The Riverside County man accused Friday of killing his business partner’s family and burying them in shallow desert graves is a small-time criminal who has spent most of his life working blue-collar jobs, records show.
Charles “Chase” Merritt, 57, was arrested this week on suspicion of killing Joseph and Summer McStay and their two young boys in 2010 and was due to be arraigned on four counts of murder.
The charges are by far the most serious against Merritt in a years-long criminal history.
In September 2001, he pleaded no contest to second-degree commercial burglary and grand theft after being accused of stealing items from San Gabriel Valley Ornamental Iron Works.
He was ordered to serve 180 days in county jail and three years’ probation, said Ricardo Santiago, spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. But it took Merritt nearly 10 years to complete probation because he didn’t pay required fees or show up for a court-ordered program, records show.
FOR THE RECORD
2:02 p.m. PST: An earlier version of this post identified Ricardo Santiago as a spokesman for the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office. He is a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
He finally completed probation on Sept. 14, 2010 -- about seven months after prosecutors say he bludgeoned the McStays to death.
Merritt received a contractor’s license to work with ornamental metals in 1982, state records show, but a website that reviews Inland Empire businesses shows two complaints against his company for failing to complete work after customers paid.
San Bernardino County authorities on Friday did not divulge a motive for the McStay killings, but by all accounts the fountain-making business Merritt and Joseph McStay ran together was doing well.
In an interview last year with the British tabloid Daily Mail, Merritt said business was better than ever and their company had just landed a lucrative foreign contract. He said he and Joseph McStay had lunch in Rancho Cucamonga the day the family went missing; they talked on the phone several times later in the day.
He added that he ignored a call from Joseph McStay about 8:30 p.m. because he was in the middle of watching a movie.
After concerned relatives reported the family missing, investigators who went to the McStays’ Fallbrook, Calif., home found no sign of a struggle. Neighbors said they hadn’t seen them for days and started feeding the family dogs.
Four days after the McStays disappeared, their Isuzu Trooper turned up in the parking lot of a mini-mall near the Mexican border.
Almost four years after that, in November 2013, and about 100 miles to the north, an off-road motorcyclist noticed a few scattered bones near what turned out to be a pair of shallow graves on the edge of the desert off the 15 Freeway outside Victorville.
Days later, San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies identified the skeletal remains of Joseph McStay, 40; Summer McStay, 43; and their boys, Joseph Jr., 3, and Gianni, 4.
Merritt told the Daily Mail the next week that he was breaking his long-running silence in an effort to help track down the killer, adding that he had been questioned by police and submitted to a polygraph examination.
“It is not about finding [the family],” he told the newspaper, “it’s about finding the people who did this, and if anything I say can help jog someone’s memory or offer some clue, then I’ll be happy.”
Merritt was arrested Wednesday and would be eligible for the death penalty if convicted, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos said Friday.
“I don’t need to tell you this is a cold and callous murder on an entire family,” he told reporters.
Reached by phone after the charges were announced, Merritt’s brother, Bennett, said the allegations were false.
“My brother’s not guilty and we don’t want to talk to you reporters anymore, period,” he said.
Times staff writer Samantha Masunaga contributed to this report.