Investigators are probing phones belonging to a family found dead during a California hike in the hopes of finding a final recording that could solve the riddle of their deaths.
Jeremy Briese, sheriff of Mariposa County, told The Times of London he was hoping the phones would reveal whether Jonathan Gerrish, 45, or his wife, Ellen Chung, 31, made any phone calls or recorded any messages before their deaths.
‘We’ve searched from the air and foot and all over looking for anything that may give us a clue to what occurred,’ Briese said. ‘Basically it’s baffling and we’ve got to work through the different scenarios looking for answers.’
Gerrish, Chung, their one-year-old daughter Miju, and their dog Oksi were found by search teams on Tuesday in an area of the Sierra National Forest known as Devil’s Gulch.
There were no signs of foul play and no traumatic injuries indicated at the scene, where Briese said, Miju was ‘in a backpack carrier near the dad, but not on the dad,’ and Chung was found about 30 yards away.
Their dog, Oksi, lay close to the baby.
Police are still awaiting the results of autopsy and toxicology reports which are expected to take several weeks
The couple were last heard from early on Sunday when they uploaded a photo of a backpack
Searchers began looking for the family on Monday after they were reported missing by friends when they did not report to work
Officials had been looking into whether poisonous algae killed the family but lifted the hazmat declaration on Wednesday. The bodies of the family were airlifted out of the area that afternoon.
The Marisopa County Sheriff’s Office is now ruling out homicide in the hiking trail deaths, Fox News reports. Spokeswoman Kristie Mitchell said: ‘Initially, yes, when we come across a family with no apparent cause of death, there’s no smoking gun, there’s no suicide note, there’s nothing like that, we have to consider all options.
‘Now that we’re five days in, no, we’re no longer considering homicide as a cause of death.’
They are now looking into other possible causes, including carbon monoxide poisoning, rattlesnake bites – although there would likely have been evidence on their bodies, and heat strokes.
National Park authorities said on Saturday that heat stroke caused the death of a hiker in Death Valley on Wednesday when it was 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gerrish, originally from Lancashire in England, had been a software developer for Snapchat and previously worked for Google.
Police had earlier announced that they were treating the mysterious deaths of the British software developer, his wife, their one-year-old toddler and the family dog as a homicide.
County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said: ‘I’ve been here for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a death-related case like this.
‘There’s no obvious indicators of how it occurred.’
Briese said there was no obvious cause of death and that he had not dealt with a case like this in his 20 years in the area.
‘You have two healthy adults, you have a healthy child and what appears to be a healthy canine all within a general same area,’ the sheriff explained.
‘So right now, we’re treating the coroner investigation as a homicide until we can establish the cause.’
The area were the family’s bodies were found was initially treated like a hazmat situation because of the strange circumstances
Officials first began looking into the toxic algal bloom from the Merced river as the cause for what overcame the family, along with possible escaping gas from abandoned gold mines.
But Briese said they could not find any disused shafts in the vicinity.
‘We have not found any old mine shafts near the area,’ he added. ‘There are some mine shafts, but we can’t confirm if that’s the cause yet.
Police are still waiting on the results of post-mortem examinations. Further toxicology reports could take up to six weeks. Autopsies and toxicology tests are planned for Thursday in Stanislaus County.
Samples from their water bottles have also been sent to toxicology labs, and a necropsy on their family dog has been planned.
California State Water Resources Control Board and Mariposa County are now re-testing the river water for cyanobacterial toxins, which can form in algal blooms.
Searchers began looking for the family after they were overdue on a day hike and reported missing on Monday. They were found on the Savage-Lundy hiking trail near Hites Cove, which was once a thriving mining community after gold was discovered in 1861.
On July 13, Sierra National Forest officials posted a warning about ‘high concentrations’ of algae which can produce ‘extremely dangerous toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals’ in the water in the Merced River at Hites Cove.
A listing on the water board’s online map of harmful algal blooms warned: ‘Water Boards recommends a CAUTION due to illness report. Sample results are pending.’
Briese told The Times: ‘There are those different options that are out there – mineshafts and offgassing 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.’
Last month, Sierra National Forest officials posted a warning about ‘high concentrations’ of algae which can produce ‘extremely dangerous toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals’ in the water in the Merced River at Hites Cove
This map shows the remote are in Mariposa County, California, where the bodies were discovered on Tuesday
‘It’s frustrating and we’re not going to rest… it’s devastating to everyone,’ he told the Modesto Bee paper.
The family’s dog was found dead along with its owners by search teams
The state map listing for the location north of Jerseydale, around where the family was found dead this week, warns people to ‘stay away from algae and scum in the water.’
‘Do NOT let pets go in the water, drink the water, or eat scum on the shore,’ the warning continues. ‘Keep children away from algae. Do not eat shellfish from this waterbody.’
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.
State waterboard spokesman Blair Robertson said officials hoped to have the results of the water tests by the weekend.
He added: ‘Our staff is conducting testing of the waterways near where the bodies were located and will make the lab results available to the public as soon as we get them.
‘Autopsies were to be conducted earlier today and we await those findings. Our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased.’
Gerrish was a software developer for Snapchat, had previously worked for Google. He is originally from Lancashire, England and graduated from Newcastle University.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF ALGAE BLOOMS?
Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are an ancient class of organisms that create the blooms are present nearly everywhere water is found, but thrive in warm, still bodies like lakes and ponds.
It includes species which produce some of the most powerful toxins known to man, and their impact on humans is only partially understood.
The incidence of freshwater harmful algal blooms (FHABs) has surged in recent years, with some scientists attributing the increase to climate change.
What are the health risks?
Algae is capable of producing several different toxins. People may be exposed to these toxins through contact with the skin (e.g. when swimming), through inhalation (e.g. when motor boating or water skiing), or by swallowing contaminated water.
These toxins can cause skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, fever and headaches.
Occasionally, the toxins can cause more serious illness such as liver and brain damage.
Children are at greater risk than adults of developing problems because of their comparative lower body weight.
The California Department of Public Health says it does not know of any human deaths from ‘recreational or drinking water exposure to cyanobacterial toxin’ although some animals have been killed by algae.
How can the health risks be minimized?
Not all blue-green algae blooms and scums are toxic but it is not possible to tell from appearance and so it’s best to assume they are harmful and take the following precautions:
- Do not swim in the water
- Do not swallow the water
- Avoid contact with the algae
- Do not eat fish caught from the water
- Observe and abide by any warning notices positioned around the water
Anyone who has come into contact with water containing algae should shower with fresh water immediately.
Anyone who has come into contact with affected water and has become ill should obtain medical attention.
Speaking from his home in Bamber Bridge, Lancashire, his father Peter, 70, said: ‘The family are just in shock – heartbroken.’
When asked whether he had received any further updates or was in contact with US authorities, the grandfather added: ‘We haven’t heard anything more.’
Chung is originally from Orange, California. She was earning her Masters in Counseling Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies after having graduated from University of California, Berkley in 2012. She was a sister of Alpha Chi Omega. Chung practiced yoga and taught Hatha and Prenatal yoga classes, according to her Instagram.
The couple were very active and often spent time outdoors or traveling.
They moved to Mariposa County from San Francisco during the pandemic when Gerrish was presented with an opportunity to work from home on a permanent basis, according to the San Francisco Gate.
Kristie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office has said investigators are still working to determine the cause of their deaths and ‘looking at all possibilities.’
‘It could be a carbon monoxide situation,’ which is why the department had been treating the scene as a hazmat situation she explained.
‘There are several abandoned mines up in the area and in an abundance of caution or recovery team is taking precautions for any poisonous gases, particles in the area,’ Mitchell added. ‘So far, there has been no measurable poisons registered.’
Mitchell also did not rule out possible exposure to toxic algae. She noted that the bodies of the deceased showed no signs of trauma, and no suicide note was found.
‘It is a very bizarre situation,’ she said.
According to a Reuters article published in 2013, two gold and silver miners died in Colorado after being exposed to fatal levels of carbon monoxide, and 19 others fell ill.
Dr. Mike Nelson, professor of mining engineering at University of Utah, had cast doubt on the theory that carbon monoxide emissions from an old gold mine were possibly to blame for the deaths from the beginning.
During a phone interview with the DailyMail.com on Wednesday, Nelson explained that gold mines are not known to produce carbon monoxide, and even if the gas were present, it would have gone up into the air.
He also noted that the family were found outdoors and not in an enclosed space where exposure to carbon monoxide could be lethal.
A friend reported the family missing at 11pm on Monday evening after Gerrish and Chung failed to show up for work that day, reported Fox 26 News.
Gerrish and Chung were last heard from early Sunday, when they uploaded a photo of a backpack. Rosanna Heaslett, the family friend, said they hiked on weekends.
The family’s gray Ford Raptor was located near the Sierra National Forest gate early Tuesday. The bodies of the couple, their daughter and pet dog were found 1.5 miles away from the vehicle between 9.30am and 10am.
Briese described the family as ‘very family oriented’ and said that ‘They’re smart, they know hiking and what type of gear you need or don’t need for the amount of time you’re out there, and it appears it was a day hike.’
Signs were posted on the trail warning hikers about ‘high concentrations’ of algae which can produce ‘extremely dangerous toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals’ in the water in the Merced River at Hites Cove
The bodies were located near the Hite Cove trail, known particularly in springtime to have spectacular wildflower displays
‘This is never the outcome we want or the news we want to deliver, my heart breaks for their family. Our Sheriff’s Chaplains and staff are working with their family and will continue to support them during this heartbreaking time,’ said Briese.
The sheriff’s office is investigating the deaths along with the California Department of Justice.
The remote area where the bodies were found had no cellphone service, Mitchell said. It was close to the Hite Cove trail, known particularly in springtime to have spectacular wildflower displays.
The area is normally populated by pines, many of which were destroyed by the 2018 Ferguson Fire.