For nearly a year after Joseph McStay went missing in 2010, his mother sent him emails regularly.
“Where are you? What are you doing?” she’d ask. “Call me, I’ll help you.”
She traveled to Mexico, where detectives thought he might have gone with his wife, Summer, and two young boys, Joey Jr. and Gianni, and passed out fliers in remote villages. She took out ads in local newspapers, pleading in Spanish for readers to help find her family.
But she never heard from any of them again.
More than three years later, their bodies were found buried in two shallow graves in the Mojave Desert, far from their Fallbrook home.
“I miss them all,” Susan Blake said Tuesday in a San Bernardino courtroom, her voice cracking as she wiped away tears. “I go to the gravesite to talk to them.... Their life was very short and they were loved — and they didn’t deserve this.”
She delivered her wrenching testimony to jurors who will decide on the penalty for the man they convicted of bludgeoning the family of four to death and burying their bodies. The panel found Charles “Chase” Merritt guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, reaching their verdict Friday morning after about a week of deliberating.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. During the guilt phase of the trial, they argued that Merritt owed McStay thousands of dollars and was motivated by greed when he attacked the family.
Defense attorneys maintain that Merritt is innocent and said they did not plan to call any witnesses to offer mitigating testimony.
“This case is: Our client didn’t do it. They got the wrong guy,” defense attorney Rajan Maline told reporters outside the courtroom.
The defense plans to advise jurors that they can consider any lingering doubt they have about who committed the crime when deciding on a punishment. They did not cross-examine Blake or her other son, Michael McStay, who also took the stand Tuesday.
“We don’t disagree with anything that’s being said,” Maline said.
In her opening statement, San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Melissa Rodriguez showed jurors a McStay family video of the sun setting above the ocean, silhouettes of palm trees in the sky.
“Wintertime in California,” says Joseph McStay, the voice behind the camera. He pans over to a nearby park, where Summer McStay is pushing the boys on swings.
“What’s up, dudes?” the father says as he walks over.
The boys laugh.
When the clip ended, Rodriguez addressed the jurors.
“Those are the voices that you did not get to hear from,” she said.
Both Blake and Michael McStay recalled one of their last memories with Joseph. It was around the holidays and they were all playing Uno when Michael’s daughter caught him and his brother cheating. As he told the story to jurors, he laughed.
“You can't get that back. I’ll never get that back,” he testified. “And for what? Money? Gambling? A joke.”
The prosecutor flashed other family photos on several screens inside the courtroom: The boys in matching pajamas and Santa hats at Christmastime. Stockings hanging on the mantle of their new home in Fallbrook. Gianni holding his new puppy, Digger.
Joey Jr. was 3 when he went missing, Gianni 4.
Blake held on to hope until November 2013, after the family’s remains were found. She said she was in her office in Valencia when Michael called to give her the news.
She fell to the floor.
She said she didn’t learn the details until later. Her son’s skull was shattered; Summer, buried with a sledgehammer, sustained a blow to the jaw. Both boys, who prosecutors say were killed because they could have identified the attacker, had skull fractures.
Rodriguez asked Blake how her life has changed since her family vanished.
“One minute you have a whole family, and the next minute, half your family is just missing, and the hurt will never go away,” Blake said. “We’ll never ever be the same. Never.”
Dealing with the loss, she testified, is more difficult around Christmas.
Soon after, the judge called for a 10-minute break. One juror wiped her eyes as she walked out of the courtroom.