Lightning eyed in deaths of California family on hiking trail

Lightning eyed in deaths of California family on hiking trail

September 9, 2021

British Snap engineer, his wife, baby and dog who were found dead on remote California trail may have been struck by LIGHTNING

  • Authorities are looking at lightning strike as possible culprit in deaths of California family in August 
  • A 28-mile stretch of the River Merced in California was closed Friday after water samples revealed the presence of the algae
  • The closure will affect campgrounds and hiking trails between the towns of Briceburg and Bagby 
  • Has raised speculation British engineer Jonathan Gerrish, his wife Ellen Chung their dog and one year-old daughter Muji may have been killed by the bloom 
  • They were discovered dead along the trial in August. Investigators say they weren’t killed with a weapon or by mine gas, with toxicology reports pending  
  • Sierra National Forest in California closed more than a dozen trails, campgrounds and picnic areas, citing ‘unknown hazards’ on Tuesday

A lightning strike is now being investigated as a possible culprit in the deaths of a California family and their dog, whose bodies were found on a remote hiking trail last month. 

Snapchat engineer Jonathan Gerrish, 45, his wife, Ellen Chung, their one year-old daughter, Muji and the family’s dog, Oski, were discovered dead in Sierra National Forest on August 17. 

Based on autopsy results, investigators have confirmed that they were not killed by gases from a nearby mine, or with weapons such as a gun or a knife, giving rise to a theory that the family died after coming in contact with toxic algae.

After water samples from the nearby Merced River tested positive for toxic algae, authorities on Friday closed 28 miles of the waterway between the towns of Briceburg and Bagby.

While awaiting the family’s toxicology results, officials have now turned their attention to a lightening strike as a possible cause of death, according to a recent New York Times article. 

According to the National Weather Service, ‘lightning is primarily an injury to the nervous system, often with brain injury and nerve injury. Serious burns seldom occur.’ 

The bodies of the deceased showed no visible signs of trauma, as authorities previously reported.  

Only about 10 per cent of lightning strikes result in death, often due to cardiac arrest. 

Lightning kills an average of 49 people each year in the US and hundreds more are injured.  

Jonathan Gerrish, wife Ellen Chung, their baby daughter, Muji, and their dog may have been killed by a lightening strike where they’d been hiking 

A 28 mile-stretch of the Merced River – pictured – has been closed to the public after toxic algae was found in water downstream from where the family died 

Mystery continues to surround what caused the California family’s deaths. 

Toxic algae blooms were discovered around 12 miles downstream from where Gerrish and his family were discovered dead, prompting the Bureau of Land Management last week to close hiking trails and campgrounds along a stretch of the Merced River to the public. 

Friday’s closure has further raised suspicions that the family have been fatally-poisoned from drinking water, although officials are still waiting to receive toxicology reports. 

BLM spokesperson Elizabeth Meyer-Shields said of the algae discovery: ‘These algal blooms can produce toxins that can make people and pets extremely sick.

‘We will continue to monitor for the algae’s presence and look forward to when the public can safely recreate in the Merced River.’  

The Sierra National Forest in California closed more than a dozen trails, campgrounds and picnic areas, citing ‘unknown hazards’ 

Forest officials closed recreational areas effective August 29 through September 26

Gerrish, his wife and baby were found dead in the vicinity of this remote canyon near the Californian town of Mariposa  

On August 17, search and rescue teams discovered the bodies of Jonathan Gerrish, 45, his wife, Ellen Chung, 30, their one-year-old daughter, Muji, and the family dog, Oski, on the Savage Lundy Trail. 

The notice announcing the closures stresses that signs warning the public of ‘potentially harmful algae blooms’ have been posted in the area sine mid-July. 


On August 17, Jonathan Gerrish, his wife, Ellen Chung, baby daughter, Muji, and the family dog were found dead on a remote hiking trail in California’s Sierra National Forest. 

Since then, authorities have ruled out several causes of death, including gunshots and stab wounds, as well as toxic gas from an abandoned mine.

Two possible theories for how the family of three and their dog died that are currently being considered include a 1) toxic algae bloom and 2) a possible lightning strike. 

1. Officials last week closed 28 miles of the Merced River after water samples tested positive for toxic algae, which can make people and animals extremely sick if consumed. 

2. Meanwhile, authorities are also looking at the possibility that the family were killed in a lightening strike. 

Lightening can injure the nervous system and trigger cardiac arrest, although fatalities are rare.  

On Monday, the US Forest Service closed all forests in California through September 17 because of raging wildfires, including the Dixie, the second-largest wildfire in state history.    

Two weeks after the grim discoveries of the family’s bodies in the remote part of Mariposa County, investigators still do not know how they died. 

According to the latest update from the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, based on autopsies and a necropsy performed on the parents, child and their dog, officials have ruled out as causes of death gunshot wounds or injuries inflicted by any other type of weapon, as well as chemical hazards, such as gasses from an old mine along the Savage Lundy Trial. 

She spoke three days after federal officials closed trails and campgrounds in California’s Sierra National Forest, citing the presence of ‘unknown hazards’, near the area where the family died.

‘As a precaution and to protect the public from unknown hazards in the area, The SNF decided to close several recreation sites, roads, and trails along the Merced River and its South Fork, until deemed safe for public use,’ the Sierra National Forest (SNF) announced in a press release on Saturday. 

Officials revealed that the closures of more than a dozen picnic areas, campgrounds and forest trails, effective from August 29 through September 29, are due to ‘unknown hazards found in and around the Savage Lundy Trail.’

At around 7.45am on August 15, a witness saw the family heading to the trail in their truck. 

Authorities are still awaiting toxicology reports and cell phone data before making any determination on how the family died. 

The bodies of the family of three and their pet were found on the Savage Lundy Trail, 1.5 miles from their parked truck  

There have been signs posted in the area since mid-July warning the public of toxic algae blooms 

Additional testing is also being performed by the CDC and Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment on water samples taken from the area and the drinking water the family had with them at the time of their deaths.

‘We know the family and friends of John and Ellen are desperate for answers, our team of Detectives are working round the clock,’ Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said in a statement last week. ‘Cases like this require us to be methodical and thorough while also reaching out to every resource we can find to help us bring those answers to them as quickly as we can.’ 

Investigators revealed for the first time that Gerrish was researching the Hites Cove hike on a phone app the day before the family set off.

Two weeks later, investigators still do not know how the family died. Toxicology results are pending after gunshot wounds and injuries from other weapons have been ruled out 

Detectives believe they managed most of a challenging 8.5-mile loop, which included 5 miles along a steep slope with little shade as temperatures reached 109 degrees, before they died on the hiking trail, about 1.5 miles away from their truck, which was parked at the Hites Cove trailhead. 

Oski, the family’s 9-year-old Akita mix, was found dead alongside his owners

A missing person’s report was made at 11pm on August 16 and a Mariposa County sheriff’s deputy discovered their truck at the end of Hites Cove Road at the trailhead around three hours later.

Search teams were deployed on the steep trails and the family were found along the switchbacks leading back to their trucks at 11am on August 17.

There were few clues for detectives at the scene and no signs of foul play, such as trauma, the police said.

No significant evidence was found in searches of the family home and vehicles, the sheriff’s office said. FBI agents are currently working to extract data from Gerrish and Chung’s phones. 

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. 

Gerrish was a software developer for Snapchat, had previously worked for Google. He graduated from Newcastle University. 

His American wife was studying psychology and the couple were very active and often spent time outdoors or traveling. 


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.

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