Mystery of Deaths of Couple, Baby and Their Dog in Sierra National Forest Still Being Probed by Investigators
The family left for what was supposed to be a day hike on Sunday. The area that bodies which is known as a mining area, had been flagged for toxic algae by the Sierra National Forest, and fliers were put up.
The bodies of John Gerrish, his wife Ellen Chung, and their 1-year-old daughter Muji, along with the family dog, were found near the Devil’s Gulch area in the Southfork of the Merced River drainage on Tuesday around 11 a.m., according to a statement by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department.
At 11 p.m. on Monday, a family friend reported them missing, a report said.
Search teams first located the family’s vehicle located near the Sierra National Forest gate leading to Hites Cove in the Jerseydale area, and shortly after the family was located.
"Current scene information does not indicate a clear picture of what occurred or a clear cause of death,” the sheriff's depoartment said.
The incident scene is currently being handled by a hazmat and coroner investigation, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s office said. The California Department of Justice and the Mariposa County Sheriff’s office are conducting the investigation.
Kristie Mitchell, public information officer with the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office told Inside Edition Digital that an autopsy on the three victims will be performed on Thursday that will also include a toxicology report.
“It is an active investigation. We have a coroner investigation happening and a hazmat investigation. We know that that there are additional hazards in the area, like carbon monoxide and toxic algae in the area, therefore, we wanted to take the extra precautions and make sure our investigators are protected as well,” Mitchell said. “We don’t know what we are looking at yet.”
Mitchell said the family left for what was supposed to be a day hike on Sunday. She said the area that bodies were found in was remote, is known as a mining area and had been flagged for toxic algae by the Sierra National Forest, and fliers were put up.
In July, officials from Sierra National Forest (SNF) warned visitors of the Merced River at Hites Cove of toxic algae present in the area. The SNF said the “toxic algal mats” can be attached to the bottom, detached and floating, or washed up onshore and that anyone who encounters the algal mats is asked to not let children or adults touch, eat or swallow them, and to not let dogs eat mats or drink from the water, KSEE/KGPE News previously reported.
Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremey Briese told KPGE News said that the trail the family was on had warnings about toxic algal blooms in the Merced River, but it was still too early in the investigation to determine if that impacted the family.
He also said some of the abandoned mine shafts in the area can release dangerous gases, and said that it has not yet been ruled as a determining factor. He also said their team has not located a mine nearby.
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.
“It is not every day you come across a scene of an entire family and their dog that are seemingly healthy. There were no obvious signs of trauma. There are animals that are part of the forest but there were no signs, no gunshot wounds, no weapons, at the scene. That is the most frustrating part,” Mitchell said. “It is nothing the agency has seen before."
She added: "We are not ruling anything out. And, if it ends up to be a homicide or suicide we will address that as well.”
During the search, crews used helicopters and drones.
“It is a pretty remote part of our county. There is no cellular service or emergency radio. Many of our teams had to find higher ground to have communication back with our command posts,” she said.
Mitchell told Inside Edition Digital that the area that their bodies were found in the Hites Cove area of the Sierra National Forest, along the Southfork of the Merced River, known for its stunning wildflowers in the spring.
“It is a fairly popular hiking area 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.
On July 13, 2018, a deadly forest fire burned 96,901 acres of the Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park, and state lands, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USDA).
U.S. Forest investigators determined that the cause of the Ferguson Fire was vehicle-related, authorities said.
A friend of the family 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 by those who knew them as “genuine people.”
Chung often shared images of her travels, her family, and their dog on Instagram.
In January, she shared a photo of Gerrish and their baby, writing, "Miss Aurelia Miju, you are so lucky the universe gave you the father you have. The amount of love he has for you is truly infinite and the way I've seen your relationship with him blossom brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my soul."
"Jonny, my one and only," she continued. "Thank you for always opening my eyes in ways I could never do for myself. The way you compliment me, makes me a better person everyday, and I truly believe together there's not much we can't do. I mean look what we made."
Steven Geffe, a friend of Gerrish's family, told The Times of London that Gerrish, was a software engineer with Google in San Francisco before moving with his wife to Marisopa. He said they married two years ago.
"Everyone, friends, family, we're all bewildered and really shocked. This is a tragedy. We don't understand," Geffe said.
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