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California Family Who Died on Hiking Trail Tried to Call for Help, Sheriff Says

In a final statement, investigators said that the new information supported their initial conclusions about the family's cause of death.

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A family whose mysterious death on a California hiking trail last August sparked speculation about toxic algae and poison gases unsuccessfully tried to call for help before they passed away, authorities said on Thursday. 

In a Facebook post, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said that it and the FBI managed to retrieve photos and call and text message records from the phones of Jonathan Gerrish and Ellen Chung, who died alongside their one-year-old daughter Miju, and family dog Oksi near the Savage Lundy Trail in Sierra National Forest. According to the sheriff’s office, the family took more than a dozen selfies and photos of the scenery.

The first signs of trouble appeared at 11:56 a.m., roughly an hour after family had taken their last photo. Gerrish or Chung texted an undisclosed number “can you help us. On savage lundy trail heading back to Hites cove trail. No water or ver (over) heating with baby.” Over the next 36 minutes, Gerrish or Chung tried five times to call multiple numbers, none of them 911. With no reception, neither the calls nor the text message went through.

Last December, Backpacker Editorial Director Shannon Davis summarized the circumstances around the family’s deaths:

Search and rescue located Jonathan Gerrish, Ellen Chung, their toddler Miju, and family dog Oksi near the Savage Lundy Trail in Sierra National Forest after the family’s babysitter reported them missing. After quickly ruling out trauma, the Mariposa County Sheriff Department spent months investigating potential causes ranging from lightning strikes to a toxic algae bloom in the nearby Merced River poisonous gasses seeping from abandoned mines. After treating the site as a hazmat scene for several days, officials ultimately determined the family died from overheating

The Gerrish-Chung family set out from the Hites Cove trailhead before 8 a.m. on August 15. Temperatures were a pleasant 70 degrees, but within hours, the mercury climbed to more than 100, eventually reaching a punishing 109. The trail is in an open area with little shade. It would have felt like an oven. 

While some social media users have continued to speculate on the circumstances of the Gerrish-Chung family’s death, the Sheriff’s office noted that this new information supports the conclusion that they died from heat illness and dehydration.

“The cell phone data results were the last thing both the family and detectives were waiting on,” said Sheriff Jeremy Briese. “The extracted information confirms our initial findings. I am very proud of my team and our partner agencies for all the work they put in. Their dedication has allowed us to close this case and answer lingering questions the family had, bringing them a little peace.”

In its post, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office noted that this would be its final update on the case.