Mysterious Deaths On California Hiking Trail Have Officials Asking Questions

Both officials and a local community are left baffled after the mysterious death of a family on a hiking trail in California’s Sierra National Forest.

The bodies of Ellen Chung, her partner John Gerrish, their one-year-old daughter Miju, and the family dog were found in mysterious conditions along the Savage-Lundy hiking trail – a remote spot about 200 miles east of San Francisco.  

Among the discovery of their bodies by a search and rescue team, John Gerrish was found in a seated position with their child in his lap and the dog by his side, while Ellen Chung was found a little farther up the hill only 1.5 miles from the trailhead. All family members were deceased at the time of their discovery.

Despite a full week of searching for answers, authorities still have little idea as to the cause of death. No conclusive results were found after the autopsies of all three family members. However, there is no sign of violence, which has ruled out homicide.

Likewise, there was no note or signs of trauma which has lead authorities to rule out suicide. Additionally, although temperatures did reach 109°F on the day of their hike, dehydration is unlikely as their hydration packs still had ample water at the time of discovery. A toxicology report is still pending and is expected to take several weeks to get back.

“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,” Mariposa County Sheriff’s deputy Kristie Mitchell told the Fresno Bee last week.

One possible cause of death that is being investigated by authorities is poisoning by deadly gases, toxic algae, or carbon monoxide – all of which are found in the area. On July 13th the US Forest Service issued a warning for a “high concentration algae bloom” in the Merced River, which flows nearby the trail the family was hiking on.  The warning advised against swimming, drinking, or letting pets play in the water. Although human deaths due to algae blooms are rare, it is still a possible scenario despite needing to ingest high concentrations to be killed so rapidly.

Carbon monoxide or toxic gas poisoning from nearby abandoned mines is also a possibility. Although the closest mineshaft is a few miles up the trail, the area was originally treated as a hazmat scene by first responders upon the discovery of the family. This declaration has since been lifted. 

“It’s conceivable that it is the cause,” David Caron, a biological sciences professor at the University of Southern California said .“But a lot needs to be done forensically to tie it to toxins.”

The couple had moved to Mariposa county in March 2020 and were described as becoming “avid outdoors people” after their move by friends and family. 

“We’re not focusing on one specific cause at this point. There’s just still so many that we can’t rule out,” Kristie Mitchell added. “I think it’s going to be a very long and in depth, thorough investigation because it isn’t as clear cut as what some cases are.”


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