Nearly four years ago, the McStays left their snug home in suburban San Diego County on a chilly February evening. Piling into their Isuzu Trooper, parents Joseph and Summer and young sons Gianni and Joseph Jr. left behind two dogs, two bowls of popcorn and, soon, a mystery.
Their car turned up four days later in the parking lot of a mini-mall near the Mexican border, with a few birthday toys for one of the boys tossed in back. But there was no sign of the McStays.
Some 1,374 days later and about 100 miles to the north, San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies uncovered the skeletal remains of the parents and two small bodies believed to be their boys, authorities said Friday. An off-road motorcyclist had noticed a few scattered bones four days earlier, near what turned out to be a pair of shallow graves on the edge of the desert outside Victorville.
After years of false leads and purported sightings from around the nation and into Mexico, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon put part of the mystery to rest when he announced that the four McStays were homicide victims. But the sheriff said it would take more investigation before detectives would have any hope of saying how or why the family died.
“It’s not really the outcome we were looking for,” Joseph McStay’s brother, Michael, said, pausing at the podium of a San Bernardino news conference as he began to cry. “But it gives us courage to know they’re together and they’re in a better place.”
The brother described the “tough road” his family has endured and asked the media to give them space for grieving. A half dozen relatives sat nearby, holding back tears, several wearing dark glasses.
From the time the family disappeared in February 2010, detectives in San Diego County said they were baffled by the case. The 40-year-old husband and his wife, 43, appeared to have no enemies. Joseph McStay appeared to have plenty of work at his business, Earth Inspired Products, which installed water fountains.
The lead investigator in the case, Troy DuGal, said he found no signs of forced entry or a struggle at the McStays’ home on a cul-de-sac in Fallbrook. A surveillance camera from a nearby home indicated the parents and their two boys, 3 and 4 years old, had left on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, at 7:47 p.m.
No one reported a trace of them until the following Monday, when security guards at the small shopping center in San Ysidro found the SUV. They had the car towed, seemingly just another one belonging to the visitors who illegally parked in the lot before taking the pedestrian overcrossing into Mexico.
The Isuzu yielded no significant clues. Investigators wondered if the McStays had simply walked over the border. That theory gained some traction when video from a surveillance camera at the border revealed pictures of a man and woman, each holding the hand of a small boy.
Family members looked at the video. The woman wore clothing that looked like it could be Summer’s — a white, fur-lined jacket and Ugg boots. But the man seemed too tall and slender to be Joseph.
An FBI forensic lab had picked through the family computers and found other possible hints of an impending trip to Mexico. Someone had searched: “What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?” Another search indicated a possible interest in Spanish lessons.
But others close to the family said the McStays had talked about how the drug wars in Mexico made travel there too dangerous. They were sure the parents never would have gone voluntarily, especially with their boys.
“My son didn’t walk away,” Joseph’s father, Patrick McStay, said Thursday. “They didn’t walk into Mexico. They would never do that.”
The disappearance of an entire family is a rare event. Of the 1 million people reported missing each year, 95% turn up within 24 hours. But the chances of being found decline with each passing day.
The case attracted big media attention. Each time another TV program aired pictures of the McStays, tips would flow in. Someone thought they spotted Summer at an Ikea in Burbank. Another report put the family at a restaurant in Mexico.
The leads came to nothing, but DuGal soon had four binders filled with evidence, each 4 inches thick. Still, family and friends could not come up with an explanation, or a motive that made any sense.
Jesi Silveria, a friend of Summer McStay’s, recalled their conversations in the days leading up to the disappearance. The family had moved into the Fallbrook home just a few months earlier. The friends talked about remodeling and a new garden.
“There was a lot of happiness for them,” Silveria said Friday. “There was this larger space for their children and their animals to grow into.... We are all heartbroken over what has happened.”
It was about 10 a.m. Monday when sheriff’s deputies got the report from the off-road biker. He didn’t know if the bones he found were animal or human, but he felt compelled to report them.
Investigating a tumbleweed-strewn patch of desert near Quarry Road, within sight of Interstate 15, the deputies found two graves, about 2 feet deep and 20 feet apart. It appeared the remains had been there for “an extended period of time” and that animals had scattered some of the bones while leaving most of the skeletons intact.
Dental records helped identify the bodies of Joseph and Summer. The Department of Justice will conduct DNA analysis to confirm that the other bodies are Gianni and Joseph Jr.
Investigators also found clothing with the remains, though they declined to describe it or to say much else. McMahon would say only that there was “evidence at the scene that will help complete the investigation.”
Patrick McStay has long complained that San Diego investigators should have done more, saying he was “livid” at the “inept” investigation. But he also acknowledged that his fury had bolstered his spirit: “By being mad, by going after, by trying to find out what happened to my family -- trying to get people to listen -- that’s what keeps me going.”
Friends began sending him links to stories about the discovery on Thursday. He had a hunch early on. “I got a cold chill,” McStay said, “and I knew it was them.”
Times staff writer Scott Kraft contributed to this report.