The McStay Family Massacre – The Mystery Unraveled


The McStay Family MassacreThe McStay Family Massacre started out as the strange and sudden disappearance of four human beings. They disappeared from their California home on February 4, 2010 and the mystery wouldn’t end for ten long years.

The McStay Family Massacre

In 2010, 40 year old, Joseph McStay, owned and operated Earth Inspired Products, a company that built decorative fountains. His 43 year old wife, Summer, was a licensed real estate agent. They had two sons. Gianni was 4 and Joseph Jr. was 3.

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, Charles “Chase” Merritt, which went to voicemail. Merritt later told police that he ignored it because he was watching a movie. 

Over the next several days, relatives of the McStay’s unsuccessfully tried to contact them. On February 13, Joseph’s brother Michael traveled to the McStay residence and gained entry to the home. Michael McStay did not find any of the family at home. He did however find the family’s two dogs in the backyard.

Two days later, on February 15, Michael phoned the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and reported that his brother and his family was missing. Officers requested a search warrant, that was 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. 

During their investigation, the police learned that around 11:00 pm on February 8, the McStay 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 remains unknown.

The Speculations

The McStay Family Massacre

Fox News

The circumstances surrounding the McStay 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 Mexico, Belize, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, followed leads and reported sightings of the family. In the book Baker 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 McStay’s 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 8th, released on March 5th, showed a family of four resembling the McStays crossing the border. On February 19, 2010, California police notified Interpol to be on the lookout for the family. In April of  2013, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department announced that they believed that the McStay family had 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.

The Doubt

Relatives of the McStay family however, seriously 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 McStay’s 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 also stated that her passport was expired. (It is possible for a U.S. citizen to enter Mexico without a passport, but one is required to reenter the United States.)

Investigators, and the public, were also focused on McStay’s business partner, Charles “Chase” Merritt, who was the last known person to have had contact with Joseph McStay. He was also the first person to notice Joseph’s 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.”

The Investigation of The McStay Family Massacre

In 2013, Chase Merritt acknowledged he had spent more than an hour with Joseph the day the McStay family went missing. Merritt, who reportedly was the last person Joseph called from his cell phone, also said that he had passed a polygraph test 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’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.”

Chase Merritt

sandiegouniontribune.com

In January of 2014, Chase 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’s family confirmed that he 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. Patrick McStay said, “I truly believe she loved my son.”

In 2013, local news reported that the McStay’s relatives had called Summer’s ex-boyfriend, Vick W. Johansen, a person of interest in the case. The family believed email records demonstrated that Johansen was obsessed with Summer for years after their relationship ended. The McStay’s noted his criminal history – which included violent threats, felony vandalism, disturbing the peace, interfering with a business and resisting arrest – and a pattern of movement around the time of the disappearance that they considered suspicious.

Charles ‘Chase’ Merritt

Charles 'Chase' Merritt

DailyMail

According to cbsnews.com:

as reported on June 10th, 2019 –

After the McStay family disappeared, authorities found bowls of uneaten popcorn at their San Diego County home, which showed no signs of forced entry. Their car was later found parked at a strip mall near the Mexican border.

In 2013, their bodies were found in shallow graves in the desert after an off-road motorcyclist discovered skeletal remains in the area. Authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer that they said was used to kill the family.

“It was blow, after blow, after blow to a child’s skull,” the Los Angeles Times reported prosecutor Britt Imes said during closing arguments.

Merritt, who worked with McStay in his water features business, was arrested in 2014. Merritt had been working on a book about the McStay family murders when he was taken into custody, CBS News reported at the time.

Authorities said they traced Merritt’s cellphone to the area of the desert grave sites in the days after the family disappeared and to a call seeking to close McStay’s online bookkeeping account.

Merritt referred to McStay in the past tense in an interview with investigators after the family vanished. And, while the evidence linking him to the killings is largely circumstantial, it is “overwhelmingly convincing,” Imes said.

Prosecutors acknowledged that details aren’t entirely clear but say the evidence from the family’s car, cellphone towers and financial accounts link Merritt to the killings.

Authorities said McStay was cutting Merritt out of the business in early February and the two met on Feb. 4 in Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt lived at the time.

Prosecutors say financial records show Merritt tried to loot the business bank accounts just before and after the family disappeared and backdated checks to Feb. 4, knowing it was the last day anyone had contact with McStay.

Phone records show McStay called Merritt seven times after the Feb. 4 meeting, with defense lawyers arguing that McStay wouldn’t likely do that if he had just fired Merritt. (Read the article in it’s entirety at CBSNews.com)

The Arrest of Chase Merritt 

The McStay Family MassacreOn November 5, 2014, detectives from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department arrested Chase Merritt in connection with the McStay family massacre after discovering that his DNA had been recovered from their car. His arrest was announced on November 7, 2014.  Merritt was charged with four counts of murder, and the district attorney sought 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 and her son. 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’s business account in the days just after the family was killed, and then went on a gambling spree at nearby casinos, where he lost thousands of dollars. Merritt’s trial was delayed as he had repeatedly fired his attorneys or attempted to represent himself. As of February 2016, he had gone through five attorneys.

The Trial of The McStay Family Massacre

The McStay Family Massacre

Valley News

In January 2018, a trial-setting conference was scheduled for February 23. Merritt’s attorney filed a motion in San Bernardino Superior Court on April 7, 2018, arguing that Joseph’s business and accounting records were 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 a San Bernardino court, with both sides making opening statements.

On June 10, 2019, a San Bernardino County jury found Charles ‘Chase’ Merritt guilty of murdering the McStay family and recommended that he be sentenced to death. The court upheld the jury’s recommendation and Merrit was sentenced to death on January 21, 2020 for the McStay Family Massacre

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