Suspect in slayings of McStay family of four pleads not guilty

The suspect in the slayings of a family of four from Fallbrook, including two children, was escorted quickly into a Victorville courtroom, where he plead not guilty Wednesday before a battery of TV and still cameras.

Dressed in a light blue dress shirt and dark tie, Charles “Chase” Merritt, 57, sat quietly, handcuffed and shackled around his waist. The proceedings took less than 15 minutes and a court hearing was scheduled for Nov. 20. Merritt, 57, was arrested last Friday on suspicion of killing former business associate Joseph McStay, along with his wife and two young sons.

His attorney, Robert Ponce, told reporters outside the courtroom that “this case arose from tragedy” and expressed his “sincere condolences and sympathy for the McStay family.”

Ponce waved a compact disc he said contained 900 pages of discovery in the case that he said he received from the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, but added that he would not comment on the charges facing Merritt until he had more information.

"I'm going to do everything I can for Mr. Merritt," Ponce said.

Joseph McStay, 40, and his wife, Summer, 43, disappeared Feb. 4, 2010, along with their sons Gianni, 4, and 3-year old Joseph Jr. Authorities fielded hundreds of tips from callers with purported sightings phoned in across the country.

A check of the family’s computers showed a search on necessary documents for traveling with children to Mexico as well as a possible interest in learning Spanish. But those close to the McStays insisted that the couple were was wary of the drug wars in Mexico and that Summer McStay was excited about remodeling the house and planting a garden.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department eventually handed the case to the FBI and last November an off-road motorcyclist found bones in a desert patch near Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County. Dental records confirmed they belonged to the McStays.

All four died from blunt force trauma.

A week later, Merritt was quoted in a British tabloid as saying that he had been the last person Joseph McStay phoned before he vanished and that the two, who had worked together in the water fountain business, had spent more than an hour together that day.

Merritt added that he had taken a polygraph test and wanted to do anything he could to help find the killers.

“He was my best friend and we told each other everything,” he said.

The Riverside County resident has a long history of petty crime, violating court orders and drifting between blue-collar jobs.

In 2001, he pleaded no contest to second-degree burglary and grand theft after he was accused of stealing from a San Gabriel Valley ironworks company. He was sentenced to 180 days in county jail and ordered to serve three years’ probation, but it took him nearly 10 years to complete his probation after he routinely failed to attend court-ordered programs or pay fines.

At the time of the McStays’ disappearance, detectives believed that the family had left on their own accord and planned to return. There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry. A neighbor’s surveillance camera showed the McStays' McStay’s Isuzu Trooper driving away about 7:45 p.m.

But now authorities now say the McStays were actually killed at their home,residence , located        on a cul-de-sac beneath a hillside lush with avocado trees.

Evidence from the McStays’ grave site led them to Merritt, San Bernardino County sheriff’s said Sgt. Chris Fisher said.

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