Man guilty of killing family, burying their bodies in the desert
SAN BERNARDINO — Nearly a decade later, so much remains unknown about the murders of Joseph and Summer McStay and their two young boys.
They vanished from their Fallbrook home in 2010 and, more than three years later, their bodies were found buried in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert. But without a bloody crime scene, exactly when they died — and where — remains a mystery.
“What exactly happened in that house?” a prosecutor said in court late last month. “Only one person knows: the killer.”
Jurors have concluded that person is Charles “Chase” Merritt, a business partner whom they convicted of bludgeoning the family of four before burying their bodies in the desert roughly 100 miles away.
The panel found Merritt guilty of four counts of firstdegree murder, reaching their verdict Friday morning after about a week of deliberating. Their verdict forms were sealed through the weekend and read publicly by a clerk in a packed San Bernardino courtroom Monday morning.
Merritt, 62, sat at the defense table, staring ahead with his hands clasped together in front of him. When the clerk announced the outcome, he closed his eyes and inhaled slightly. He held his posture for several seconds, then dropped his head. Seated to his right, his attorney reached over and, for a moment, set his hand on Merritt’s arm.
“Oh, God,” someone in the audience shrieked. A woman on Merritt’s side ran out of the courtroom in tears. Members of the McStay family wept, one wiping her eyes with a tissue.
It was an emotional end to more than nine years of tragedy in a case that drew national attention, serving as the subject of documentaries and a book. Merritt’s fivemonth trial was streamed live by the website Law & Crime.
Proceedings are set to continue this week. The jury found Merritt responsible for multiple murders, making him eligible for the death penalty. Jurors will begin hearing testimony Tuesday to decide his punishment. They were ordered by a judge not to speak to reporters until after the trial’s penalty phase.
Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict, saying the trial was ongoing. Defense attorneys could not be reached.
From the start, the family’s disappearance baffled detectives, who initially believed they may have ventured out on their own and planned to return.
It wasn’t until more than three years later that there was a break in the case. An off-road motorcyclist stumbled upon parts of a skull in the desert off Interstate 15 in Victorville.