The Joseph McStay Family Murders

Family of Four Disappears From Fallbrook CA

Summer and Joseph McStay
Summer & Joseph McStay. Family Photos

On February 4, 2010, Joseph McStay, 43; his wife, Summer, 46; and their two young children, Gianni, 7; and Joseph Jr., 3, vanished, leaving their Fallbrook, California home locked and their pets outside without food. When law enforcement entered the house 10 days later, they found eggs on the kitchen counter and bowls of popcorn in the living room.

Four days later, their vehicle was found locked two blocks from the Mexican border.

A video from that time period shows a family matching the description of the McStays walking across the border.

However, on November 11, 2013, a motorcyclist found the remains of the McStay family in two shallow graves near Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, more than 100 miles from their home.

Here are the latest development in the McStay family murders case:

Attorney Wants Charges Dismissed

July 18, 2015 - The defense attorney for the man charged with killing a California family of four and burying their bodies in the desert has asked that all charges be dismissed against his client. Attorney Jimmy Mettias said the charges against Charles "Chase" Merritt are contradictory to the facts presented at a preliminary hearing.

Merritt is charged with the sledgehammer deaths of Joseph McStay, his wife and their two sons in February 2010. A dirt-bike rider found their bodies in November 2013 about 100 miles from their Fallbrook home.

In the four-page criminal complaint filed against Merritt, the prosecution said the crimes were committed in San Bernardino County, where the bodies were found. That is the main issue Mettias is challenging.

"This is an obvious and blatant contradiction to the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing, statements made by the District Attorney's case summary and theory of the case," Mettias said in his motion.

"In every probable cause statement, case summary, media interviews and other documents prepared by the District Attorney in this case, they have alleged with certainty that the murders occurred in San Diego County in the city of Fallbrook. This is a glaring inconsistency and further restricts Mr. Merritt's ability to defend himself against the charges."

"Merritt is entitled to a logical and coherent information that is consistent in nature," he wrote.

"The people have failed to plead the elements of the charged offenses with sufficient certainty to require the defendant to be held to answer for the charged offenses," Mettias claimed.

During the preliminary hearing, prosecutors said Merritt, who they say has a gambling problem, wrote several backdated checks on McStay's business account after the family disappeared. The five checks totaled $15,358.

Court papers revealed that Merritt owed Joseph McStay $30,000 for loans McStay made him to help cover his gambling debt. Merritt also owed the IRS more than $20,000 for unpaid taxes at the time the McStays vanished.

Merritt to Face Death Penalty

June 29, 2015 - Prosecutors have filed notice they will be seeking the death penalty against a man accused of killing a family of four and burying them in the desert.

District Attorney Mike Ramos filed notice that he will seek the death penalty against Charles Ray Merritt in the deaths of the McStay family.

Merritt has been held without bond since being arrested for the murders of his business partner, Joseph McStay; his wife, Summer; and sons Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3.

The family disappeared in February 2010 and their remains were not found until 2013. Merritt was charged with their murders a year later in November 2014.

The trial is scheduled to begin August 10.

DNA Found in McStays' Van

June 15, 2015 - The DNA of the man accused of killing a family of four and burying their bodies in the San Bernardino desert was found in the family's SUV near the Mexican border, according to evidence presented at a preliminary hearing. Charles "Chase" Merritt is facing murder charges in the deaths of all four members of the Joseph McStay family.

His DNA was found on the steering wheel and gear shift of the McStay's Isuzu Trooper, which was found abandoned near the border a few days after the family vanished, according to detective Edward Bachman.

Detective Troy DuGal testified at the hearing that when he interviewed Merritt two days after a missing persons report was filed for the family, that he referred to his business partner and family in the past tense.

Also at the hearing, testimony revealed that Joseph McStay, his wife Summer and their sons Gianni and Joseph Jr. were all killed by blows to the head, probably from a three-pound sledgehammer that was found buried at the site where the family was found.

Detective Bachman told the court that 4-year-old Gianni suffered at least seven blows.

But, Jimmy Mettias, Merritt's attorney, said in previous interviews with the media that the police have nothing to link his client to the sledgehammer or the crimes.

Merritt and McStay were business partners, so it was natural for Merritt to have been in and out of the McStay home and vehicles. Plus, Mettias said, Merritt has an alibi for the time of the murders, which he will not reveal until the trial.

McStay Suspect to Represent Himself

Jan. 30, 2015 - The man accused of killing a California family of four whose bodies were found in the Mojave Desert has asked to represent himself in hopes of speeding up the legal process. Charles "Chase" Merritt has been charged with the murders of the Joseph McStay family.

Merritt, who has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, wants the facts of the case to be made public quickly so that he can clear his name, according to his former attorney.

Robert Ponce, who was acting as Merritt's attorney, said the accused killer believes that he has only six to eight months to live.

Judge Michael Smith warned Merritt that representing himself was "historically unwise," and questioned him about his education and background. Even after Ponce told the judge that he believed Merritt has the intellect to defend himself, Judge Smith outlined in detail the disadvantages of his decision.

Judge Smith tentatively agreed to allow Merritt to represent himself, but said he had to obtain a note from his jailhouse doctors saying that he was healthy enough for the ordeal.

Also at the hearing, the judge denied a request from media sources to release the contents of search warrants filed late in the investigation. Judge Smith said to do so now would "seriously jeopardize the defendant's rights to a fair trial."

Foul Play Suspected Early in Case

Jan. 23, 2015 - At least one detective believed a missing California family was the victim of four play early in the investigation, but it was only after the bodies of the McStay family were found three years later that the case was treated a more than a missing persons case.

Search warrants issued early in the case, which were unsealed this week after requests from the media, reveal that one detective thought the family was kidnapped or killed after a search of their home shortly after they were reported missing.

In a February 19, 2010 search warrant, San Diego County Sheriff's Department Detective Troy DuGal wrote, "It is my opinion the McStay family is the victim of foul play," He also wrote: "I believe that some or all of the McStay family has been kidnapped and killed."

However, when the family's vehicle was found near the Mexican border and a surveillance video showed a family matching the description of the McStays walking across the border, San Diego authorities concluded they voluntarily fled to Mexico.

The case remained a missing persons case until a motorcyclist came across their remains in November 2013, in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles north of their home.

Friend Charged in McStay Murders

November 5, 2014 - A business associate who once called Joseph McStay his best friend has been arrested and charged with the murder of all four members of the McStay family. Charles Ray "Chase" Merritt, 57, was charged with four counts of murder with the special circumstance of committing multiple murders.

The special circumstance allegation makes Merritt eligible for the death penalty under California law, but prosecutors have not yet decided if they will seek death in the case, they said.

Joseph McStay had a business selling and installing landscape water features and, investigators said, Merritt manufactured the waterfalls that McStay sold.

San Bernardino Sheriff John McMahon said his investigators believe that Merritt beat each of the family members to death in their Fallbrook home and he acted alone. McMahon would not discuss the possible motive for the murders.

Merritt is being held without bail. To give him time to hire a attorney or decide to ask for a public defender, his arraignment was postponed until later this week, prosecutors said.

McStay Family Vanishes From Their Home

February 4, 2010 - From all available accounts, February 4, 2010 was just another routine day in the lives of the McStay family. Joseph McStay, who sold custom water features, talked with his dad, Patrick McStay, and scheduled a later lunch meeting.

Summer McStay spent the day overseeing the family's on-going home renovation while watching her two young boys. The family was preparing for Joseph Jr.'s up-coming birthday party that weekend.

But sometime later that evening, the family left their house, locking the doors and taking the family's Isuzu Trooper. They left the family two dogs outside without food or water.

"It's as if you took off really fast but were coming back," said Susan Blake, Joseph McStay's mother. "Your thoughts are going wild. 'Well, why would they be missing?' Something's not right here!"

Evidence Points to the Border

Four days later, the McStays' SUV was towed from a parking lot near the Mexican border, where it had been locked and abandoned. Additionally, the family computer showed that someone had done a search for getting passports for children going to Mexico. Summer McStay had looked into software for learning Spanish, investigators said.

Then there was a grainy video of a family of four, matching the McStays' description, walking across the border into Mexico. The children in the video appeared to be about the same ages as the McStay boys.

All of this evidence lead investigators, and some family members, to believe the McStays left voluntarily and for some unknown reason moved to Mexico.

But, Joseph McStay's father wasn't convinced.

Scared of Going to Mexico

"I said right up front, the first time I saw the surveillance footage, it wasn't them," said Patrick McStay. He also said that Summer McStay was afraid of going to Mexico. "Would Summer take her two children in there? Heck, no," he said.

However, after spending almost three years and accumulating nearly 4,500 pages of investigation materials, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department concluded that they family left on their own accord and they turned the case over to the FBI.

Remains Found in Desert

Then, on Nov. 11, 2013 a motorcycle rider passing through the Mojave Desert near Victorville west of Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County came across the shallow graves where the remains of the family were buried. They were identified by dental records.

Suddenly, the three-year-old missing persons case turned into a murder investigation. The San Diego Sheriff's department turned over all of their investigation materials to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's homicide investigators.

Sgt. Chris Fisher told reporters that his department followed up on 250 tips and anonymous calls, served 60 search warrants and conducted more than 200 interviews.

Home Was the Crime Scene

"There was no smoking gun," Fisher said. "Our job was to look at everybody."

Fisher said he doesn't believe the family on the video crossing into Mexico was the McStays. He also said that the investigation of the McStay's home found "enough evidence where we believe the crime occurred in that location."

The investigation led deputies to arrest Merritt, who has a lengthy criminal record, at least two felony convictions and who has served two terms in state prison.

Cold and Callous Murder

San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos told reporters that his office hopes to bring justice to the family.

"I don't need to tell you this is a cold and callous murder of an entire family," Ramos said. "There is no reason, no motive … for that ever, ever to occur. Especially for the young children, the most vulnerable victims."

'One of the Nicest People'

A year ago, in an interview with a newspaper reporter, Merritt said that he and Joseph McStay were very close. "He was my best friend and we told each other everything," Merritt said. He said McStay was "one of the nicest people on the planet."

He also said he saw Joseph McStay the morning he disappeared in a meeting in Rancho Cucamonga and he talked with McStay on the phone a few times later that day. He said he didn't answer McStay's final call that night because he was watching a movie with his girlfriend.

No Motive to Kill?

Merritt said in that same interview that a few days after last seeing McStay, he went to his home to check on him after not being able to get him on the phone. He said he gave food and water to the family dogs in the backyard.

Also, Merritt said he went out of business after the family disappeared because Joseph McStay was no longer around to sell his waterfall features, indicating to the reporter that he had no motive to kill the McStays.

Merritt also told the newspaper that he took a lie detector test requested by the San Diego police.