The investigation of a family found dead in August near Yosemite National Park continues with authorities entertaining a number of unusual theories, including lightning and even algae bloom. But despite a number of agencies getting involved, police still do not have an answer to what Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese called the most mysterious case of his career.
After failing to return to work following what was supposed to be a daylong trip, John Gerrish, 45, Ellen Chung, 30, and their 1-year-old daughter Miju were found dead on Aug. 17 in the Devil’s Gulch area of the Sierra National Forest, which intersects with Yosemite. Their family dog Oski was dead, too. Though they had taken on a challenging hike with many switchbacks and triple-digit temperatures, friends and loved ones say John and Ellen were experienced backpackers and veterans of the outdoors.
Image by Steven Jeffe
According to reports, the bodies of the family were discovered on the Savage Lundy Trail near Hites Cove. John was found in a seated position near the trail with Miju and the dog beside him while Ellen was found 20-30 feet up the trail. It looked as though the family had stopped to rest before they died but were otherwise healthy.
Mariposa County Sheriff’s spokeswoman, Kristie Mitchell, said “Coming across a scene where everyone involved, including the family dog that is deceased, that is not a typical thing that we have seen or other agencies have seen. That is why we’re treating it as a hazmat situation. We just don’t know.”
An autopsy by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office ruled out acute trauma from a stabbing, gunshot wounds, or blunt-force impacts but law enforcement has not excluded the possibility of foul play.
Investigators have worn hazmat suits while on the scene, fearing the possibility of toxic algae and even gas from an abandoned underground mine shaft. The Bureau of Land Management has been running tests on water samples from the Merced River and is monitoring for the kinds of algal blooms that can make people and animals sick.
A New York Times article suggests even lightning strikes are being considered as a possible cause of death.
Investigators also executed search warrants for the family’s home and cars, though they said these searches have produced no significant evidence. The FBI is currently extracting data from their phones and a toxicology report expected this week could shed more light on what happened.
In a statement, Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said his “team of detectives are working round the clock,” adding, “I’ve worked in different capacities but I’ve never seen a death like this.”
We’ll update this article as more information becomes available. RIP John, Ellen, Miju, and Oski.