Guilty verdict ends the McS­tay saga — but not its mys­tery

Years af­ter fam­ily of four went miss­ing, man is found guilty of mur­ders. Where and when, only he knows.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Alene Tchekm­e­dyian

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.”

A jury has 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 Mo­jave 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 on 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 be­side him, 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. Rel­a­tives of the McS­tays 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 five-month 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.

The home showed signs of a swift de­par­ture: un­eaten bowls of pop­corn on the fu­ton, veg­eta­bles left out to rot. There were no signs of a struggle or forced en­try.

A check of the fam­ily’s com­puter re­vealed searches sug­gest­ing an in­ter­na­tional trip, in­clud­ing “What doc­u­ments do chil­dren need for trav­el­ing to Mex­ico?”

Within days, their Isuzu Trooper was towed from the park­ing lot of a strip mall near the border.

San Diego County sher­iff’s de­tec­tives handed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion over to the FBI, say­ing they be­lieved the fam­ily was out of the coun­try.

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.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors un­earthed two shal­low graves. One con­tained the re­mains of Joseph McS­tay, 40, and Joey Jr., 3. The sec­ond had the re­mains of Sum­mer McS­tay, 43, and Gianni, 4, along with a rusty sledge­ham­mer.

Joseph McS­tay’s skull was shat­tered; his wife sus­tained a blow to the jaw. Both boys, killed pre­sum­ably be­cause they could have iden­ti­fied the at­tacker, had skull frac­tures.

Pros­e­cu­tors said Mer­ritt, of Ran­cho Cu­ca­monga, was mo­ti­vated by greed and self-in­ter­est in a case they ac­knowl­edged was built on cir­cum­stan­tial evidence.

Days before the dis­ap­pear­ance, Joseph McS­tay ac­cused Mer­ritt — a welder who helped build cus­tom wa­ter foun­tains for McS­tay’s com­pany — of ow­ing him thou­sands of dol­lars.

Pros­e­cu­tors said Mer­ritt then forged checks to him­self from McS­tay’s Quick­Books ac­count and tried to erase the pa­per trail. When speak­ing with de­tec­tives, Mer­ritt re­ferred to McS­tay in the past tense.

Pros­e­cu­tors played video and au­dio clips for ju­rors of Mer­ritt’s in­ter­views with CNN and with in­ves­ti­ga­tors. In one, a re­porter asks Mer­ritt if he was the last per­son to see Joseph McS­tay.

“I’m def­i­nitely the last per­son he saw,” he replies.

In an­other, an in­ves­ti­ga­tor ques­tions Mer­ritt on why he refers to McS­tay in the past tense.

“Oh,” he said. “I did … I don’t know why.”

For sev­eral days af­ter the fam­ily’s dis­ap­pear­ance, they said, Mer­ritt’s phone went dark for hours at a time. The shadow of a truck con­sis­tent with one driven by Mer­ritt was cap­tured on a home se­cu­rity cam­era in the McS­tays’ Fall­brook neigh­bor­hood, and Mer­ritt’s cell­phone records showed his phone in the vicin­ity of the desert grave sites two days af­ter the dis­ap­pear­ance.

A San Bernardino County sher­iff ’s in­ves­ti­ga­tor had tes­ti­fied that a DNA mix­ture, in­clud­ing a sam­ple that matched Mer­ritt’s ge­netic pro­file, was found on the gearshift and steer­ing wheel of the Isuzu.

The de­fense team ar­gued that Mer­ritt was wrong­fully ac­cused in a case based en­tirely on mo­tive.

“They’ve spun a lot of tales to you,” de­fense at­tor­ney Ra­jan Ma­line told ju­rors dur­ing clos­ing ar­gu­ments. “They’ve given you half truths.”

De­fense at­tor­neys pointed to an­other of Joseph McS­tay’s busi­ness as­so­ciates, who they said si­phoned money from his ac­counts af­ter he went miss­ing. They ar­gued that no board­ing pass or ticket ver­i­fied the pros­e­cu­tion’s as­ser­tion that the as­so­ciate had trav­eled to Hawaii at the time.

In an in­ter­view with The Times before the trial, Joseph McS­tay’s fa­ther said he had been liv­ing in a fog for nine years. Patrick McS­tay, who lives in Texas and launched an on­line fundraiser to pay for trips to Cal­i­for­nia for the trial, had in­ves­ti­gated the fam­ily’s dis­ap­pear­ance and chron­i­cled his find­ings in a book, “McS­tays, Taken Too Soon: A True Story.”

Af­ter Mon­day’s pro­ceed­ing, he and more than a dozen other loved ones walked out of the court­house flanked by news cam­eras. They de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

But in the mid­dle of the crowd, Joseph McS­tay’s mother, Su­san Blake, turned to a woman ex­it­ing next to her and smiled.

“It’s over,” she said.

Jennifer Cap­puc­cio Ma­her Pool

CHARLES MER­RITT, a busi­ness part­ner of Joseph McS­tay, could face the death penalty.

Katie Falken­berg Los Angeles Times

SU­SAN BLAKE, cen­ter, leaves San Bernardino Su­pe­rior Court on Mon­day af­ter Charles Mer­ritt was con­victed of killing her son and his fam­ily. In 2010, Joseph McS­tay ac­cused Mer­ritt, a busi­ness part­ner, of ow­ing him thou­sands of dol­lars. Days later, the McS­tays van­ished.

THE RE­MAINS of Sum­mer and Joseph McS­tay and their sons, Joseph Jr. and Gianni, were found in the Mo­jave Desert, along with a rusty sledge­ham­mer.

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