A California couple, their infant daughter and their dog were mysteriously found dead on a remote hiking trail in the state’s Sierra National Forest on Tuesday in a case that authorities are treating as a hazardous materials situation.
John Gerrish, his wife Ellen Chung and their one-year-old girl, Miju, were initially reported missing by a friend on Monday evening, according to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office.
Search and rescue teams found their vehicle at the gate of the Hite Cove trail in the national forest on Tuesday, then came upon their bodies a short time later.
Investigators did not find any “clear cause of death” and the scene is “currently being handled as a hazmat and coroner investigation,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ve never seen a death like this,” Sheriff Jeremy Briese said in an interview with KGPE-TV.
“It could be a carbon monoxide situation. That’s one of the reasons why we’re treating it as a hazmat situation,” Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Kristie Mitchell told The Mercury News. She added that investigators are also mulling the possibility that the family died due to toxic algae or gas from mines in the area.
Mitchell described the scene as “very unusual” in a separate interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.
“There were no signs of trauma, no obvious cause of death. There was no suicide note,” she said. “They were out in the middle of a national forest on a day hike.”
The bodies were sent for autopsies and toxicology exams on Wednesday, Mitchell said.
“We don’t have any answers,” she added. “This is definitely bizarre.”
Sheriff Briese said his heart “breaks” for the victims’ family.
“This is never the outcome we want or the news we want to deliver,” he said in a statement.
The Hite Cove trail is well-known for taking hikers through stunning fields of wildflowers. It’s also remote enough that most hikers cannot get cell service on the trail.
Authorities say there are abandoned mineshafts in the area, but they have not yet located them.
Gerrish was a software engineer from the U.K. and Chung was a yoga instructor from San Diego, according to reports.
Images posted on Chung’s social media show that she and Gerrish were avid hikers.
The investigation is ongoing.
—With files from The Associated Press