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Joseph, Gianni, Summer and Joseph Jr. (nbcsandiego.com)

The Haunting End of the McStay Family

A family of four vanished from their suburban California home

The puzzle of how the McStay family disappeared was put together, piece by piece, over ten long years. The jigsaw clues sowed confusion but from the start the case captured national media attention. It’s easy to understand why.

The McStays were a normal family: dad a successful businessman, mom raising two boys, and sons with angelic smiles. Joseph Sr., 40, owned a successful business installing indoor fountains and other water features. Summer, 43, worked as a full-time real estate agent.

The family had moved to a new home weeks before their sudden disappearance. A new coat of paint was still drying on the walls in their five-room house in northern San Diego county. They chose the town of Fallbrook (“the avocado capitol of the world”) — less than an hour’s drive from the Mexican border. The area was quiet and peaceful, known for mild weather and safe neighborhoods.

Their disappearance baffled detectives, as neither Joseph nor Summer had a single known enemy. The police quickly ruled out involvement in the drug trade or other criminal activity.

The Disappearance

On the evening of February 4th, 2010 the weather was a pleasant 55 degrees in Fallbrook, under clear skies. Shortly after dark, a white vehicle left the McStay family driveway, according to recovered footage. Joseph and Summer, along with 4-year old Gianni, and 3-year old Joseph Jr., appeared to have driven off.

In the early days, months and even years after the family vanished, many people speculated the family travelled across the border into Mexico.

After days of no word from Joesph or Summer, Michael McStay (Joseph’s brother) drove to their house and climbed through a window. Michael found a carton full of eggs rotting on the counter, and two child-sized bowls of half-eaten popcorn on the couch. Their two dogs were in the back yard. The interior of the house was silent with no sign of life.

Tantalizing Clues

The mystery deepened as the clues mounted, but they led in several directions. Computer records sent police down a trail for evidence supporting the “Mexico” theory that the McStays had, inexplicably, crossed the border. The empty house was searched a few days after they went missing and the web histories showed Google searches: “What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?”

Detectives began reviewing hours of grainy, black and white footage from Mexican border cameras, watching people walking south across the US/Mexico border in an attempt to identify a family of four with two young children.

Their white Isuzu Trooper had been parked near the border in a strip mall lot, and was found (someone had towed it to impound) shortly after Michael broke into the empty home — but the vehicle yielded no useful clues. Packed full of gifts, nothing unusual seemed to have happened in the car.

Meanwhile, police began focusing on suspects, looking most closely at Joseph McStay’s business associates. He had run a profitable company, selling decorative fountains to middle-class California strivers. Earth Inspired Products sold custom crafted fountains, but did not build them. Joseph McStay had several contractors who constructed and installed the fountains, including welders and metalworkers.

Theories Pile Up

As the days passed and Joseph and Summer’s friends and family began to arrive in Southern California, the clues began to turn, one by one, into dead ends. No one could confirm that the family of four crossed the border, and although several business associates and even Joseph’s business partner were interviewed, the case had no suspects, no motives and no person of interest who stood out.

The evidence suggested that the McStays had left quickly, without passports and without touching over $100,000 in their bank accounts. Their parents noted that they typically avoided Mexico, due to the drug wars that had flared up in recent years. Joseph ran a profitable business and the family was stable and happy. The known evidence began to point in the direction of foul play, not voluntary relocation.

Video surveillance of their neighborhood clearly showed the family Trooper driving off around 8 pm. A little after 8:30, someone used Joseph McStay’s phone to dial a business associate, Charles Merritt, but the call didn’t go through and landed in voicemail. Merritt later reported he’d heard his phone ring but was watching a movie, so let it go to voicemail.

The McStay’s extended family, the police, and dozens of amateur detectives spent the next several months putting together reasonable theories as to what happened. These included:

· The McStay’s moved to Mexico, and from there further south to Belize

· Summer was responsible for killing Joseph and (inexplicably) her children

· The family was murdered by unknown assailants who entered their home

As the months slipped away in 2010, the case developed a more mysterious cast. Because some evidence pointed to Mexico, sightings of possible McStay look-alikes continued in 2011.

The Mystery Unravels

The case changed one fall day in 2013, when an off-road motorcyclist was riding a trail in the desert near Victorville, CA, not far from interstate 15 (which also runs close to Fallbrook). On November 11th, the rider pulled over at a site where he discovered what looked like graves, and obvious human remains. The badly decomposed remains were identified quickly.

Two days later, four skeletons were positively ID’d as Joseph, Summer, Gianni and Joey Jr.

The discovery of bodies altered the case and re-activated the investigation. Suspects interviewed years before were recontacted, and the business associate who had been called that February night, Merritt, rose to the top of the short list.

Detectives found an email from Joseph McStay to Charles (“Chase”) Merritt: McStay had threatened to fire the man if he did not hand over $42,000 that was owed after he’d screwed up a major job. Merritt ignored the email and continued to use McStay’s company website, manipulating QuickBooks to write himself fraudulent checks.

Merritt’s DNA was also found after swabbing the steering wheel of the Isuzu Trooper.

The evidence, which included over 200 interviews and 4,500 search warrants issued, damned Chase Merritt — but it was also entirely circumstantial. He had been stealing from his employer, but why kill the whole family?

The People Vs. Chase Merritt

Chase had a history with the law, including felonies for trafficking in stolen goods and burglary. In 2001, he’d been arrested and convicted for stealing over $32,000 worth of drilling and welding equipment from an employer.

At the time he became the number one suspect in the McStay killings, Chase was in his late 50s. He’d spent a lifetime working blue-collar jobs and getting into minor and not-so-minor scrapes with the law. Between 1977 and 2001, he had racked up nine convictions, all of which included jail time and most of which were felonies. His longest sentence was two years in prison for a 1978 burglary that occurred on a property only a few miles down the road from the McStay gravesites.

Merritt was interviewed by the tabloid The Daily Mail, commenting, “Nine out of ten people on the planet have some kind of criminal background.”

The trial of Chase Merritt lasted 50 days but ultimately the jury fit the puzzle pieces together to convict him of first-degree murder. The motive? Simple greed.

Detectives reported that Joseph’s body was found with a white extension cord around his neck. The boys’ bodies were recovered with skull fractures. Summer had been bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer. It is now believed that all four were murdered in their home, then transported to desert before a traveler, by happenstance, stumbled upon them.

At the time Merritt was first charged for the murders, Michael McStay tearfully remembered his brother, “Joseph was a great brother, a great father. He would have done anything to protect those boys and Summer,” McStay said. “He tried to help Chase and provide work for this guy and this is how he was repaid.”

Merritt was sentenced on January 21, 2020 in a San Bernardino county courtroom, nearly a decade to the day after the Joseph, Summer, Giani and Joseph Jr. were brutally murdered. He received the death sentence.

Writer in true crime, humor and poetry. For more, check out my web page at https://jxcampbell.com

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