Fam­ily’s ac­cused killer to be tried

A judge or­ders Charles Mer­ritt to stand trial in the 2010 slay­ings of a cou­ple and their two kids.

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Paloma Esquivel paloma.esquivel@latimes.com Twit­ter: @palo­maesquivel

A judge Mon­day or­dered Charles “Chase” Mer­ritt to stand trial in the slay­ings of a fam­ily of four, whose re­mains were found in the desert near Vic­torville more than three years af­ter they dis­ap­peared.

San Bernardino County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Michael A. Smith is­sued his de­ci­sion af­ter a day­long pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing in which pros­e­cu­tors for the first time pre­sented de­tails of their case against Mer­ritt, a busi­ness as­so­ciate of Joseph McS­tay.

McS­tay, along with his wife, Sum­mer, and their sons, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, dis­ap­peared in Fe­bru­ary 2010. The case puz­zled de­tec­tives for years be­cause the fam­ily ap­peared to have left their home and sim­ply van­ished, leav­ing no sign of strug­gle and lit­tle clue as to what might have hap­pened to them.

On Mon­day, in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­volved in the case painted a grue­some pic­ture of their fate, in­di­cat­ing they may have been killed with a sledge­ham­mer found at a shal­low desert gravesite along with the fam­ily’s re­mains. De­tec­tives tes­ti­fied that they used an online ac­count­ing pro­gram, DNA and bank and cell­phone records to tie Mer­ritt to the killings.

Mer­ritt’s de­fense at­tor­neys said they ex­pected the rul­ing and would wait un­til trial to present ev­i­dence that Mer­ritt is in­no­cent.

“You’ve only heard one side of the story so far,” de­fense at­tor­ney Jimmy Met­tias said.

De­tec­tives tes­ti­fied that Mer­ritt opened a bank ac­count the day be­fore the fam­ily dis­ap­peared and in the days af­ter they van­ished, he be­gan de­posit­ing checks worth thou­sands of dol­lars from Joseph McS­tay, which were writ­ten us­ing the online ac­count­ing pro­gram Quick­Books. The checks were back­dated, printed and then deleted from the pro­gram, said San Bernardino County Sher­iff ’s De­tec­tive Daniel Hanke.

In the months af­ter the fam­ily’s dis­ap­pear­ance, Mer­ritt made large with­drawals from that ac­count at lo­cal casi­nos, said San Bernardino County Sher­iff ’s De­tec­tive Ryan Smith.

An FBI agent tes­ti­fied that Mer­ritt’s cell­phone records showed that his phone was in the vicin­ity of the gravesite two days af­ter the fam­ily dis­ap­peared.

De­tec­tive Ed­ward Bach­man, also of the San Bernardino County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment, told the court that it was Mer­ritt who called McS­tay’s fa­ther to say the fam­ily was miss­ing. He also helped McS­tay’s brother search their home in the days af­ter their dis­ap­pear­ance.

Joseph McS­tay’s re­mains were found wrapped in a wo­ven blan­ket with a white ex­ten­sion cord wrapped around the neck, Bach­man said.

It ap­peared that Joseph, Sum­mer and Gianni suf­fered mul­ti­ple frac­tures to their heads con­sis­tent with a 3-pound sledge­ham­mer found at the gravesite, Bach­man said. The re­mains of Joseph Jr. were in­suf­fi­cient to de­ter­mine a cause of death.

Judge Smith said the ev­i­dence pre­sented, in­clud­ing the checks, lead to a “strong in­fer­ence that the de­fen­dant was in­volved in the dis­ap­pear­ance and the ul­ti­mate deaths of the vic­tims.”

Met­tias, Mer­ritt’s de­fense at­tor­ney, crit­i­cized the case, say­ing: “There hasn’t been any­thing, not one shred of ev­i­dence, that has pointed to Mr. Mer­ritt hav­ing com­mit­ted these mur­ders … Ev­ery­thing thus far that’s been pre­sented has no bear­ing at all on whether or not these mur­ders were com­mit­ted by him.”

He told re­porters af­ter the hear­ing that he will present an ex­pla­na­tion for the checks at trial.

“There’s noth­ing ne­far­i­ous,” he said.

Michael McS­tay, Joseph’s brother, said he was pleased with the judge’s de­ci­sion.

“It’s been five years in the mak­ing. It’s been a long road, but this pro­vides some clo­sure,” he said. “They got the right guy, and they have what they need to put him where he needs to go.”

John Gib­bins U-T San Diego

AC­CUSED KILLER Chase Mer­ritt, cen­ter, speaks with de­fense at­tor­neys Jim Ter­rell, right, and Jimmy Met­tias be­fore his pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing Mon­day.

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