Man guilty of killing fam­ily, bury­ing their bod­ies in the desert

Lodi News-Sentinel - - LOCAL/NATION - By Alene Tchekm­e­dyian

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.

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