Mariposa County, CA – Law enforcement officials announced on Thursday that investigators determined that the family of three and their dog who were found dead in Sierra National Forest died from becoming overheated while hiking on a 109-degree day.
Authorities said that search teams began looking for the family at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 16 after a family friend reported them missing to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Associated Press.
Family friend Rosanna Heaslett said friends and coworkers became concerned when they didn’t show up for work on Monday and she reported their absence to authorities, the Daily Mail reported.
Searchers found the family’s vehicle near the gate to the national forest and hiked in looking for the missing people.
The bodies of John Gerrish and Ellen Chung were found at about 10 a.m. on Aug. 17 not far from the trailhead with the body of their deceased one-year-old daughter, Amelia “Muji,” and the family’s dog, the Associated Press reported.
The sheriff’s department said the area where the bodies were found is known as Devil’s Gulch in the Southfork of the Merced River.
Authorities said there was no clear or obvious cause of death, the Associated Press reported.
Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said on Oct. 21 that investigators had ruled out lightning, carbon monoxide exposure, and toxic algae as causes of death for the family, The Washington Post reported.
Sheriff Briese said the family had been hiking a steep incline in temperatures that reached 109 degrees and had died of hyperthermia and possible dehydration.
The sheriff posited that the family may have run out of water at some point during the hike, The Washington Post reported.
An 85-ounce water bladder backpack was found near the family and was empty.
The sheriff said that the family dog, Oksi, an eight-year-old Aussie-Akita mix, had also died of heat-related issues, Inside Edition reported.
“This is an unfortunate and tragic event due to the weather,” Sheriff Briese told reporters at a news briefing when he released the family’s causes of death.
The sheriff said the search-and-rescue team had found Gerrish dead in a seated position with his daughter and dog near him, The Washington Post reported.
Chung was found farther up the hill, closer to the trailhead, according to Sheriff Briese.
The sheriff said the family was 1.6 miles from finishing their hike when they collapsed.
He said a team of investigators had worked “round-the-clock” to determine what killed the young family, The Washington Post reported.
The sheriff said they methodically reviewed all the evidence they collected, such as cell phone data from Gerrish and Chung.
He said numerous tests were conducted on the bodies at their autopsies, including toxicology reviews, The Washington Post reported.
Nearby river water had tested positive for high levels of toxic algae, but Sheriff Briese said the family had not consumed river water.
Investigators also looked into whether the family could have been poisoned by something in an old mine, but ultimately determined that they hadn’t visited those mines during their hike, The Washington Post reported.
“It’s just so tragic and mysterious,” close family friend Steven Jeffe said.
Jeffe said that the couple had moved to Mariposa County from San Francisco in March of 2020, The Washington Post reported.
Gerrish worked at Snapchat and Chung was studying for her master’s degree in family therapy, according to the family friend.
“We’re just devastated by the loss,” Jeffe said. “But I think the community is more like, ‘What the heck happened?’ It’s just so crazy.”
“Heat-related deaths are extremely difficult to investigate,” Sheriff Briese said.
He described the family’s deaths as “horrible,” and “unfortunate,” Inside Edition reported.
“It is rare,” the sheriff said. “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.”