Sierra National Forest officials Saturday issued a closure of the Merced River Recreation Site “due to unknown hazards found in and near the Savage Lundy Trail.”
The trail is set to be closed until Sept. 26, or sooner “if conditions change” around the area.
John Gerrish, 45, Ellen Chung, 30, and their 1-year-old daughter Miju — as well as their family dog Oski — were found dead Aug. 17 in the Devil’s Gulch area in the south fork of the Merced River in the Sierra National Forest, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said. Responding agencies treated the scene as a hazmat situation because of uncertainty about the cause of the fatalities.
Previous autopsy data provided by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office has ruled out chemical hazards on the Savage Lundy Trail and acute trauma, such as stabbing, gunshot wounds or blunt-force trauma.
Therefore, this latest closure — which took place just days before all California national forests were shuttered because of the Caldor Fire — adds an additional complication to their mysterious deaths. There exists the possibility that a hazard was identified near, but not on, the trail that posed a risk to the family.
While speculation continues over the role of harmful algal blooms, officials posted signs as early as mid-July around the area warning about the risks of drinking water near the area.
Toxicology results are expected in the upcoming weeks, while investigators requested access to Chung and Gerrish’s cellphones and social media accounts last week.
Water samples from around the scene and with the family were sent early last week to the California State Water Resources Control Board and to independent labs, said the sheriff’s office.
The family’s Sunday hike was intended to be just a daylong hike, which prompted concern from multiple friends when the family didn’t come home. The temperature at the time, according to the sheriff’s office, ranged from 103 to 109 degrees.
The California Department of Justice and sheriff’s office workers are investigating the deaths, which are being handled as a hazmat and coroner investigation.
“We know the family and friends of John and Ellen are desperate for answers, our team of Detectives are working round the clock,” said Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese in a statement last week.