Cops rule out lightning as cause of death of tech engineer and family

Snapchat engineer, his wife, baby and dog were NOT killed by lightning on California hiking trail, say cops as they await ‘key’ toxicology results in mystery deaths

  • More than six weeks later, authorities still don’t know what killed Jonathan Gerrish, Ellen Chung, daughter Muji and their dog on hiking trail 
  • Sheriff’s office has ruled out gun or any other type of weapon; lightening strike; carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; cyanide; drugs/alcohol, and suicide 
  • Few ‘key’ toxicology results are still pending, but there is no timeline for them
  • Family of three and pet were found dead in Sierra National Forest on August 17 
  • A 28-mile stretch of the River Merced in California was closed in early September after water samples revealed the presence of toxic algae 

Authorities in California have ruled out a freak lightening strike and cyanide exposure as possible causes of death of a British Snapchat engineer and his family, but more than six weeks later they appear to be no closer to finding out what killed the young parents, their baby daughter and pet dog on a remote hiking trail.

Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese said in an emailed statement on Thursday that many toxicology reports have been completed as part of the ongoing investigation into the August 17 deaths of Jonathan Gerrish, his wife, Ellen Chung, daughter Muji and their family dog, but a few ‘key’ results were still pending. 

Briese did not specify the exact nature of the outstanding toxicology results and said he does not know when they would come in. 

More than six weeks later, authorities still don’t know what killed Jonathan Gerrish, Ellen Chung, daughter Muji and their dog on a California hiking trail, but they now know it was not any kind of weapon, cyanide, suicide or lightning strike 

The family’s pet dog, Oski, was found dog alongside its owners on August 17

Based on evidence recovered at the scene in Sierra National Forest, or through the investigation, the sheriff’s office so far has ruled out more than a half-dozen potential causes of death, including gun or any other type of weapon; lightening strike; carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; cyanide; illegal drugs or alcohol, and suicide. 


  • Gun or any other type of weapon
  • Lightning Strike
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Cyanide Exposure
  • Illegal Drugs / Alcohol
  • Suicide 

‘We respect and understand the need for information and details regarding this case,’ Briese stated. ‘Our current priorities remain supporting and informing the Gerrish / Chung family during this tragic time. As we navigate through this investigation with the family, we will later share our findings with the public.’

Sheriff’s detectives are said to be working closely with a toxicologist, an environmental specialist and the FBI to determine what happened to the family. 

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

After water samples from the river tested positive for toxic algae, authorities closed 28 miles of the waterway between the towns of Briceburg and Bagby. 

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

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

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

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

At around 7.45am on August 15, a witness saw Gerrish and Chung heading to the Savage Lundy Trail in their truck. 

Two days later, the parents, their one-year-old daughter and their dog, Oski, were discovered by on the trail by search and rescue teams.  

Investigators previously revealed that Gerrish was researching the Hites Cove hike on a phone app the day before the family set off on their doomed journey. 

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. 

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.

Gerrish was a software developer for Snapchat and had previously worked for Google. He graduated from Newcastle University. His American wife, Ellen Chung, was studying psychology and the couple were very active

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.

Gerrish was a software developer for Snapchat and 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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