The California couple, their 1-year-old daughter, and family dog, that were found dead on a hiking trail in the picturesque Sierra National Forest, died of hyperthermia and possible dehydration, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office announced at a Press conferencen Thursday
Three-digit temperatures reached almost 110 degrees that day. The lack of shade, water, and the lack thereof were the causes of the deaths of John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, Aurelia, and Aurelia. “Miju,” along with the family’s dog, Oksi, an 8-year-old Aussie-Akita mix, Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said.
On Aug. 17, the family’s remains were found about 1.6 miles from their vehicle. The trail they were hiking was steep and temperatures were warmer than hikers would likely expect unless they were familiar with it, the sheriff said. Temperatures had ranged from 107 to 109 degrees on the afternoon they had been hiking. He said that the family did not have a cellphone to call for assistance.
During the press briefing, Briese gave a detailed timeline of the events and showed a map and a short video of the trail area, specifically the Savage Lundy portion, of the current terrain.
“Jonathan, his wife, Ellen, their 1-year-old daughter, Miju, who was riding in a backpack-style child carrier, and the family dog Oski, left on foot from the Hites Cove Road / Trailhead. The family walked 2.2 miles down Hites Cove Road/Trail to the US Forest Service Trail 20E01.4, the elevation at the trail intersection is approximately 1,930 feet and the approximate temperatures were between 92-99 degrees,”Briese spoke.
He said the section of the Savage Lundy trail is a south/southeast facing slope that gets constant sunlight and gets very little shade due to the Ferguson Fire of 2018. Between the hours of 12:50 p.m. – 2:50 p.m, the temperatures ranged between 107-109 degrees and cooled slightly to 105 degrees from 4:50 p.m. to 8:50 p.m.
When search teams found the family around 9:30 a.m., their 85-ounce CamelBak water bladder they had been carrying was empty and there had been no other water containers or water filtration systems located on them, officials said.
“Heat-related deaths are extremely difficult to investigate,”Briese described their deaths as “horrible,” “unfortunate.”
“It is rare. This is the first hyperthermia-type death as long as I have worked here for 20 years. We don’t see them all the time, but there are desert areas in California where these types of tragedies happen,”He said.
During the two-month investigation, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department partnered with more than 30 local, state and federal agencies. A preliminary autopsy revealed that there had been no signs of trauma or foul play, and the family’s toxicology results had come back with negative results, the sheriff said.
Six separate laboratories assisted in testing water samples taken from several locations along the South Fork of the Merced River, and they tested positive for Anatoxin A, according to Briese.
“We do not have any evidence indicating that Jonathan, Ellen or Miju ingested any of that water. We also know that there has been no recorded death in humans connected with Anatoxin A; we do know that can be deadly to animals,”Briese spoke.
During the investigation, hazmat teams were on site after officials from Sierra National Forest (SNF) had posted signs warning of toxic algae present in the area. The U.S. Forest Service shut down trails and recreation areas near the bodies of the family days after they were reported missing.
Investigators also checked nearby mine shafts. The sheriff confirmed that the family did not go into the site.
“From the beginning, the Gerrish and Chung families have been our top priority,”The sheriff replied. “We are confident in our findings and our investigation supports the findings from the Pathologist / Coroner’s office and assisting agencies.”
When the story first broke in August, the case had perplexed authorities, who described it as “nothing the agency has seen before.”
“It is not every day you come across a scene of an entire family and their dog that are seemingly healthy,” Mariposa County spokesperson Kristie Mitchell said.
Mitchell told Inside Edition Digital that the family had moved to the Mariposa area from the San Francisco area within the last 16 months and did not live far from the trailhead. They were both avid hikers and hiked many trails in that area, which is known for its stunning wildflowers in the spring.
She explained the area where the Gerrish-Chung family ventured was a fairly popular hiking area, weather permitting.
“This time of year there aren’t as many hikers because it’s hot, a little rugged, and being part of the Ferguson Fire Footprint there isn’t much shade,” she said.
A family friend told KPGE that Gerrish was from the United Kingdom and Chung was from San Francisco. She said the couple owned multiple rental properties in Mariposa County and were described as “genuine people.”
Chung often shared images of her travels, her family, and their dog on Instagram.
In January, the proud mother shared a photo of Gerrish and their baby, writing, “Miss Aurelia Miju, it’s a great thing that the universe chose to give you the father that you have. He has an inexhaustible amount of love for you. I am so touched by the way that he loves me.”
“Jonny, my only and true love” she continued. “You have always opened my eyes to things I couldn’t see. I am a better person because of the way you compliment me. Together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. You can see the results we achieved.
A friend of the family said Gerrish had been a software engineer with Google in San Francisco before moving with his wife to Mariposa. He claimed that they were married two years ago. The Times of London reported.
“All of us, our friends and family, are shocked and bewildered. This is a tragedy. We don’t understand,” the friend said.
On Thursday, before the press conference ended, the family issued a statement through the sheriff’s office sharing their gratitude to the sheriff’s office for their tireless efforts in the investigation.
“It is almost impossible to describe the pain of losing a close family member. This pain becomes unbearable when it is multiplied with four and one of those four is a one-year-old baby.” their family wrote in the statement.
“This is because there isn’t enough knowledge or certainty to help ease the pain. [for]The reasons for the death, then the question about why, where and how to fill your brain all the days and nights,” they said.