Another culprit weighed in deaths of California family found on Sierra National Forest trail


Another possibility being investigated in a case that a sheriff called the most mysterious of his career.

John Gerrish, 45, Ellen Chung, 30, and their 1-year-old daughter Miju – as well as the Oski family dogs – were found dead Aug. 17 in the Devil’s Gulch area at the fork south of the Merced River in the Sierra National Forest.

Responding agencies were treating the scene as a hazmat situation because of uncertainty about the cause of death, and everything from toxic algae to harmful gases to my murder was being tested. According to a New York Times features on the family, now lightning strikes are added to the mix.

Law enforcement is “investigating possible lightning strikes in the area” at the time of their deaths, the Times reported.

According to the National Weather Service, being struck by lightning is “mostly an injury to the nervous system, often with brain injury and nerve injury. Severe burns rarely occur.” Death, very rare, can occur due to cardiac arrest. NWS data from 1989-2018 shows that 10% of people struck by lightning die, averaging 43 deaths annually in the United States.

A remote canyon area northeast of the city of Mariposa, seen on Wednesday, August 18, 2021, is reported to be the area where a family and dogs were found dead on Tuesday, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said.

A remote canyon area northeast of the city of Mariposa, seen on Wednesday, August 18, 2021, is reported to be the area where a family and dogs were found dead on Tuesday, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said.

Craig Kohlruss / Associated Press

The family outing was intended to be just a daylong trip, which raised concerns from several friends when the family did not come home. The temperature at the time, according to the sheriff’s office, was from 103 to 109 degrees. Friends said Gerrish and Chung were experienced hikers who loved adventure, and once went hiking in the Himalayas.

A handful of the causes of death have been settled. Previous autopsy data provided by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office excluded acute trauma, such as stab wounds, bullet wounds or blunt-force trauma. They also do not believe the family was killed by toxic gases escaping from an abandoned mining shaft.

There are signs that park officials are concerned about something in the nearby environment. Sierra National Forest officials last week released a closure on the Merced River Recreation site “due to unknown hazards found in and near the Savage Lundy Trail.”


The trail is to be closed until September 26, or earlier “if conditions change” around the area.

The Office of Land Management closed camps and recreation areas along the Merced River, between the towns of Briceburg and Bagby, on Friday after receiving test results of water samples highlighting where the family died. Algae flowers can form in deep, warm waterways.

“These algae blooms can produce toxins that can make people and pets very ill,” Elizabeth Meyer-Shields, a BLM field manager, said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the algae ‘s presence and look forward to when the public can safely recreate the Merced River.”

The closure of the Merced River recreation area will remain in effect until September 17th.

A helicopter hovered over a remote area northeast of Mariposa, California, on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.

A helicopter hovered over a remote area northeast of Mariposa, California, on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.

Craig Kohlruss / Associated Press

While speculation continues about the role of dangerous algae bloom, officials posted signs as early as mid-July around the area warning of the risks of drinking water near the area. Water samples were sent from around the scene with the family early last week to the State Water Resources Control Board and independent laboratories, the sheriff’s office said. Toxicology results are expected in the coming weeks, while investigators demanded access to Chung and Gerrish’s cell phones and social media accounts last week.

The California Department of Justice and sheriff’s office workers are investigating the deaths, which were treated as a hazmat and coroner investigation.

“We know John and Ellen’s family and friends are desperate for answers, our Detective team is working all the time,” Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said in a statement last week.

“I’ve worked in different capacities but I’ve never seen a death like this,” Briese told reporters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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