FALLBROOK, Calif. - The 2010 disappearance of Joseph McStay and his family was shrouded in mystery.
McStay, 40, his wife, Summer McStay, 43, and their two sons, Gianni , 4, and 3-year-old Joseph Jr., vanished Feb. 4, 2010, from their home in the San Diego County community of Fallbrook, uneaten bowls of popcorn on the couch, food left to rot on the kitchen counter and their dogs left in the yard of the home they’d just moved into.
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San Diego County officials were puzzled by the disappearances, according to KTLA in Los Angeles. They said at one point that they believed the family had potentially gone voluntarily to Mexico, though they could not say what for.
The Los Angeles Times said a glance at the family’s computer showed searches, including, “What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?” The family’s Isuzu Trooper was found in the parking lot of a strip mall in San Ysidro, just across the border from Mexico.
According to The Washington Post, investigators looked at hours of grainy footage from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry, at one point finding a family of four -- parents holding the hands of two little boys -- and believed it might have been the McStays. Believing the family was out of the country, county detectives turned the case over to the FBI.
It wasn’t until 2013 that investigators learned the family never made it to the border. An off-road motorcyclist stumbled upon skeletal remains in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, more than 100 miles north of the McStay home.
Joseph McStay’s remains were found in a shallow grave with those of Joey Jr., the Times reported. Summer McStay and Gianni were found in a separate shallow grave, along with a rusty sledgehammer that authorities believe was the murder weapon.
On Monday, jurors returned a guilty verdict against Charles Ray “Chase” Merritt, the 62-year-old Rancho Cucamonga man investigators said bludgeoned the entire family to death, KTLA reported. Merritt was a welder who helped Joseph McStay build custom water fountains for McStay’s company, according to the Times.
The McStay killings and subsequent criminal case garnered national attention and was streamed live by the Law & Crime Network. Watch videos of his five-month trial here.
The victims’ remains told a gruesome story. Joseph McStay’s skull was shattered, the Times reported. Summer McStay was hit in the jaw.
According to the Post, Summer McStay was clad only in a paint-specked bra. The couple had been painting the walls of their new home.
Both of their sons had skull fractures. Investigators believe the children were killed because they could identify their attacker.
“It was blow, after blow, after blow to a child’s skull,” prosecutor Britt Imes said during closing arguments, according to KTLA.
Motivated by ‘greed and self-interest’
Investigators gave prosecutors a case against Merritt based on circumstantial evidence.
Joseph McStay had decided to cut Merritt out of his company, Earth Inspired Products, for doing a poor job, the Times reported.
The newspaper also reported that several days before the McStay family disappeared, Joseph McStay accused Merritt of owing him more than $42,000 for a botched job. Prosecutors alleged that Merritt then forged checks to himself from McStay’s account and attempted to erase his tracks.
Merritt consistently referred to Joseph McStay in the past tense when speaking with investigators about the family’s disappearance. He did the same in interviews with CNN, which were played for the jurors.
Merritt also admitted to a CNN reporter that he was the last person to see Joseph McStay alive, the Times reported.
In the days after the family vanished, Merritt’s cellphone went dark for hours at a time, prosecutors argued. At one point, the blackout lasted six hours.
“What could the defendant do in six hours?” San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes said during closing arguments. “Clean up a crime scene? Hide evidence? Move evidence?”
Merritt’s cellphone records did show, however, that his phone was in the area of the desert gravesites two days after the family disappeared, the Times reported.
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s detective also testified that DNA was found on the gearshift and steering wheel of the McStay family’s Isuzu, and the mixture included Merritt’s genetic profile, the Times reported.
Merritt’s defense attorneys argued that their client was convicted solely on motive. Showing jurors photos of the McStay home, attorney James McGee pointed out the clutter and trash strewn about but said there were no signs of blood or violence, despite prosecutors’ claims that the attack began inside the home and the killer cleaned up the scene.
“The idea that this was done here is just ridiculous,” McGee said, according to the Times. “What evidence did they show you that it was cleaned up?”
He said prosecutors could not admit they made a mistake when they charged Merritt.
“This case is brought forward not on evidence, but on egos and pride,” McGee said.
Watch prosecutors’ opening statement in Merritt’s trial below.
Watch defense attorneys opening statements below.
McGee and co-counsel Rajan Maline pointed to another of McStay’s business associates, who they claim stole money from McStay’s accounts after the family’s disappearance, the Times said. Prosecutors argued that the unidentified associate had gone to Hawaii at the time, but defense lawyers said no boarding pass or ticket could verify that claim.
“Their whole case is motive. They’ve spun a lot of tales to you,” Maline told the jury during closing arguments. “They’ve given you half-truths.”
The Times said Merritt sat staring straight ahead, his hands clasped together as he awaited the verdict. When the court clerk pronounced him guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, he closed his eyes for a moment, then dropped his head.
Members of the McStay family wept, the newspaper said.
The verdict brought to an end nine years of heartache and uncertainty for the family members the McStay’s left behind.
Joseph McStay’s mother, Susan Blake, turned to a woman leaving the courtroom next to her and smiled.
“It’s over,” Blake said, according to the Times.
Merritt’s uncertainty continues, however.
Jurors on Tuesday began hearing testimony through which they will determine Merritt’s punishment -- life in prison or death. Jurors found his crimes included “special circumstances” because more than one person was killed, making him eligible for the death penalty.
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