Extreme Heat Caused Family’s Death in Sierra National Forest, Authorities Say
A California couple and their 1-year-old daughter died from effects of heat stroke and possible dehydration while hiking in nearly 110-degree temperatures in the Sierra National Forest in August, a sheriff said on Thursday, solving a mystery that had confounded investigators for more than two months.
When search teams found the bodies of Jonathan Gerrish and Ellen Chung, along with that of their daughter, Miju, on the morning of Aug. 17, they had a “minute” amount of water on them, Jeremy Briese, the Mariposa County sheriff, said during a news conference.
Sheriff Briese said that an 85-ounce CamelBak water bladder that the family had been carrying was practically empty. Their bodies, along with that of the family’s dog, Oski, an Aussie-Akita mix, were found about 1.6 miles from their vehicle, he said.
“Heat-related deaths are extremely difficult to investigate,” Sheriff Briese said, adding that a multitude of state and federal agencies spent weeks trying to determine what could have led to their deaths.
“From the beginning, the Gerrish and Chung families have been our top priority,” the sheriff said. “Our office received an overwhelming number of tips, suggestions and investigative requests that were all reviewed and taken into consideration. We’re confident of our findings.”
The circumstances that preceded the family members’ deaths had mystified investigators, who had said that there were no signs of trauma or foul play. Initial autopsy results were inconclusive.
Teams in hazmat suits had swept the area for clues, and in an ominous step, the U.S. Forest Service closed trails and recreation sites near where the bodies were found in late August, 12 days after the family had first been reported missing.
Mr. Gerrish, 45, had worked as a software engineer for Google, according to his LinkedIn profile. Most recently, he had worked for Snapchat, according to Steven Jeffe, a friend and neighbor in Mariposa, Calif. Ms. Chung, 30, was raised in Southern California, Mr. Jeffe said in an interview in September.
Warnings of potentially toxic algae blooms in the area where the family’s bodies where found fueled speculation that they may have been poisoned. On Aug. 19, the California State Water Resources Control Board urged the public to “stay away from algae and scum in the water” near the south fork of the Merced River in the Sierra National Forest.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, the family was reported missing at 11 p.m. on Aug. 16. The next day, search teams found the couple’s vehicle near one of the gates to the Sierra National Forest. Their bodies were found a short time later near Devil Gulch.