McStay family murder
The McStay family was an American family found murdered in the desert near Victorville, California, on November 13, 2013. The family disappeared from their home in Fallbrook, California, on February 4, 2010. The McStays' disappearance was widely reported on national news stations and on America's Most Wanted, Disappeared, Nancy Grace, and Unsolved Mysteries. 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. The trial began on January 7, 2019 in San Bernardino, California.
In 2010, Joseph McStay (age 40) and his wife Summer (age 43) lived in Fallbrook, California, with their sons Gianni (age 4) and Joseph Jr. (age 3). Joseph owned and operated Earth Inspired Products, a company that built decorative fountains, and Summer was a licensed real estate agent.
On February 4, 2010, at 7:47 pm, a neighbor's surveillance system captured the bottom 18 inches of a vehicle, thought at the time to be the McStay family's 1996 Isuzu Trooper. In the surveillance recording, the vehicle's occupants could not be seen. At 8:28 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.
Over the next several days, the McStays' family unsuccessfully tried to contact them. On February 13, Joseph's brother Michael McStay traveled to the McStay residence and on finding an open window in back, climbed in and gained entry to the home. Michael McStay did not find any of the McStays at home, and their two dogs were in the backyard. On February 15, he phoned the San Diego Sheriff's Department and reported his brother and family missing. Officers arrived to the home and requested a search warrant, executed on February 19, 2010. 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 child-size bowls of popcorn sat on a sofa.
During their investigation, the police learned that around 11:00 pm on February 8, the family's Trooper had been towed from a strip mall parking lot in San Ysidro, San Diego, near the Mexican border. It was believed to have been parked there between 5:30 and 7:00 that evening. The car's location from February 4 to February 8 is unknown.
Discovery of remains
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, Joseph's father, was informed of the discovery and phoned missing person advocate Jerrie Dean of Missing Persons of America to tell her what he knew. Jerrie Dean stated in her blog she had just finished producing a radio show for KNSJ when she received the phone call, and that she asked whether she could tell her followers what he had told her. Two days later, two sets of remains were officially identified as those of Joseph and Summer McStay. The deaths were ruled a homicide and San Bernardino County authorities said they believed the family died of blunt force trauma inside their home, but declined to discuss specifics of the deaths or a motive.
Days after the discovery of the bodies, Joseph McStay's father said the San Diego Sheriff's Department investigation was faulty. He filed formal complaints in 2013.
Reaction and investigation
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. Baker began following the case in 2013, 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. In the book he speculated that Summer McStay might have committed the murders. When the bodies were found, he offered a refund to those who purchased his book before November 2013.
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. 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. In April 2013, the San Diego Sheriff's Department announced that it believed that the McStays traveled to Mexico voluntarily.
Unconfirmed sightings of the family were reported in Mexico and elsewhere, perpetuating hopes that they were safe and had left voluntarily. 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. Other critics of the theory noted that the McStays had more than $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 Summer's passport was expired. Although it is possible for a U.S. citizen to enter Mexico without a passport, one is required to reenter the United States.
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, her mother confirmed that Martelli was the surname of Summer's stepfather, but it was once alleged to have been invented by Summer. In a February 25, 2010 Valley News article, Sheriff's Lieutenant Dennis Brugos confirmed that Summer McStay had used various names including her stepfather's last name of Martelli, although she was never adopted by him. She took ten years off her age, although there was no confirmation that she used the alternative birthdate on any legal document. Family members insisted that the name change was only a facet of Summer's mental illness.
Investigators and the public also focused on McStay's business partner, Charles "Chase" Merritt, born circa 1957, who was the last known person to have had contact with Joseph McStay, and 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 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."
In 2013, Merritt acknowledged he had spent more than an hour with Joseph McStay the day the McStay family went missing. Merritt, who reportedly was the last person McStay called from his cell phone, also said that he had passed a polygraph exam and did not know anything that could help solve the mystery of the family's disappearance. 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] trusted Chase and believed in Chase. Do I think Chase is involved? I don't think so, and I truly hope not."
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. Joseph McStay's family confirmed that Joseph had an unexplained illness and that Summer was possessive of her husband, but they called Merritt's suggestion that she was responsible for his illness unfounded. Joseph's father Patrick said, "I truly believe she loved my son."
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 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.
On November 5, 2014, detectives from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department arrested Chase Merritt in connection with the deaths of the McStay family after discovering that his DNA had been recovered from the McStays' car. His arrest was announced on November 7, 2014. Merritt is charged with 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.
According to arrest warrant affidavits filed in the case, autopsies concluded that all four victims had been beaten to death with a blunt object, and investigators believe the murder weapon was a 3-pound sledgehammer, which was found in the grave containing the remains of Summer McStay and one of her sons. Investigators testified they believed the victims were tortured before they were killed.
Prosecutors allege that Merritt had a gambling problem, and killed the family for financial gain. They said that he wrote checks totaling more than $21,000 on Joseph McStay's business account in the days after they were killed, and then went on a gambling spree at nearby casinos, where he lost thousands of dollars.
In January 2018, a trial setting conference was scheduled for 23 February. Merritt's attorney filed a motion in San Bernardino Superior Court on April 7, 2018, arguing that Joseph McStay's business and accounting records are hearsay evidence and therefore inadmissible. On May 4, the case was scheduled to go to trial in July 2018. The trial finally began on January 7, 2019, in San Bernardino court, with both sides making opening statements. As of February 12, 2019, the trial is ongoing.
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