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California family that died during mountain hike sent a final, desperate text: "Can you help us"

Family of 3 found dead in remote hiking area
Family of 3 found dead in remote California hiking area 01:36

A family that died of heat exhaustion during a grueling summer hike in Northern California attempted to send a last, desperate text to "help us," authorities said Thursday. The Mariposa County Sheriff's Office released information pulled from the cellphone of Jonathan Gerrish after months of work with an FBI forensics team.   

One text shortly before noon on Aug. 15, addressed to a person whose name wasn't released, asked: "Can you help us" and added: "On savage lundy trail heading back to Hites cove trail. No water or ver (over) heating with baby," the sheriff's office said.

But the area had bad cellphone service and the text never went through. Neither did five phone calls to various people, investigators said.

John Gerrish, Ellen Chung and Muji CBS

Gerrish, 45, his wife Ellen Chung, 31, their 1-year-old daughter Aurelia "Miju" Chung-Gerrish, and their dog Oski were found dead on a hiking trail near the Merced River last August.

The sheriff's office also said the family took multiple photos throughout their hike, including pictures of the Merced River and two "selfie style family photo(s)."

Their deaths baffled investigators. The case involved more than 30 law enforcement agencies that had painstakingly reviewed — and ruled out — causes such as murder, lightning strikes, poisoning from algae-tainted water, abandoned mines that might emit toxic gas, illegal drugs and suicide.

Several sites and trails in the Sierra National Forest were closed due to public safety and "unknown hazards" following the family's deaths. 

Last fall, investigators concluded that the family died of extreme heat stroke. Temperatures that afternoon reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the steep mountain terrain and the family had run out of water. A wildfire had burned off any shade canopy.

Officials found the family two days later after relatives had reported them missing. The family had hiked 6.4 miles with the baby in a backpack-type carrier. They were 1.6 miles away from their car.

The family had an 85-ounce water container with them that was empty.

The cellphone was found in Gerrish's pocket. Beginning shortly after noon, Gerrish and Chung tried to call and text for help several times, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Five phone calls — four of them made in rapid succession — went to several phone numbers but not 911, the sheriff's office said.

The first call was made at 12:09 p.m. Beginning at 12:35 p.m., the family made the final four calls in rapid succession, investigators said.

However, none of the calls connected.

The Mariposa County Sheriff's Office used the information extracted from the phone to re-create the path and timeline based on the GPS locations. Mariposa County Sheriff's Office

"The cell phone data results were the last thing both the family and detectives were waiting on,"  Sheriff Jeremy Briese said. "The extracted information confirms our initial findings. I am very proud of my team and our partner agencies for all the work they put in. Their dedication has allowed us to close this case and answer lingering questions the family had, bringing them a little peace."

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