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We Know What Mysteriously Killed an Entire Family on a Hike in California

AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz

It's a horrible story. The deaths of Ellen Chung, John Gerrish, and their one-year-old daughter Miju were a mystery to investigators. The family was known for their love of the outdoors and went for an eight-mile hike in Sierra National Forest on August 15. They never came back. They had disappeared. They were officially reported missing on August 16. Authorities combed the area. They gathered cell phone data as well. When the bodies were discovered, there were no signs of physical trauma. Nothing to suggest foul play. What happened here? For two months, the deaths baffled authorities until now.

The Washington Post reported that hyperthermia and exposure killed the family. Algae bloom was listed as a possible cause since the body of water nearby experiences such an event, but that has been ruled out. Pretty much every scenario was considered prior to this final determination regarding the causes of death (via WaPo): 

The bodies of John Gerrish, Ellen Chung and their 1-year-old daughter, Miju, were found close to the Merced River with no physical wounds or signs of trauma. Baffled investigators ruled out a number of possibilities, from lightning to carbon monoxide exposure and toxic algae. Now they have an answer: hyperthermia and possible dehydration, Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese announced [on October 21].

The family had hiked a steep incline with little shade at temperatures reaching up to 109 degrees, possibly running out of water at some point during the trip, Briese said. Investigators believe their dog Oski died of heat-related issues.

Briese explained hyperthermia is a condition when body temperatures reach an abnormally high level.

[…]

The cause behind the mysterious deaths of the family was determined after a litany of tests, including autopsies and toxicology reviews. The sheriff said a team of detectives had worked on the case “round-the-clock,” methodically reviewing evidence like cellphone data and more.

Gerrish, 45, Chung, 30, and their daughter and dog were discovered after a family friend had reported them missing on Aug. 16. Miju’s babysitter had alerted family members that Gerrish and Chung were not home that day. The day before, a witness saw the family traveling toward the trailhead.

[…]

Authorities later closed the 28 miles along the river the family was found near after test results of the water downstream revealed high levels of toxic algae — but algae blooms were ruled out as a cause of death. The family did not drink the water from the river, Briese said.

The sheriff said investigators also considered possible exposure from nearby mines, but they determined the family did not visit those mines.

[…]

Briese said he has not encountered another hyperthermia death during his work at the sheriff’s office. But he warned others to take precautions when outdoors during sweltering summers.

“My message would be to prepare, if you’re going to hike, prepare,” he said.

Matthias Gafni of The San Francisco Chronicle added that the family started their hike around 8 AM when temperatures were in the mid-70s. It soared over 100 degrees by the afternoon. The family was found 1.5 miles from where they parked their car. They were almost done, but as Gafni noted—Gerrish only used an app to find this trail and did not account for the extreme inclines that accompanied it. 

This tragic and horrible story finally has an ending. The families have closure, not that it gives them much relief given that their loved ones have passed. It was a terrible ending to what was most likely planned as a happy family outing. 

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