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Man trying to do ‘personal research’ into deaths of hiking family is rescued after getting lost

A law officer in uniform speaks to the media
Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese speaks in August about the investigation into the deaths of a husband and wife, their 1-year-old daughter and their dog on a trail in the Hites Cove area of the Sierra National Forest.
(Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee)

Nearly one year after a family died on a remote trail in Northern California, a man from Michigan who tried to retrace their steps had to be rescued last week, drawing the ire of the local sheriff.

According to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, a call came in June 29 reporting a man missing in the Hites Cove/Savage Lundy Trail area, near where the bodies of Jonathan Gerrish, his wife, Ellen Chung, their 1-year-old daughter Aurelia “Miju” Chung-Gerrish and their dog Oski were found in August 2021.

The caller said they had spoken with the man around 7 a.m. June 28 about the deaths of the family, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“He was not a local man and spoke to the reporting party about the previous deaths and the determination of those deaths, which he found ‘odd’ and wanted to do some personal research on his own,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

The next morning, June 29, the caller noticed the man’s rented vehicle was still parked at the trailhead and contacted authorities, deputies said. A search and rescue mission was launched and the man was found on the Hites Cove Road portion of the trail.

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Sheriff’s officials said the man was in his mid-60s, about 5 foot 6, 200 pounds and wearing sweatpants “on some of the hottest days we have seen this year.”

“It is hard not to be angry about this particular rescue mission,” Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said. “To have someone purposely put themselves in danger, using vital resources and potentially putting the safety of our staff in danger all to try and prove us wrong is maddening and quite frankly sickening.”

The man, who wasn’t identified other than being from Michigan, started his hike in an area that was blocked by a gate and a “CLOSED” sign, deputies said.

“He immediately started to complain that he was forced to spend the night at the bottom of Hites Cove trail because he was unable to find the trail that leads to the Savage Lundy portion,” where the family died in August, the Sheriff’s Office statement said. “He tried multiple times to call 911, but the calls would not go through. He did have two 1-gallon water containers with him and was concerned that he was forced to drink water he obtained from the river area and wanted to know if there had been updated algae testing.”

Medical personnel treated the man for badly blistered feet and dehydration before he left in his car against medical advice, deputies said.

The cellphone analysis supports the finding of heat-related deaths for a couple and their young daughter last summer in the Sierra Nevada.

Gerrish, Chung, Miju and Oski died on the Savage Lundy Trail in August amid sweltering temperatures.

Out of water, exposed and overheating, the father tried sending a last, desperate message for help at 11:56 a.m. Aug. 15.

But the message never went through.

Theories abounded over the family’s deaths after their bodies were discovered days later.

Physical force and violence were quickly ruled out, as was toxic gas from an abandoned mine shaft. Lightning strikes were eliminated, and investigators considered suicide and drug or alcohol use before moving on.

Some wondered whether water tainted by a toxic algae bloom in the Merced River, which runs along a portion of the trail, caused their deaths. Toxicology and other tests eventually ruled that out as well.

In October, Briese revealed that an investigation found the family and their dog had died of heat-related illness and probable dehydration.

About four months later, an analysis of Gerrish’s phone by the FBI revealed his last message for help and allowed authorities to track the family’s route along the trail.

The fire in Northern California’s Amador and Calaveras counties grew slightly on Wednesday as firefighters were able to increase containment to 40%, Cal Fire says. It’s one of the largest fires this season.

Gerrish and Chung were experienced hikers who had recently moved to Mariposa from San Francisco.

Savage Lundy, though short, is known to be challenging. Its south-southeast orientation exposes it to constant sunlight, and the 2018 Ferguson fire left little vegetation capable of producing shade, Briese said.

Authorities urged anyone planning a hike or other outdoor activities in Mariposa County to inform others of their plans, check trail conditions, seek wilderness permits where required, be prepared for conditions, bring more water and food than they think is needed and expect to not have cellphone service.

Deputies also directed the public to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office app, which has been updated to include information about conditions in the Stanislaus and Sierra national forests.

“The forest is the forest,” the Sheriff’s Office said in its statement about last week’s rescue. “It can be beautiful, dangerous, awe inspiring and treacherous all at the same time. The wonders of Mother Nature must be respected, it isn’t Disneyland. It isn’t a perfectly maintained, temperature controlled, fresh arctic water served on every corner zone for people to frolic in without a care in the world.”


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