The notorious case of the McStay Family is well-known. A couple and their two children hurriedly packed up and left their California home and vanished. Eighteen months later, their remains were found in a desert near their previous home. For four years, investigators asked themselves, who wanted the entire McStay family dead and why? It took years of following leads and a closer look at DNA that was discovered at the time of the disappearances for detectives to connect the dots and finally make an arrest. **Spoiler alert: This is one of those frustrating homicides where the murder trial has been delayed several times and is still not underway.**
Fallbrook – California – 2011 – Eggs were left on the countertop of the McStay home. Pets were left alone and unattended. The family, including Joseph and Summer McStay and their little boys, Gianni and Joey Jr., had packed up and disappeared, on the run it seemed from people or a situation unknown. No one acquainted with the quiet, average family-next-door ever saw them alive again. Eighteen months later their remains were found in shallow graves and a desert and identified through dental records.
Police discovered that in January 2010 someone used the family computer to search for information about travelling to Mexico. This person also looked for information about obtaining passports for the two little boys. By February 4, 2010, Joseph stopped answering his cell phone according to family members. Summer spoke with her sister for the last time around 5:00 p.m.
By March, officials released posters of the McStay family and asked Mexican authorities to search airports, bus and train stations. The search revealed no information about the McStays. The situation looked grim. Joseph’s brother Michael allowed the media to tour the McStay family home for some reason. Empty rooms without furniture were the result of re-decorating the home, not the family’s abandonment. Just as bizarre as the mysterious killings is the unanswered question: why would the entire family suddenly flee from their home and attempt to cross the Mexican border? Who was so dangerous to the family that this move was necessary and why didn’t the McStays simply go to the police?
By June 2010, John Walsh, also the grieving parent of a murdered child, featured the family on America’s Most Wanted with a plea for any information that could lead to the killer and to solving the mystery of the family’s flee from their Fallbrook home. Three years later, San Diego authorities announced that the McStay family voluntarily left their home and crossed the border into Mexico. This statement was based on video surveillance of a family of four crossing the Mexican border however there were people associated with the McStays who had their doubts.
At first it was believed that the family walked into Tijuana, Mexico four days after the disappearance. Convinced that the family were in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection video, investigators stated the video didn’t show the family seeking help and there were no signs of forced entry at the McStay home in Fallbrook, about 70 miles north of the border, or in their SUV parked near the border. Investigators admitted they had no idea why the McStays chose to leave their home – a foreshadowing of things to come. They turned the case over to the FBI.
Within four years of the McStays’ disappearance, Charles Merritt, Joseph’s business partner was finally arrested on suspicion of first degree murder in the deaths of all the family members. Detectives analyzed the family’s vehicle and collected DNA swabs. When detectives looked at this DNA evidence again in February 2014, criminalists matched the DNA collected from the Trooper to Merritt. Merritt was interviewed by SDSO investigators during the same time that the evidence was collected and on Feb. 17, 2010, he told investigators he had last been in the Trooper with Joseph McStay six weeks before the family vanished. Merritt claimed he sat in the front seat and had never driven the Trooper.
A detective stated that, “Merritt made several statements about Joseph in the past tense, including “Joseph was,”. This prompted investigators to “believe Merritt knew Joseph and the family were deceased.” That’s quite likely. Killers often slip up and speak in the past tense about their victims, including during an interrogation when the victims haven’t been found. It seems to be an unconscious mistake. In later interviews, Merritt told detectives he did not like Summer McStay. He did not like another business partner he and Joseph had been working with and said, “If I were ever going to commit murder, it would be with him,” referring to harming the other business partner. That’s not at all incriminating.
When detectives spoke with the business partner, he told detectives Joseph loaned Merritt $30,000 to pay a gambling debt and that Joseph planned to fire Merritt.The men were partners in Joseph’s business, Earth Inspired Products (EIP), a water fountain design and distribution company. Merritt was hired as a designer and builder of the custom fountains. After problems developed between Merritt and Joseph, Merritt was determined to avoid paying Joseph the $30,000.00 loan he owed his boss and he was determined not to be let go from EIP.
Although for years it was believed that the family had simply up and left their own home, the details a family friend reported to investigators led them to believe that there was probable cause to believe the McStay family was actually murdered inside their Fallbrook home. One of the clues that the family was killed inside their home included that the cover missing from a futon was used to wrap Joseph’s body and was found at the desert gravesite. A possible paint stain was found on Summer’s bra at the gravesite, too, that may have dripped onto her as she lay on her side at the crime scene. A sledgehammer was found nearby and the autopsy revealed that the 4-year-old McStay boy was struck seven times on the head. Joseph McStay was found with a cutoff extension cord wrapped around the neck, and the rest of the body wrapped in a white towel, all of it secured by a tie-down strap. Only a person without conscience could have committed such a cruelty.
“Based on my training and experience, criminals who commit murder will typically attempt to clean the crime scene,” the detective says in the search warrants.“Murder committed by blunt force trauma typically creates a large amount of blood stain splatter and cast off that could be on the ceiling of a room. One of the attempted ways to clean a scene is to paint over the blood stains, though a correct forensic processing of the crime scene would still show the blood stain, the blood stain would not be visible to the naked eye. The blood stain could also be detected by forensic experts years after it was painted over.”
Merritt pleaded not guilty to the crime. As of September 2015, the trial was Stayed (pun) after Merritt’s defense lawyers informed a judge that they were requesting funds for expert witnesses. A shame Merritt couldn’t have used the $30,000.00 he “borrowed” from McStay. Merritt knew how to work the legal system. To date, Merritt has changed lawyers five times. The case hasn’t gone to trial and the country awaits the outcome of the McStay family murder trial.