New Details Emerge in Death of California Family in Sierra National Forest: Report

John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, Miju sadly perished during a hike in Sierra National Forest in Aug. 2021.
Mariposa County Sheriff's Department

“Sadly, I believe they were caught off guard, and once they realized their situation, they died trying to save their child and each other,” a survival trainer told detectives, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The California family of three found dead on a Northern California hiking trail in August most likely died trying to save their baby from the extreme heat, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, the first to report on the new details. 

The family, John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, their baby daughter, Aurelia “Miju,” and the family’s dog, Oksi, an 8-year-old Aussie-Akita mix, had gone on a hike through the Sierra National Forest before it turned deadly. In October the Mariposa County Sheriff’s said the family died of hyperthermia and possible dehydration, Inside Edition Digital previously reported

Triple-digit temperatures that day that soared to nearly 110 degrees, the absence of shade, and lack of water were determined to be the cause of their tragic deaths, officials said. 

The 77-page report obtained by The San Francisco Chronicle and Inside Edition Digital revealed that the baby likely died first and the parents made several attempts to help their child but were sadly unsuccessful.

The report indicated that the body of John Gerrish was the first to be located, followed by the baby and the dog. The report cited that the mother had been found lying approximately, 13 feet higher, apparently trying to hike up the hill for help.

A survival trainer expressed in an email to detectives that in all probability, "the parents more than likely panicked in their efforts to help the baby, who began suffering from symptoms first,” The New York Post reported. 

“Sadly, I believe they were caught off guard, and once they realized their situation, they died trying to save their child and each other,” the trainer wrote to detectives, calling it “a tragedy of the highest order,” according to The Chronicle. 

During the two-month investigation, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department partnered with more than 30 local, state, and federal agencies. 

A preliminary autopsy had also revealed that there had been no signs of trauma or foul play. Additional factors including, illegal drugs, suicide, and lightning strikes had also been ruled out. Additionally, the family’s toxicology results had come back with negative results, the sheriff's department confirmed.

The authorities said the family had a cellphone with them, but there was no cell service. They have not been able to gain access to the phone, however, according to News Nation Now.

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 that day from 107 to 109 degrees. 

Search crews found an 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,” Mariposa County Sheriff Department, Jeremy Briese said, describing their deaths as “horrible,” and “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.

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.

Briese said “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 said. 

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. Days after the family had been reported missing, the U.S. Forest Service closed trails and recreation sites near where their bodies were found.

Investigators also checked some 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 said. "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.”

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 said they married two years ago, The Times of London reported. 

"The loss of a close relative is pain almost beyond words. When that loss is multiplied by four, and one of that four is a baby of just one-year-old, then that pain is indescribable," their family wrote in a statement that was read during the October press conference and thanked the authorities.

"When that pain is then further impacted by the lack of knowledge and certainty as [for] reasons for the death than the question of why, where and when and how to fill your mind all the days and all the nights," they added.

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