The mysterious death of a young family and their dog during a hike in the Sierra National Forest in August has become a whirlwind of questions, with very little answers. Now, a months-long investigation reveals what may have happened to the family on that tragic day in the California wilderness.
Jonathan Gerrish, 45, and Ellen Chung, 30, had gone for a hike with their 1-year-old daughter, Miju, and the family dog, Oski, on the Hites Cove Trail near the Merced River when they were all found dead on August 17, 2021. After being reported missing by friends, authorities located them approximately 1.5 miles from their car on steep switchbacks. An empty 85-ounce water bladder and a bottle that contained baby formula were found by the bodies.
An autopsy revealed that the parents and one-year-old all died from a combination of hyperthermia and dehydration. For many people, that explanation wasn’t enough.
The tragic incident has been the subject of a long investigation by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, which believes the parents were trying to save the baby while succumbing to “heat stroke” in the 109-degree weather.
According to the report, Jonathan, Miju and Oski were found dead in one area of the trail, while Chung was discovered further down the trail. An expert witness for the report, a professional wilderness survival and first aid instructor, believes the baby may have shown the first signs of illness on the hot day, leading the parents to rush to safety. That’s why Jonathan was found with the baby, while Chung was further ahead.
“A suffering infant would give two parents the drive to push through the extreme heat,” the witness said. “When one could no longer continue, they stayed behind to care for the child and pet, while the other tried to forge on and get help for their loved ones. It is a tragedy of the highest order.”
A witness spotted the family driving near the trailhead around 8 am that day at 3,800 feet elevation, where it was 75 degrees. The family hiked approximately 2.2 miles down to an elevation of 1,900, where the temperature changed to 99 degrees. That change in temperature, along with the strenuous hike, was likely the cause of the heat stroke. The 85-ounce water container that was found with the family was completely empty.
An experienced hiker in the region told authorities he avoids that hike from June to September due to the significant heat, according to the report. Someone unfamiliar with the hike may have been completely surprised by the difficulty and drastic temperature change.
According to friends of the family, they were experienced hikers that had recently moved to the town of Mariposa from San Francisco. The investigation had moved in many different directions as officials attempted to make sense of the mysterious deaths of all three people and the dog. Included in the theories were lightning strikes, exposure to toxic gas, suicide and ingestion of toxic algae. In the end, it was simply heat stroke that caused the tragic event.
“Our hearts will never forget the beautiful lives of Jonathan, Ellen, Miju and of course, Oski,” read a statement released by the Mariposa County Sheriff. “They will remain with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. In the future, when we sit beneath the trees listening to the wind soaring through the branches, we will hear them and we will remember.”