A judge Monday ordered Charles “Chase” Merritt to stand trial in the slayings of a family of four, whose remains were found in the desert near Victorville more than three years after they disappeared.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith issued his decision after a daylong preliminary hearing in which prosecutors for the first time presented details of their case against Merritt, a business associate of Joseph McStay.
McStay, along with his wife, Summer, and their sons, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, disappeared in February 2010. The case puzzled detectives for years because the family appeared to have left their home and simply vanished, leaving no sign of struggle and little clue as to what might have happened to them.
On Monday, investigators involved in the case painted a gruesome picture of their fate, indicating they may have been killed with a sledgehammer found at a shallow desert gravesite along with the family’s remains. Detectives testified that they used an online accounting program, DNA and bank and cellphone records to tie Merritt to the killings.
Merritt’s defense attorneys said they expected the ruling and would wait until trial to present evidence that Merritt is innocent.
“You’ve only heard one side of the story so far,” defense attorney Jimmy Mettias said.
Detectives testified that Merritt opened a bank account the day before the family disappeared and in the days after they vanished, he began depositing checks worth thousands of dollars from Joseph McStay, which were written using the online accounting program QuickBooks. The checks were backdated, printed and then deleted from the program, said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Hanke.
In the months after the family’s disappearance, Merritt made large withdrawals from that account at local casinos, said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Detective Ryan Smith.
An FBI agent testified that Merritt’s cellphone records showed that his phone was in the vicinity of the gravesite two days after the family disappeared.
Detective Edward Bachman, also of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, told the court that it was Merritt who called McStay’s father to say the family was missing. He also helped McStay's brother search their home in the days after their disappearance.
Joseph McStay’s remains were found wrapped in a woven blanket with a white extension cord wrapped around the neck, Bachman said.
It appeared that Joseph, Summer and Gianni suffered multiple fractures to their heads consistent with a 3-pound sledgehammer found at the gravesite, Bachman said. The remains of Joseph Jr. were insufficient to determine a cause of death.
Judge Smith said the evidence presented, including the checks, lead to a “strong inference that the defendant was involved in the disappearance and the ultimate deaths of the victims.”
Mettias, Merritt's defense attorney, criticized the case, saying: “There hasn't been anything, not one shred of evidence, that has pointed to Mr. Merritt having committed these murders. Everything thus far that's been presented has no bearing at all on whether or not these murders were committed by him.”
He told reporters after the hearing that he will present an explanation for the checks at trial.
“There’s nothing nefarious,” he said.
Michael McStay, Joseph’s brother, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision.
“It’s been five years in the making. It’s been a long road, but this provides some closure,” he said. “They got the right guy, and they have what they need to put him where he needs to go.”