‘Unknown hazards’ found on Sierra National Forest trail near where Calif. family was found dead

Sierra National Forest Authority on Saturday 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.

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, Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said. Responding agencies treated the scene as a hazmat situation because of uncertainty about the cause of death.

Sierra National Forest Sign.

Sierra National Forest Signs.

MCCAIG / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Previous autopsy data provided by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office ruled out chemical hazards on the Savage Lundy Trail and acute trauma, such as stab wounds, bullet wounds or blunt-force injuries.

Therefore, this latest closure – which took place just days before all of California’s national forests were closed because of the Caldor fire – adds an additional complication to their mysterious death. There is the possibility that a hazard has been identified nearby, but not on the trail that poses a risk to the family.

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.

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.

Water samples from around the scene and the family were sent early last week to the California State Water Resources Control Board and to independent laboratories, the sheriff’s office said.

A helicopter planes over a remote area northeast of the city 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

The family’s Sunday trip consisted of just a full day 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, ranged from 103 to 109 degrees.

The California Department of Justice and sheriff’s office workers are investigating the deaths, being handled 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.

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