An arrest has been made in the murder of a Southern California family of four who disappeared in 2010. A business associate of one of the victims has been charged with multiple counts of murder for the deaths of Joseph McStay, 40, his 43-year-old wife, Summer, and their sons, Gianni, 4, and Joseph, 3. Authorities believe that Charles “Chase” Merritt, 57, beat the family to death and then buried the bodies in shallow desert graves.
During a short appearance in court after being arrested on Wednesday in Los Angeles, Merritt entered no plea. The suspect, who has spent time in prison for receiving stolen property and burglary, is due to return to court in the coming week where it will be determined if he will have his own counsel or will be appointed a public defender. Michael Ramos, a prosecutor with San Bernardino County, California, said that if convicted on the charges of murder with special circumstances, Merritt would be eligible to receive the death penalty.
Merritt is accused of beating the McStays to death on Feb. 4, 2010, in their San Diego County home in Fallbrook, California, according to Sheriff John McMahon of San Bernardino County. Officials declined to offer further details on the murders, what evidence may have been uncovered or a possible motive.
Joseph McStay worked in the design and installation of water-based landscaping. Detectives say that he approached Merritt, the owner of a waterfall company, and asked him to design a few custom waterfalls. On the day that police believe the McStay family was murdered, Joseph McStay and Merritt had a meeting in a restaurant.
Sometime after that meeting, the California family disappeared seemingly into thin air. There were no signs that the home or their SUV had been forcibly entered, and neither credit cards nor bank accounts were touched. Detectives said because the family dogs had been left outside with no access to food or water, bowls filled with popcorn remained in the home, and eggs had been left to rot on the counter, it appeared as though the family had dropped everything and fled.
The family’s Isuzu was discovered in San Diego, California, at a shopping mall located very close to Tijuana, Mexico, leading many to speculate they they had been involved in a drug cartel murder. Dark surveillance footage also showed a group of four people crossing the border on foot, leading detectives to believe that the family had fled to Mexico before discarding the theory.
Late last year, on November 11, a driver of an off-road vehicle discovered the remains of the McStay family in the Mojave desert just outside of Victorville, California, which is approximately 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The bodies were buried two to a grave and covered with one to two feet of earth. The site of the graves is near Interstate 15, which runs to Las Vegas from San Diego. After the discovery of the bodies, detectives searched the McStay house again, but would not say if anything new was discovered.
Family members of the McStays are relieved to learn the truth of what happened to their loved ones, but are left with many questions. The brother of the victim said that Joseph McStay had attempted to help Merritt by giving him work, only to be repaid with murder.
The arrest came about after the San Bernardino Sheriff’s office revisited over 4,500 documents gathered as evidence by San Diego County, California, officials, where the investigation into the disappearance was started. They executed 60 search warrants and performed 200 interviews. Sergeant Chris Fisher of the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office said that evidence had been discovered at the site of the desert graves, but would not elaborate on what the evidence was. Fisher said that they took another look at everybody involved in order to eliminate them one by one. Doing so “led us to [Merritt],” he said.
Investigators had previously spoken to Merritt regarding the case in 2011, when he revealed that the last conversation that Joseph McStay had on his cell phone was with him. Merritt had also been interviewed a few times during the investigation, but Fisher would not reveal what, if any, information he gave.
Prison spokesman Bill Sessa said that Merritt served over two years in prison during the 1970s and 1980s after being convicted on charges of receiving stolen property, burglary and parole violations. He was also convicted in Los Angeles County in 2001 for burglary and grand theft. He is being held in the West Valley Detention Center, located in Rancho Cucamonga, California, without bond.
By Jennifer Pfalz