Authorities Investigating Whether Lightning Caused Mysterious Death of Family Hiking Near Yosemite

by Amy Myers

Almost a month after the mysterious deaths of a family hiking near Yosemite, investigators are now looking into lightning as the cause. On August 17, John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, one-year-old daughter Muji and their family dog, Oski, were discovered dead on a popular wildflower trail by the national park.

Initially, authorities took extreme precautions as they suspected that the area could be a HAZMAT situation. With abandoned mines in the area, it was possible that there was an unknown carbon monoxide leak resonating from one of the shafts. Soon, though, the team found no traces of any toxic gases in the vicinity of the hiking family’s remains. Authorities then investigated whether foul play could have been the cause of the family’s untimely demise. However, no evidence, such as weapons or noticeable wounds, showed that this was a plausible explanation.

“This is a very unusual, unique situation,” said Kristie Mitchell, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. “There were no signs of trauma, no obvious cause of death. There was no suicide note.”

Now, police are re-examining the circumstances at the time the family was hiking to see if lightning played a role in their death. During the summer, it is not uncommon for national park hikers to find themselves in the middle of a freak storm. On a trail with little coverage from trees, lightning will strike the tallest conductible objects – the people on the trail. If the family was in close proximity to each other when the storm hit, they could have all been struck.

Investigators Looking Into Second Theory Behind Death of Family Hiking Near Yosemite

While authorities continue to investigate the possibility of a lightning storm at the time Gerrish and his family were hiking, they are still considering a previous theory, too. When the investigation team ruled out toxic gases and homicide, they decided to look into the presence of toxic algae.

At the time of their death, Gerrish and his family were hiking near the Devil’s Gulch area in the South Fork of the Merced drainage. Police later found toxic algae blooms in the Merced River. The theory now is that the family may have ingested water from the river that contained the lethal algae. However, they are still awaiting the results from the autopsies.

Meanwhile, local authorities closed the 28 miles of the Merced River until the algae growth is under control. This includes campgrounds and recreational areas next to the infected waters. For now, there’s no telling when they will lift the closure.

“I’ve been here for 20 years. And I’ve never seen a death-related case like this,” County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said upon first finding Gerrish and his family’s remains“There’s no obvious indicators of how it occurred.”