The San Diego County sheriff’s detective assigned to look into the disappearance of a Fallbrook couple and their two young boys nine years ago took the stand last week in the trial of the man accused of killing the family, testifying that he found no evidence they were killed in their home.
The trial of defendant Charles “Chase” Merritt, 61, is being heard in San Bernardino County, where the McStay family’s remains were found in 2013. The trial, which began two weeks ago, is expected to take months.
Merritt is charged in Superior Court with four counts of murder in the deaths of his business associate Joseph McStay, 40, as well as McStay’s wife, Summer, 43, and their sons, Gianni, 4, and Joey Jr., 3.
The family was last heard from on Feb. 4, 2010, less than three months after they moved into their home in Fallbrook. The remains of the couple and their boys were found buried in two shallow graves in the desert near Victorville in November 2013.
Merritt was arrested and charged with the McStays’ deaths a year later. He has pleaded not guilty.
So far, the jury has heard from several people, including Joseph McStay’s brother and mother, and a friend who had been helping the family remodel the Fallbrook home days before they disappeared.
The jury also heard from San Diego County sheriff’s Det. Troy Dugal, who was assigned the missing-persons case in mid-February 2010, less than two weeks after the McStay family vanished.
The San Diego Union-Tribune has monitored the trial by watching livestream coverage from Law & Crime, a website specializing in live trial coverage. The site plans to carry the case gavel to gavel.
During cross-examination by defense attorney Rajan Maline, Dugal explained what led him to suspect foul play.
“As I dug deeper and deeper, more and more, it kept pointing to this isn’t normal,” he testified.
Dugal told Maline that the out-of-character nature of the disappearance was “really all I had” in terms of evidence to suspect something was amiss.
“There was no smoking gun,” he said.
Maline also asked about a report Dugal wrote in which he claimed he did not find evidence that a crime had occurred in the family’s home.
“I still state that to this moment,” Dugal said.
Under the prosecution theory of the case, the McStay family was killed in the Fallbrook home, then taken to the desert for burial.
The defense argues that no blood was found in the home. They maintain that the family was killed in the desert, and that nothing links Merritt to their deaths.
Dugal said he decided to seek a search warrant to enter the home — he had no legal right to be there without one — and that he told the McStays’ extended family members not to disturb the house.
He also said he did not give Joseph McStay’s mother permission to clean the home — she had gone in and tossed out old food and other items— before detectives could do a thorough search.
“She called me while she was in the house, while she was cleaning,” Dugal testified during cross-examination by Merritt’s attorneys. “I told her to stop it.”
Authorities initially suspected the family had traveled into Mexico after their car was found near San Ysidro and the case was transferred to the FBI in early 2013.