Nearly a decade later, so much remains unknown about the murders of Joseph and Summer McStay and their two young boys.
They vanished from their Fallbrook home in 2010 and, more than three years later, their bodies were found buried in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert. But without a bloody crime scene, exactly when they died — and where — remains a mystery.
“What exactly happened in that house?” a prosecutor said in court late last month. “Only one person knows: the killer.”
A jury has concluded that person is Charles “Chase” Merritt, a business partner whom they convicted of bludgeoning the family of four before burying their bodies in the desert roughly 100 miles away.
The panel found Merritt guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, reaching their verdict on Friday morning after about a week of deliberating. Their verdict forms were sealed through the weekend and read publicly by a clerk in a packed San Bernardino courtroom on Monday morning.
Merritt, 62, sat at the defense table, staring ahead with his hands clasped together in front of him. When the clerk announced the outcome, he closed his eyes and inhaled slightly. He held his posture for several seconds, then dropped his head. Seated beside him, his attorney reached over and, for a moment, set his hand on Merritt’s arm.
“Oh, God,” someone in the audience shrieked. A woman on Merritt’s side ran out of the courtroom in tears. Members of the McStay family wept, one wiping her eyes with a tissue.
Proceedings are set to continue this week. The jury found Merritt responsible for multiple murders, making him eligible for the death penalty. Jurors will begin hearing testimony on Tuesday to decide his punishment. They were ordered by a judge not to speak to reporters until after the trial’s penalty phase.
Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict, saying the trial was ongoing. Defense attorneys could not be reached.
From the start, the family’s disappearance baffled detectives, who initially believed they may have ventured out on their own and planned to return.
The home showed signs of a swift departure: uneaten bowls of popcorn on the futon, vegetables left out to rot. There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry.
A check of the family’s computer revealed searches suggesting an international trip, including “What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?” Within days, their Isuzu Trooper was towed from the parking lot of a strip mall near the border.
San Diego County sheriff’s detectives handed the investigation over to the FBI, saying they believed the family was out of the country.
It wasn’t until more than three years later that there was a break in the case. An off-road motorcyclist stumbled upon parts of a skull in the desert off Interstate 15 in Victorville.
Investigators unearthed two shallow graves. One contained the remains of Joseph McStay, 40, and Joey Jr., 3. The second had the remains of Summer McStay, 43, and Gianni, 4, along with a rusty sledgehammer.
Joseph McStay’s skull was shattered; his wife sustained a blow to the jaw. Both boys, killed presumably because they could have identified the attacker, had skull fractures.
Prosecutors said Merritt, of Rancho Cucamonga, was motivated by greed and self-interest in a case they acknowledged was built on circumstantial evidence.
Days before the disappearance, Joseph McStay accused Merritt — a welder who helped build custom water fountains for McStay’s company — of owing him thousands of dollars.
Prosecutors said Merritt then forged checks to himself from McStay’s QuickBooks account and tried to erase the paper trail. When speaking with detectives, Merritt referred to McStay in the past tense.
Prosecutors played video and audio clips for jurors of Merritt’s interviews with CNN and with investigators. In one, a reporter asks Merritt if he was the last person to see Joseph McStay.
“I’m definitely the last person he saw,” he replies.
In another, an investigator questions Merritt on why he refers to McStay in the past tense.
“Oh,” he said. “I did … I don’t know why.”
For several days after the family’s disappearance, they said, Merritt’s phone went dark for hours at a time. The shadow of a truck consistent with one driven by Merritt was captured on a home security camera in the McStay’s Fallbrook neighborhood, and Merritt’s cellphone records showed that his phone was in the vicinity of the desert grave sites two days after the disappearance.
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigator had testified that a DNA mixture, including a sample that matched Merritt’s genetic profile, was found on the gearshift and steering wheel of the Isuzu.
The defense team argued that Merritt was wrongfully accused in a case based entirely on motive.
“They’ve spun a lot of tales to you,” defense attorney Rajan Maline told jurors during closing arguments. “They’ve given you half truths.”
Defense attorneys pointed to another of McStay’s business associates, who they said siphoned money from McStay’s accounts after he went missing. They argued that no boarding pass or ticket verified the prosecution’s assertion that the associate had traveled to Hawaii at the time.
In an interview with The Times before the trial, Joseph McStay’s father said he had been living in a fog for nine years. Patrick McStay, who lives in Texas and launched an online fundraiser to pay for trips to California for the trial, had investigated the family’s disappearance and chronicled his findings in a book, “McStays, Taken Too Soon: A True Story.”
After Monday’s proceeding, he and more than a dozen other loved ones walked out of the courthouse flanked by news cameras. They declined to be interviewed.
But in the middle of the crowd, Joseph McStay’s mother, Susan Blake, turned to a woman exiting next to her and smiled.