McStay family murder

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Photos of two adults and two young children
Missing-persons flier for the McStay family

The McStay family was an American family found murdered in the desert near Victorville, California, on November 13, 2013. The family disappeared from their Fallbrook, California, home on February 4, 2010.[1][2] The McStays' disappearance was widely reported on national news stations and on America's Most Wanted, Disappeared, Nancy Grace, and Unsolved Mysteries.[2] On November 7, 2014, police announced they had arrested Charles "Chase" Merritt, Joseph McStay's business partner, and intended to charge him with the murders.[3]


In 2010, Summer McStay (age 43) and her husband, Joseph (age 40), lived in Fallbrook, California, with their sons Gianni (age 4) and Joseph Jr. (age 3).[4] Joseph Sr. managed a company that built decorative fountains, and Summer was a licensed real estate agent.[5]


On February 4, 2010, a neighbor's surveillance system recorded the McStay family car leaving their home at 7:47 pm, however, the vehicle's occupants could not be seen.[1] At about 8:30 pm, a call was placed from Joseph McStay's cell phone to his business associate, Chase Merritt. The call went to voice mail. Merritt later told police that he ignored it because he was watching a movie. Joseph's cellphone pinged a tower in Fallbrook.[6]

Over the next several days, the McStays' family and friends unsuccessfully tried to contact them. On February 13, Joseph's brother, Mike, climbed into an open window at the home. He did not find his brother's family, and their two dogs were unfed in the backyard. Police were notified two days later of the family's disappearance. Although a search of the home found no evidence of struggle or foul play, there were indications of a hasty departure: a carton of raw eggs had been left on the counter and two spilled bowls of popcorn sat on the sofa.[2][7]

During their investigation, the police learned that on February 8, the family's 1996 Isuzu Trooper was towed from a strip mall parking lot in San Ysidro, San Diego, near the Mexican border. It was believed that the vehicle had been parked there between 5:30 and 7 pm that evening. At 11 pm, security guards assumed that the vehicle was abandoned. The car's location from February 4 to February 8 is unknown.[8][9]


The circumstances surrounding the family's disappearance and the lack of clues about their whereabouts triggered speculation by amateur sleuths. Radio host Rick Baker published a book, No Goodbyes: The Mysterious Disappearance of the McStay Family.[10] Baker began following the case in 2011, after interviewing Joseph's brother, Michael, on his program. He conducted dozens of interviews on the case (traveling to Belize, Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic), followed leads and reported sightings of the family. Baker, critical of Summer in his book, speculated that she might have committed the murders. Michael McStay criticized Baker and the book's accuracy, saying, "I don't know how he sleeps at night. I suspect he's looking for money. He's a good manipulator and knows how to twist things. He's just trying to sell books."[11]

When the bodies were found, Baker offered a refund to those who purchased his book before November 2013.[12] He said that he did not believe that drug cartels were responsible for the deaths, citing the placement of the McStays' vehicle after their disappearance: "Why would they stage their car at the border, cartels don’t do that." Although involvement by the McStays with Mexican drug cartels was one of many theories suggested after their disappearance, no supporting evidence has been found.[11]

After their disappearance, it was speculated that the McStays left voluntarily, since investigators found searches on the family's computers for "What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?" and Spanish language lessons.[13] Because their car was found so close to the Mexican border, police reviewed surveillance footage of the pedestrian gate into Mexico. Video recorded the evening of February 8, released on March 5, showed a family of four resembling the McStays crossing the border into Mexico. On February 19, 2010, California police notified Interpol to be on the lookout for the family.[2] In April 2013, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced that it believed that the McStays traveled to Mexico voluntarily.[14] Several unconfirmed sightings of the family were reported in Mexico and elsewhere, perpetuating hopes that they were safe and had left voluntarily.[11] Relatives of the McStays doubted that they would travel to Mexico, saying that Joseph and Summer avoided the country because of the safety threat posed by recent drug wars.[13] Other critics of the theory noted that the McStays had over $100,000 in bank accounts, with no withdrawal of funds in preparation for a trip, and their accounts were untouched after their disappearance. Summer's sister said that Summer's passport was expired.[15] Although it is possible to enter Mexico without a passport, a passport is required to reenter the United States.[11]

The mystery deepened when rumors spread that, despite substantial bank holdings, the McStays experienced financial difficulties in the months before their disappearance. A former neighbor told The Daily Mail that the family was on the verge of eviction just before purchasing their $230,000 home in Fallbrook. Investigators and family members deny finding any evidence of financial problems.[16]

Summer had been known by a number of names. Born Virginia Lisa Aranda, she had also been known as Summer Martelli, Summer Aranda-Martelli, Lisa Aranda, Lisa Martelli and Lisa Aranda-Martelli. In an early video interview Summer's mother confirmed that Martelli was the surname of Summer's stepfather, but it was later alleged to have been invented by Summer.[citation needed] In a February 25, 2010 Valley News article, Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Brugos "confirmed that Summer McStay was previously known as Lisa Aranda and/or Lisa Martelli. He was uncertain when she changed her first name to 'Summer', or if it was done legally. Brugos said her legal maiden name was Aranda, but at times she used her stepfather’s last name of Martelli, although she was never adopted by him."[17] She took 10 years off her age, although there was no confirmation that she used the alternative birthdate on a legal document. Family members insisted that the name change was only a facet of Summer's eccentric personality.[18][19]

Investigators and the public also focused on McStay's business partner, Chase Merritt, who was the last known person to have had contact with Joseph McStay, and was the first to notice his disappearance. According to state records, Merritt had felony convictions for burglary and receiving stolen property. His most recent felony conviction, in 2001, was for the theft of $32,000 worth of welding and drilling equipment from the San Gabriel Valley Ornamental Iron Works in Monrovia, California. An acquaintance of Merritt's told a San Diego reporter, "I think police should look at him and anyone associated with him."[19][20]

In 2013, Merritt acknowledged he spent more than an hour with Joseph McStay the day he and his family went missing from their home in suburban San Diego County. Merritt, who claimed to be the last person McStay called from his cellphone, also said that he had passed a polygraph exam and did not know anything that could help solve the family's disappearance.[21] When asked if he thought Merritt was a suspect, Joseph McStay's father Patrick said, "I have to have faith in Chase because I have to have faith in my son. I believe that (Joseph McStay) trusted Chase and believed in Chase. Do I think Chase is involved? I don't think so and I truly hope not."[20]

In January 2014, Merritt said that he might write a book about the family, alleging that Summer had anger issues and that Joseph had been ill for some time with a mysterious ailment. Although Merritt feared that Summer was poisoning him, he did not believe she was responsible for the deaths.[22] Joseph McStay's family confirmed that Joseph had an unexplained illness and that Summer was possessive of her husband, but they called the accusations unfounded. Joseph's father Patrick said, "I truly believe she loved my son."[23]

In 2013, local news reported that the McStay family had called Summer's ex-boyfriend, Vick W. Johansen, a person of interest in the case; the family believes that email records demonstrate that Johansen was obsessed with Summer for years after their relationship ended. The McStays noted his criminal history (violent threats, felony vandalism, disturbing the peace, interfering with a business and resisting a peace officer) and a pattern of movement around the time of the disappearance that they considered suspicious. The San Diego Police Department had no comment on Johansen, defending its work in the case.[24]

Discovery of remains[edit]

On November 11, 2013, a motorcyclist found four sets of human remains buried in two shallow graves in the desert near Victorville, California. Patrick McStay was informed of the discovery and phoned missing person advocate Jerrie Dean of Missing Persons of America to tell her of what he knew.[25] Jerrie Dean stated in her blog she had just gotten done producing a radio show for KNSJ when Patrick phoned her that evening. She stated on her blog she asked him if she could tell her followers of what he had told her, and was unprepared for the media storm that hit the following morning. Two days later, these remains were officially, positively identified as those of Joey and Patrick McStay.[2][5] The deaths were ruled a homicide and authorities of San Bernardino County said that they believed the family died of blunt force trauma inside their home, but declined to discuss specifics of the deaths or a motive.[26] Days after the discovery of the bodies, Joseph McStay's father said that the police investigation was faulty. He filed formal complaints in 2011.[27]


On November 5, 2014, California authorities arrested Chase Merritt in connection with the deaths of the McStay family after discovering his DNA in the McStay's car. His arrest was announced on November 7, 2014. Merritt was Joseph McStay's business partner.[3] Merritt is awaiting trial for four counts of murder, and the district attorney is seeking the death penalty. In July 2015, Merritt's defense attorney filed a request to have the case dismissed because of the wording used by the prosecution when the charges were filed.[28]


  1. ^ a b Figueroa, Teri (November 15, 2013). "How the McStay case unfolded". U-T San Diego. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Timeline: McStay Family Mystery". NBC 7 San Diego. November 16, 2013. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b "Business partner arrested in McStay family slaying, desert burial". Los Angeles Times. November 7, 2014. 
  4. ^ Ramsey, Debbie (February 25, 2010). "Authorities distribute 'endangered missing' flier pertaining to missing McStay family". Fallbrook Bonsall Village News. 
  5. ^ a b Rojas, Rick (November 15, 2013). "Buried bodies identified as members of missing McStay family". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  6. ^ Linthicum, Kate (November 20, 2013). "Man last phoned by McStay father says he took polygraph test". Los Angeles Times. 
  7. ^ Falcon, Gabriel (January 26, 2013). "Three years later, no sign of missing". CNN. 
  8. ^ Kraft, Scott (May 30, 2011). "Where did the McStays go?". Los Angeles Times. 
  9. ^ Stickney, R. (November 16, 2013). "Timeline: McStay Family Mystery". NBC San Diego. 
  10. ^ Baker, Rick (February 4, 2013). No Goodbyes: The Mysterious Disappearance of the McStay Family. Tate Publishing. ISBN 1625104219. 
  11. ^ a b c d Boyle, Louise (November 16, 2013). "Drug cartel assassins did NOT murder the McStays, claims author who spent years on case of family after they vanished with two young sons in 2010". Daily Mail (UK). 
  12. ^ "Author of McStay book criticized by victim's family". Fox 5 San Diego. 
  13. ^ a b Rojas, Rick (November 15, 2013). "After discovery, mystery of McStay family's disappearance deepens". Los Angeles Times. 
  14. ^ Spagat, Elliot (April 9, 2013). "Investigators say Missing McStay family left voluntarily". The Huffington Post. 
  15. ^ Martinez, Edecio (April 2, 2010). "McStay Family Update: FBI Joins Search for Missing Family". CBS News. 
  16. ^ Payne, Will (November 13, 2013). "Mystery of the McStay family money: Missing couple found dead in a shallow grave with their children could 'barely afford' cheap rent months before vanishing with $100k in the bank". Daily Mail (UK). 
  17. ^ Ramsey, Debbie (February 25, 2010). "Authorities distribute 'endangered missing' flier pertaining to missing McStay family". The Valley News. 
  18. ^ Ramsey, Debbie (March 25, 2010). "Mothers of McStays determined to find family". The Valley News. 
  19. ^ a b "Search for Missing Fallbrook family continues". CBS 8 San Diego. February 22, 2010. 
  20. ^ a b Gotfredson, David (December 17, 2013). "McStay family Mystery: Who is Chase Merritt". CBS 8 San Diego. 
  21. ^ "Man last phoned by McStay father says he took polygraph test". Los Angeles Times. November 20, 2013. 
  22. ^ Payne, Will (January 4, 2014). "McStay family husband feared his wife was POISONING him before they disappeared and were found dead in desert, claims explosive new book". Daily Mail (UK). 
  23. ^ Allyn, Richard (January 7, 2014). "Backlash over book's new theory on McStay murders". CBS 8 San Diego. 
  24. ^ "McStay murder mystery: Who is Vick Johansen?". CBS 8 San Diego. December 19, 2013. 
  25. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ "'I have absolutely no clue' on McStay family's slaying, Merritt said in interview". CNN. Retrieved January 6, 2014. 
  27. ^ "Father of Joseph McStay calls California investigation of missing family 'botched' and 'inept'". Daily News. New York. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  28. ^ Figueroa, Teri (July 17, 2015). "Merritt attorneys want McStay case dismissed". U-T San Diego. Retrieved August 23, 2015.