to the trailer, and perhaps, in their confused state, that looked like the easiest route to civilisation.

It was actually a route of 20 miles through several feet of snow and the likelihood is that either two or all three of those found dead in the open later died along the way when they simply couldn’t go any further. Mathias, Weiher and maybe one of the others, showing admirable determination given their totally inadequate clothing and footwear, made it to the trailer. By that stage, though, the frostbite to Weiher’s feet was so severe that he was pretty much disabled (they were gangrenous by the time he was found). The other(s) clearly spent some time finding food for him and trying to make him comfortable. Maybe they even rested and ate themselves.  Mathias probably changed his shoes for Weiher’s larger ones, since he also was probably suffering from swollen feet through frostbite.

It then seems most likely that after some time passed (it’s impossible to say how long) Mathias and the other mobile survivor, if there was one, left the trailer, perhaps hoping to rescue their friends, perhaps hoping to reach help. They died before they could achieve this. Weiher was then left to die slowly, unable to access the available food or heat the trailer because of his injuries, perhaps also because the group had been afraid of being arrested for theft if they used anything more in the trailer.

As I said, quite a story, even if a very sad one. Basically, five lives were lost needlessly through a series of bad decisions made by nice people, most of whom were just not capable of making difficult decisions in extraordinary situations. I think the ultimate lesson is – if you aren’t confident that you can make those sorts of decisions, don’t put yourself where you might face extraordinary situations. Unfortunately, you can’t always predict when those will occur, but you can at least have a good guess. Like up in the mountains in winter, for instance.

More specifically, this case is great supporting evidence for the maxim that in a survival situation, it’s often better to stay where you are than to try to get out, especially if where you are is with a vehicle. If the Mathias group had stayed in their car overnight, they would most likely all have survived; if those who got to the trailer had stayed there, at any rate if they had used its facilities properly, they would probably have survived too.

 

 

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