Man convicted of killing McStay family sentenced to death

Charles "Chase" Merritt was sentenced to death Tuesday for killing the McStay family of Fallbrook.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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The 62-year-old welder convicted in the brutal beating deaths of a Fallbrook family of four — including two young children — was sentenced Tuesday to death.

Charles “Chase” Merritt, 62, was convicted in June of four counts of murder.

The sentence was handed down by San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith, who last year presided over the lengthy trial.

In morning proceedings before handing down the sentence, Smith said that the factors against Merritt “overwhelmingly” outweigh those in his favor.


Before Smith announced the sentence, Merritt cried as he spoke to the judge and said he was innocent: “I don’t deserve this. I did not do this.”

The sentence capped a near decade since the 2010 disappearance of Merritt’s business associate Joseph McStay, 40; the man’s wife, Summer McStay, 43; and the couple’s two preschool sons, Gianni, 4, and Joey Jr., 3.

Three years and nine months after they vanished, the family’s remains were found outside Victorville in San Bernardino County, buried in shallow desert graves.

Before the sentencing, extended family of the victims addressed the court, speaking of painful loss.

“The world was robbed of four beautiful souls,” Joseph’s brother, Mike McStay said.

The McStays vanished Feb. 4, 2010, food rotting on the counter and their beloved dogs left in the cold outside their Fallbrook home. The family’s Isuzu Trooper was soon found abandoned near the U.S.-Mexico border. Stumped investigators came to suspect they had intentionally gone south of the border, and perhaps met a deadly fate.

In November 2013, a dirt biker riding in the desert outside Victorville came across a child’s skull. Soon, investigators uncovered the family’s skeletal remains in shallow graves. The family had been beaten to death. Joseph had an electrical cord wrapped around his neck. Gianni had at least seven blows to his skull. Also in the graves: a 3-pound sledge hammer.

A year later, in November 2014, Merritt was arrested.

After several delays — some caused when Merritt repeatedly switched attorneys — trial testimony finally started in January 2019. In early June, a San Bernardino County jury found him guilty of four counts of murder.

The jury also voted to sentence him to life in prison in the death of Joseph McStay, but be put to death for the deaths of McStay’s wife and children.

Merritt has long maintained his innocence, but Smith said last week that he was convinced beyond reasonable doubt of Merritt’s guilt.


On Friday, Smith rejected a bid by Merritt’s attorney, Rajan Maline, for a new trial. The attorney cited, among other reasons, insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction.

Smith meticulously laid out his reasons for denying that request, explaining his take on what he saw at trial.

Among the evidence, the judge said Friday, were traces of Merritt’s DNA on the steering wheel of the family’s SUV — abandoned in San Ysidro — which he said offered “some evidence to suggest Mr. Merritt was the one who drove the vehicle there.”

And, Smith said, Merritt’s cellphone was in the area of the shallow graves a day or two after the family disappeared.

Then in an interview with detectives about two weeks after they family vanished, Merritt referred to McStay in the past tense, including a statement that he “was my best friend.”

Susan Blake, center, mother of Joseph McStay, addresses court prior to the sentencing of Charles “Chase” Merritt.
Susan Blake, center, mother of Joseph McStay, addresses court prior to the sentencing of Charles “Chase” Merritt.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Smith said that some items of evidence are “by themselves are inconsequential,” but have to be viewed in totality.

He also noted that Merritt’s attorneys “did present a very vigorous defense.” But he found some of their theories weren’t reasonable.

During the trial, the defense repeatedly pointed to another McStay business associate as having had motive — McStay had been trying to sideline the associate, as he had been doing with Merritt.

But, Smith said Friday, the presence of motive does not prove guilt. He said there was “no credible evidence” connecting that associate to the commission of a crime — nothing linking him to the home, to the abandoned SUV, to the grave sites. There was evidence, however, that the associate had been in Hawaii when the family disappeared.


“The court finds the evidence is substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict,” Smith said Friday.


3:29 p.m. Jan. 21, 2020: This story was updated with additional detail.

6:00 p.m. Jan. 21, 2020: This story was updated with additional information.