John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, Miju Chung. bodies found August 16, 2021, Devils’s Gulch, Sierra National Forest, Mariposa, California
John Gerrish, his wife, Ellen Chung, and their one-year-old daughter Miju, were found dead on Monday, August 16, 2021, in Devil’s Gulch in the Sierra National Forest, along with their pet dog, Oski. The area is northeast of Mariposa and southwest of Yosemite National Park.
The bodies were found on the Hites Cove hiking Trail near Hites Cove, an unincorporated community in Mariposa County, California. John was in a seated position near the Trail, with Miju beside him along with the dog. Ellen was 20-30 feet away further up the Trail. They looked like they had sat down in the hot sun and succumbed suddenly, but to what? There were no signs of foul play or trauma.
Mariposa County Sheriff’s spokeswoman, Kristie Mitchell, said “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. That is why we’re treating it as a hazmat situation. We just don’t know.”
Jeremy Briese, the sheriff of Mariposa County, said the deaths had confounded him and his team, “I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve never seen a death, with any case, like this. There’s no obvious indicators of how it occurred . . . you have two healthy adults, you have a healthy child and what appeared to be a healthy canine all within a general same area, deceased. It’s frustrating and we’re not going to rest . . . it’s devastating to everyone”
After the autopsies, the deaths of the Gerrish family remain unexplained. Everything from carbon monoxide, algae, lighting, hyperthermia, bacterial water contamination, and poison gas from mines were being explored as of late August 2021. However, the cause of death remained unknown and mysterious.
Investigations are ongoing to see what happened to the Gerrish family that day on The Hites Cove Trail near Devil’s Gulch.
Devils’s Gulch and the Hites Cove Trail
Hites Cove (also called Hite’s Cove or Hite Cove) was once a mining community after the discovery of gold there in 1861, but it burnt down in 1924. There are at least 3,000 abandoned mines from California’s 19th-century Gold Rush in the area. It is located on the South Fork of the Merced River, 4.5 miles west-southwest of El Portal, at an elevation of 1578 feet and accessed via Hites Cove Road. The name honors John Hite, who discovered gold at the site.
The best way to get to Hites Cove is by hiking the Hites Cove Trail starting at Savages Trading post near El Portal on HWY 140. This hike is considered one of the best hikes in the area for wildflowers in the early spring with over 60 varieties of wildflowers growing on the hillsides. This trail is therefore very popular from February to April.
The Trail runs along the north side of the South Fork of the Merced River and is narrow, as is the river canyon. The trail starts well above the river but descends to the river level after about a mile and a half. From there you walk along the river to Hites Cove.
The Devil’s Gulch area was hit by the Ferguson wildfire, in 2018, that burnt 151 square miles of land, killing two firefighters, causing $171 million of damage. Poison oak is also present along the trail, a plant that, when burnt, produces toxins capable of causing respiratory distress, although there were no fires known to be burning in the area at the time of the deaths.
The Gerrish family
John Gerrish, 45, was from Lancashire, in the U.K., and moved to the US several years ago, working as a software engineer for Google in San Francisco. He had worked for Google for 15 years, starting in the London office in 2006. John studied at Newcastle University before working in London before his move across the Atlantic.
Ellen Chung, 31, worked as a yoga instructor before becoming pregnant with their daughter. She was originally from Orange, California, and was of Korean descent. She was earning her Masters in Counseling Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies after having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012.
John and Ellen married in 2019 and had moved to Mariposa County from San Francisco after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, to enjoy the outdoors, after starting working from home on a permanent basis. They wished to raise Miju away from a major city and hoped to leave the frantic pace of the San Francisco Bay Area for the calm of nature.
The family were regular weekend hikers, taking Miju with them in a baby-carrier on their backs.
Their friend, Mariposa real estate agent Sidney Radanovich, said, “(They) fell in love with the Mariposa area” and bought several homes there, a residence for themselves and rental investments.”
The Hike and disappearance of the Gerrish Family
John and Ellen, together with their baby and dog, drove to the start of the trail in their Ford Raptor truck on the afternoon of Sunday, August 15. The vehicle was parked a mile and a half from where their bodies were found near the Sierra National Forest gate and followed the popular Hites Cove Trail.
The family was reported missing at about 11 pm on August 16, after their daughter’s nanny found that they had not returned home and friends and work colleagues could not contact them. John was supposed to work Monday and never showed up and that raised more concerns.
The sheriff’s office mounted a search on August 17 and found the couple’s truck the next day at a gate leading into Hites Cove.
When the deputies found the truck, a search-and-rescue team hiked down the steep and straight road with flashlights and found shoe and paw prints similar to what would be expected from a family of that size with a dog.
At 3.20 am, the sheriff’s office reserved a search helicopter for daybreak. They called in a second search team that began winding down the switchbacks that complete the loop back up to the Forest Service gate. This section of the Hites Cove Trail makes a loop, with the halfway point the south fork of the Merced River.
About 1.5 miles down the switchbacks, around 11 am, the team found the family in the middle of the trail. John was in a seated position, with the baby beside him along with the dog, and Ellen was just a little farther up the hill. The searchers believed the family was returning to their truck and in the final stages of their hike.
A cell phone was found in John’s pocket, but there is little to no cell coverage on that section of the trail where the bodies were found. Investigators quickly tried to determine if the phone saved any failed text message drafts, attempted calls, or photos, along with GPS location data. This data analysis was not released to the media.
The family also had a backpack with a Camelback bladder that held a small amount of water and this was sent for testing in case it was in some way contaminated. There was no indication whether the family had been swimming, as they would have dried off by the time they were found.
Two deputies slept near the family that night to ensure that no one tampered with the scene and the bodies were airlifted off the trail the next morning by a CHP helicopter.
What happened to the family near Devil’s Gulch?
Hyperthermia, toxic algal blooms, bacterial contamination, and escaping gas from abandoned gold mines were among the possibilities under investigation by the Sherrif’s office.
While temperatures were high in the area the family were hiking (37°C / 98.6°F) at their highs, dehydration seemed unlikely, with the dog dying and the Camelback still containing water.
The family was three miles from a disused mine, where toxins including carbon monoxide can accumulate from decaying organic materials such as timber and the process of mineral oxidation. But was this really a possible explanation, given the distance to the mine? Investigators combed the lower section of the trail for unreported mines, but experts said it likely would take an exposure inside a mine shaft to kill a family.
Samples of bacteria bloom along the south fork of the Merced River and Snyder Creek, which run adjacent to the trail were also taken to test for any other possible contamination in the water in the area.
On July 21, Sierra National Forest authorities posted a public notice warning of a dangerous algal bloom in the Merced River at Hites Cove after water quality testing by the state fish and wildlife department showed “high concentrations.” The US Environmental Protection Agency states that algal blooms can produce “extremely dangerous toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals”.
Sheriff Jeremy Briese said, “There are those different options that are out there, mineshafts and off-gassing potential and we’re learning more with our partners in the Forest Service and public health on the toxicity of the algae blooms that they’re posting about.” But Briese said they could not find any disused shafts in the vicinity, “We have not found any old mine shafts near the area. There are some mine shafts, but we can’t confirm if that’s the cause yet.”
Following the discovery of the bodies, although there was no sign of foul play or of trauma to the bodies, but in accordance with procedure, the investigation was classified as a homicide, pending results from the coroner’s post-mortem examinations and toxicology tests.
The body of Oski the dog was also examined by veterinary experts at the University of California, Davis.
Briese said that his deputies were working to support the victims’ devastated families. “It’s tragic, it’s emotional…we’re going to do everything we can to ensure closure and the safety of our community.”
Kristie Mitchell said, “Investigators have considered whether toxic gasses, toxic algae and carbon monoxide from abandoned mines near in area may have contributed to the deaths. We’re not focusing on one specific cause at this point. There’s just still so many that we can’t rule out. We’ve looked at lighting strikes in the area. We’ve looked at storms… the weather, animals. We’re looking at the entire area as a whole.”
A hazmat situation was declared after the bodes were found, but was eventually lifted. California State Water Resources Control Board and Mariposa County said they were continuing to test waterways in the area for any toxic algae and cyanobacterial toxins. The California Department of Public Health said it did not know of any human deaths from “recreational or drinking water exposure to cyanobacterial toxin”, although some animals have been killed by algae.
Autopsies on the bodies were completed on Thursday, August 19. None of the bodies had physical wounds like gunshots or signs of trauma and no suicide note was found.
Kristie Mitchell said. “It makes for a very unique, very strange situation. 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.”
The Mariposa County Coroner is awaiting toxicology results from the bodies, which could take several weeks. The case remains ongoing, pending these investigations.
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