California

Family of four disappears

February 4, 2010
Fallbrook, California
The McStay family (pictured) disappear from their home

The McStays were last seen on February 4. By February 14, Joseph McStay’s brother became concerned when he had not been seen at his work, and visited his home. The house seemed to have been vacated in haste: uneaten popcorn was left in a bowl on the futon, the family dogs had been left outside unfed, and perishable food remained on the counter. Further investigation later revealed internet searches for which documents children would need to enter Mexico. The McStay’s SUV was also found abandoned in a strip mall near the United States/Mexico border.

The McStay family — Joseph Sr., Summer, and their children Gianni (4) and Joseph Jr. (3) — were not to be found. They remained missing for three years.

In the fall of 2013, an off-road motorcyclist came across a human skull in the Mojave Desert, leading to the discovery of four human skeletons buried in two shallow graves. The bodies were later identified as the McStay family. In one grave was the probable murder weapon: a sledgehammer. Joseph Sr.’s skull had been shattered and an electrical cord was wrapped around his neck while Summer had been struck in her jaw. Their sons each had skull fractures, with Gianni sustaining at least 7 blows to the head. It was theorized the children were killed because they may have been able to identify the killer.

Before the bodies were found, Charles “Chase” Merritt, who had a business relationship with Joseph Sr., had been interviewed about the family. He spoke of the McStays, saying Joseph “was my best friend” and Summer “was a verbal person.” When asked why he had referred to the McStays in the past tense, Merritt stated he was unaware he had and didn’t know why he would have. He was also asked by a reporter if he was the last person Joseph Sr. saw, to which he replied, “I’m definitely the last person he saw.”

Merritt was arrested in 2014 for the murders of the McStay family based on circumstantial evidence. A DNA mixture on the abandoned SUV’s steering wheel and gear shift was matched to Merritt (he claimed he had never driven the SUV before), cellphone records showed he was in the vicinity of the graves two days after the McStay’s disappearances, and within days of the disappearances had deposited thousands of dollars from Joseph Sr.’s account using QuickBooks software.

The prosecution pointed to this evidence and suggested Joseph Sr. had caught or suspected Merritt of stealing from his business account which led to a confrontation between the men, culminating in the murder. Merritt’s defense, on the other hand, pointed out the prosecution’s evidence was little more than circumstantial, including the DNA mixture found in the McStays’ SUV. The fact that it was a mixture, the defense argued, proved Merritt hadn’t been in the vehicle or his contribution of DNA would be much greater. The defense suggested the DNA was possibly transferred to Joseph via a handshake.

The jury deliberated on Merritt’s trial for a week, returning with a verdict of guilty for four counts of murder. Because the case involved multiple murdered victims, Merritt was eligible for the death penalty, which the jury recommended. Governor of California Gavin Newsom, however, recently issued a moratorium on capital punishment, ensuring no prisoner will be executed during his term in office. Merritt continues to plead his innocence.

Suggested reading:
Joseph’s father wrote a book chronicling his experiences with the case, told from his perspective, entitled McStays, Taken Too Soon: A True Story, which can be purchased on Amazon by clicking on the title. Disclaimer: this is an affiliate link, and I will receive a small commission from purchases made through this link.

Sources:
Figueroa, Teri. “Man convicted of killing McStay family sentenced to death.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. January 21, 2020. Accessed: February 4, 2020. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/courts/story/2020-01-21/man-convicted-of-killing-mcstay-family-sentenced-to-death%3f_amp=true
Tchekmedyian, Alene. “Jury recommends death for man convicted in McStay family murders.” Los Angeles Times. June 24, 2019. Accessed: February 4, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-mcstay-family-murders-chase-merritt-sentence-20190624-story.html?_amp=true
Tchekmedyian, Alene. “McStay murder trial: Man is convicted of killing family and burying their bodies in the Mojave Desert.” Los Angeles Times. June 10, 2019. Accessed: February 4, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-mcstay-family-murders-verdict-20190610-story.html%3f_amp=true
Gerber, Marissa. “Nine years after the McStay family disappeared, their accused killer heads to trial.” Los Angeles Times. January 7, 2019. Accessed: February 4, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-merritt-murder-trial-20190107-story.html (image source)
Anton, Mike. “On quiet cul-de-sac, a family vanishes.” Los Angeles Times. February 27, 2010

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