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

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

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

Responding agencies treated the scene as a hazmat situation because of uncertainty about the cause of the fatalities, and everything from toxic algae to dangerous mine gasses to murder has been probed. According to a New York Times feature on the family, now lightning strikes have been added into the mix. 

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

According to the National Weather Service, being struck by lightning is “primarily an injury to the nervous system, often with brain injury and nerve injury. Serious burns seldom occur.” Death, which is extraordinarily rare, can be due to cardiac arrest. NWS data from 1989-2018 shows that 10% of people hit by lightning die, averaging 43 fatalities per year in the United States.

A remote canyon area northeast of the town of Mariposa, seen on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, is reported to be the area where a family and their dog were found dead on Tuesday, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said. Craig Kohlruss/Associated Press

The family’s hike was intended to be just a daylong trip, which prompted concern from multiple friends when the family didn’t come home. The temperature at the time, according to the sheriff’s office, ranged from 103 to 109 degrees. Friends have said Gerrish and Chung were experienced hikers who loved adventure, and once went backpacking in the Himalayas.

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

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

The trail is set to be closed until Sept. 26, or sooner “if conditions change” around the area.

The Bureau of Land Management closed campgrounds and recreation areas along the Merced River, between the towns of Briceburg and Bagby, Friday after receiving test results of water samples downstream from where the family died. Algal blooms can form in waterways that are shallow and warm.

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

Closure to the Merced River’s recreation areas will stay in effect until Sept. 17.

A helicopter hovers over a remote area northeast of the town of Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Craig Kohlruss/Associated Press

While speculation continues over the role of harmful algal blooms, officials posted signs as early as mid-July around the area warning about the risks of drinking water near the area. Water samples from around the scene and with the family were sent early last week to the California State Water Resources Control Board and to independent labs, said the sheriff’s office. Toxicology results are expected in the upcoming weeks, while investigators requested access to Chung and Gerrish’s cellphones and social media accounts last week.

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

“We know the family and friends of John and Ellen are desperate for answers, our team of Detectives are working round the clock,” said Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese 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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