By Mark Gutglueck
Jurors considering the capital case against the accused murderer of the McStay family this week were provided with the first red meat of the trial in the form of a more than two-and-a-half-hour-long audio recording of Charles Merritt’s first contact with law enforcement relating to the matter less than two weeks after the family’s disappearance and before those deaths were confirmed. Yet unclear is whether this presentation of what has been the most riveting evidence so far will prove out as nourishment for the prosecution or sustenance to the defense.
After two weeks of laying the foundation of its case through the presentation of dry, often repetitious and occasionally gruesome detail, the prosecution in the third week of the murder trial made its first move to cinch the case’s disparate elements into a tableau implicating Charles “Chase” Merritt in the horrific killings.
While Merritt was at the center of the opening statements offered by Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty and defense attorneys James McGee and Raj Maline on the first day of the trial January 7, in much of the testimony of the 15 witnesses called to testify in the first ten days of the trial the focus moved to the circumstance surrounding the family’s mysterious February 2010 disappearance from their north San Diego County home and the grisly aspects of the discovery of their remains in and around two shallow graves in the desert not too distant from the I-15 Freeway north of Victorville. References to Merritt were sporadic or non-existent in some of that testimony. In many of those instances where Merritt loomed as a subject in the questioning of and responses from witnesses, there has been little in the way of pointed indication that he was anything other than a business associate who was among the first of the circle of people around the McStay family to take note of their vanishing and look into what had occurred.
Having laid that groundwork to bring the jury into the context of the case, Daugherty, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes and Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez this week initiated what they hope will prove to be a convincing illustration of their theory of Merritt’s guilt. That theory holds that while Merritt was participating with Joseph McStay in the manufacturing of high end decorative water fountains and artificial waterfalls, he was pilfering thousands of dollars from Joseph’s company through fraud and embezzlement to feed his insatiable gambling addiction. When Joseph McStay learned of what Merritt was up to, either shortly before or perhaps even on February 4, 2010, Merritt sojourned from his Rancho Cucamonga home to the McStay residence in Fallbrook that evening, prosecutor’s maintain, where he slaughtered Joseph McStay, his wife Summer, their four-year-old son Gianni and three-year-old son Joseph, Jr., using a three-pound sledge hammer to bash their skulls in.
Merritt then secreted the bodies for two days, in the meantime fraudulently accessing Joseph McStay’s QuickBooks account for the decorative water features business they were involved in, known as Earth Inspired Products, the prosecution maintains, and on the following day, February 5, 2010, issued himself two checks, both backdated to February 4. He then embarked on a gambling binge at a number of casinos throughout Southern California, according to his accusers, breaking only to take the lifeless corpses of the McStay family up into San Bernardino County’s High Desert, an area with which Merritt was familiar since having grown up in Hesperia and attended Apple Valley High School for three years, and buried all four along with the hammer he had used to bludgeon his victims in shallow graves he dug in a wash off a rarely-traveled dirt road. To throw authorities off his track, confuse the situation and delay a serious investigation into the matter, the prosecution maintains, Merritt drove the McStay family’s 1996 Isuzu Trooper, which yet contained the child seats for Gianni and Joseph, to San Ysidro, where he left the vehicle in a shopping center parking lot less than a half mile from the Mexican border.
Since Daugherty outlined the case against Merritt during the trial’s opening statements, more than half of the direct examination of witnesses has been handled by Imes, with certain witnesses being questioned by Daugherty or Rodriguez. The precise direction of the prosecution has not always been clear, as Imes more than either of his colleagues has from time to time dwelt on specific issues that have seeming significance that he has not fully explicated but which his manner hints holds the prospect of being elucidated upon later in the trial to the defendant’s detriment. One such example is Imes’ recurrent inquiries relating to Merritt’s use of padlocks, as he has asked on more than one occasion about them, suggesting without any explanation so far that there will be some revelation in later testimony or the presentation of evidence tying the use of padlocks or at least a padlock to the murders. The prosecution team has so far succeeded in sustaining an air of mystique about the case, conveying to the jury and courtroom observers that there is much more to come as they wade through the somewhat tedious process of providing not just a backdrop to the story but a bedrock of facts that they assert tie Merritt to a murderous course of action that is not only plausible but which leaves no other credible interpretation. In this way, Daugherty, Imes and Rodriguez seem to be promising the jury that if its members will merely indulge them in setting the stage for the tale to be told, they will be more than adequately rewarded for their patience. Still the same, Imes, Daugherty and Rodriquez have yet, in the testimony presented so far, to go beyond mere suggestion of what they believe occurred, and the defense has aggressively contested elements of the prosecution’s presentation along several tangents, including continuously questioning specifics in the timeline of events, the certainty of witnesses and discrepancies between what several of the witnesses have testified to over the last three weeks and their previous statements to investigators or, in the case of the investigators themselves, what they wrote in their own reports.
With the courtroom darkened on Monday for the Martin Luther King Holiday, the prosecution spent all of Tuesday and half of Wednesday further laying the groundwork for its narrative. It started with the conclusion of testimony begun last week from David Joe Sequeida, an employee of Metro Sheet Metal in Azusa, the son of the business’s owner, who was a supplier of sheet metal used in the fabricating of the water fountains and waterfalls that Merritt built and Joseph McStay sold to customers under the auspices of Earth Inspired Products, as well as landlord of the foundry where that fabrication took place. Thereafter followed the relatively brief testimony of the offroad motorcyclist, John Bluth, who on November 11, 2013 while biking in the desert north of Victorville came across a portion of Joseph McStay, Jr.’s skull which had been dug up by animals. Bluth then alerted authorities to what he had found, thereby leading to the discovery of the McStay family’s graves. Also testifying Tuesday were San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department then-Homicide Detective Gary Hart, who was dispatched to the gravesites scene on November 11, 2013 as well as San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Sheriff then-Homicide Detective Jose “Armando” Avilla, who was assigned to oversee the excavation of the grave containing Summer McStay and Gianni McStay, which was designated as grave B by the investigative team.
Testifying Wednesday morning was Dr. Alexis Gray, the forensic anthropologist who was at the gravesite to observe the excavation as well as identify and distinguish human remains from animal remains found scattered outside the graves.
Beginning with the court’s afternoon session on Wednesday, the prosecution moved to take the proceedings and the case it is pursuing against Merritt to the next level by playing for the jurors the recording of an interview with Merritt conducted by two San Diego County Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives on February 17, 2010, 13 days after the day prosecutors allege Merritt killed the McStay family. Those investigators, Troy DuGal and Suzanne Fiske, were yet pursuing the matter as a multiple missing persons case, pursuant to the San Diego Sheriff’s Department’s protocol of bringing the homicide division into missing person cases ten days after a person has or persons have last been seen. Although there was no hard evidence to suggest the family or any of its members were dead and there were grounds, later mistaken it turned out, to suggest the family had gone to Mexico, DuGal, as the lead detective on the matter, was at that point concerned that the matter might involve multiple homicides. He and Fiske had come to Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt lived, on February 17, 2010 after Fiske had contacted Merritt to arrange to speak with him about the McStay family’s disappearance.
Prosecutors played the audio recording for the jury because they believe it, or certain elements of Merritt’s responses to the detectives’ questions on it, evince guilt on Merritt’s part. The two-hour- 42-minute-and-26-second long interview was conducted at the clubhouse of the Homecoming apartment complex where Merritt resided because his girlfriend and their children were in their apartment suite.
The audio was the first time that Merritt, 61, has been heard by the jury. Throughout the trial, he has been seated at the defendant’s table, in a dress shirt, actively engaged in his defense by listening intently to the prosecution’s witnesses, occasionally making notes as that testimony unfolds and passing them to his defense counsel. For the most part, Merritt, who is somewhat professorial in his aspect and bearing, has evinced a calm and even demeanor and maintained his equanimity during the proceedings.
The prosecution believes that the DuGal/Fiske interview furthers its case, primarily upon the strength of a handful of times during Merritt’s exchange with the investigators when he slips into the past tense when speaking about Joseph McStay and his family. This, the prosecutors maintain, is a strong telltale indication that Merritt – at a point where virtually all of the McStay family’s relations, friends and associates still considered the family to be missing and while there was no concrete indication or confirmation that they were dead – had guilty knowledge of the murderous events he had engaged in.
While Merritt’s use of the past tense perhaps supports the interpretation the prosecution suggests, on some of those occasions Merritt is responding to questions posed to him in the past tense by the detectives. On a few others he slips into the past tense in recounting how Joseph McStay had conducted his business while he was previously present to do so. In a few instances, Merritt uses the past tense in a way that seems unprompted.
Other elements of the interview conversely lend themselves to the suggestion that Merritt had no involvement in the disappearance or murders of the family. Moreover, Merritt’s vocal presence on the recording and his informal and sometimes friendly back and forth with the two detectives humanizes him in a way that is in seeming contrast to the monstrous image that has attended him since his arrest and the accompanying depiction of him as a sociopath who used a hammer to savagely bash in the brains of the wife and two young children of his business partner to avoid being held to account for a string of relatively minor thefts.
The interview was conducted under circumstances in which DuGal and Fiske held both a psychological and situational advantage over Merritt in that he had at the time a felony warrant for his arrest due to his having failed to report to serve 23 days remaining on a 46-day sentence on a commercial burglary conviction after he had served the first 23 days, was granted a furlough so he could maintain his employment status, and then failed to report back to complete the remainder of his sentence. At various times throughout the recording DuGal and Fiske can be heard using a classic good cop-bad cop routine in pressuring Merritt to cooperate with them or adjust and revise his responses. On the recording it is revealed that prior to the interview it was Fiske, at that point functioning in the role of good cop, who had succeeded in reaching Merritt to schedule the meeting for the interview, which she had indicated pertained to the situation involving the McStays while telling Merritt she knew there was a warrant issued for his arrest. Fiske, the recording reveals, told Merritt that she and her investigative partner wanted to conduct the interview with him and that she was willing to not effectuate his arrest if he cooperated by meeting with her and her partner, but that she could not speak for DuGal, though she indicated she would speak to DuGal about that issue and she would get back to Merritt about that before the interview took place. She then failed to get back to him. Merritt, despite suspecting that he would be arrested by her partner upon meeting with DuGal and Fisk, did not flee the interview.
During the interview, Merritt said he was prepared to speak with them “even if you did make the decision to arrest me. This is just too important to put off. Joseph’s life is at stake. My little bullshit with this felony is a lot less important than Joseph and his family.”
One way in which the interview with DuGal and Fiske appears to clear Merritt rather than implicate him is that he tells the detectives that the family’s flight to Mexico doesn’t seem likely to him. When the detectives query him on the subject, Merritt says, “Joseph’s mom keeps saying they went to Mexico and caught a plane to wherever,” but Merritt says he is not so convinced. “I don’t think Joseph would take those kids into Mexico for any reason unless – there is a possibility it would be into Tijuana, maybe you know how you just go over and go to the little square there, maybe there, but I don’t think Joseph would take them in there.”
In this way, Merritt’s statement is inconsistent with the prosecution’s contention that Merritt drove the Isuzu Trooper to the border to mislead investigators as to the family’s actual whereabouts.
DuGal asked what he thought had happened to the family.
“I haven’t formed any opinion because Joseph doesn’t have any enemies,” Merritt said. “Everybody liked Joseph. He has no financial problems that I know of. Things were tight because of the economy but over the last couple of months things have started to pick up. Everything was looking really promising and Joseph didn’t have that much of a problem financially anyway. I know for sure his bills are paid.”
DuGal asked what would happen if Joseph McStay did not return.
“My business is done,” Merritt said, indicating he had been highly dependent on Joseph to generate the job orders from customers for the waterfalls he built, and that Joseph handled virtually all of the financial transactions relating to incoming money.
Detective DuGal asked if he had anything to gain from McStay disappearing.
“I have nothing to gain,” said Merritt.
DuGal asked him if he had assisted the family “go somewhere. You didn’t participate – nothing to do with the disappearance, whether it’s good or bad?” DuGal asked.
“No, in any way shape or form,” said Merritt. “ I don’t know of anybody that has anything to gain by Joseph being gone. I think everybody that I know has everything to lose, everything. This business stems almost solely around Joseph. He does all of the business.”
Merritt confirmed that he and Joseph McStay had met at the Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant in Rancho Cucamonga not too distant from his home in the early afternoon of February 4 and that they had discussed issues relating to two of the waterfall projects they were working on and that there had been an exchange of checks relating to the ongoing work. To a question from DuGal that seemed to suggest that Michael McStay, Joseph’s brother, was present at the meeting, Merritt indicated that Michael was not there and that the meeting had involved only him and Joseph. He said that the meeting lasted a couple of hours and that it could possibly be documented as occurring because he thought Joseph might have used his credit card to pay for their meals.
Merritt said he and one of Joseph McStay’s other professional associates, Dan Kavanaugh were scrambling to keep Earth Inspired Products intact during Joseph McStay’s absence.
“Dan is now trying to send me some emails and wanted me to try to salvage some of the jobs that they are trying to send back, you know, because we they can’t get a hold of Joseph, they’re pissed off, things like that, and projects people are calling in for, saying, ‘We’re ready to do them, can you get a hold of us,’ and I’m trying to call them but I can’t do what Joseph can do. There’s no way. I manufacture. I’m a builder. I can’t sell them.”
“So in Joseph’s absence are you going to be able to maintain the business, though?” Detective DuGal asked.
“If he’s gone permanently?” said Merritt, seeking clarification on the question.
“No, within the next six months?” asked DuGal.
“I don’t know,” said Merritt. “I don’t know. Dan is coming here. I don’t know. I have my doubts, because there’s just too much to do. Joseph did all the drawings. He was on the phone with customers ten hours a day, everyday, all day long. I don’t know anybody that can step into his shoes and know what he knows, all the contacts he has for the types of pumps and lights and everything that he knows just isn’t there now. I can still build waterfalls. I’m pretty sure I’ll survive, if I have to go get a job at Home Depot. I’m not sure we’ll be able to make the waterfall company continue. It depends a lot on Dan, if he can step up and get some stuff done and he says he’s trying, he’s working on it, he’s trying to get some sales done.”
Of note is that Merritt’s defense team believes that it was Kavanaugh who murdered the McStay family, and that San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department investigators ignored that possibility. Kavanaugh asserted an alibi, namely that he was in Hawaii when the McStay family disappeared. According to Merritt’s legal team, however, airport records do not verify that Kavanaugh had boarded a flight for which he had a ticket. Merritt’s defense attorney’s suggest that the purchase of the never-used airline ticket was part of Kavanaugh’s effort to construct a false alibi. DuGal’s questions of Merritt, however, indicate that San Diego County authorities were suspicious of Kavanaugh’s alibi as early as February 2010.
“Dan’s in Hawaii?” asked Detective DuGal.
“Dan’s flying here today,” said Merritt.
“But you’re sure he’s in Hawaii?” asked DuGal. “How long has he been in Hawaii?”
“As long as I’ve known Joseph, as far as I know,” said Merritt.
“So, two-and-a-half years?” asked DuGal.
“I think so,” said Merritt. “I’ve never known him to not be in Hawaii. I’ve never met Dan.”
The defense attorney’s theory is that Kavanaugh killed Joseph McStay and his family because he was embittered over Joseph McStay cutting him out of the Earth Inspired Products operation and its money flow.
Merritt told DuGal and Fiske he had talked to Kavanaugh directly “only over the last week. I never talked to him before this happened to Joseph. I had never talked to Dan, ever. I’ve known of his existence. I knew his role in Joseph’s business. I knew Joseph had almost paid him off and I think he was paying him $50,000 for his part in the business. I think that was the number. I’m not sure about that. But I know that he had only $2,000 left to pay and Joseph was going to then own Earth Inspired Products and just pay him to run the website instead of them being partners because up until he paid him off he was going to be his partner. I know that. We talked about that all the time. Joseph was always afraid: Six, seven months ago, Joseph and Dan had a spat. I don’t know how deep it was or anything. It was six or seven months ago, I think. They decided at that time that Joseph was going to pay him for his part of the business and for what he had done to build the website because Dan is extremely adept at website building and he’s like a big hacker from what I know of from him personally when I talked to him over the last week. I was talking to him the other day and I said something about him knowing the web and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m not a person you want to piss off on the web.’ I said, ‘Yeah, Joseph told me there is a lot you can do. You could shut the website down.’ Joseph was afraid he was just going to push a button and the website would be gone because that’s what Dan said when they clashed. Dan said, ‘This is what I want. I don’t want to continue working this website.’ So, Joseph made a deal with him to buy his part of it because Dan wasn’t making enough money. I don’t even know what it was, but I know a while back they decided Joseph was going to buy him out and was just going to run the website. That’s the extent of it that I know of.”
In response to questioning by DuGal and Fiske about his efforts to contact Joseph McStay in the days after he went missing, Merritt said that he tried to reach him on “Friday [February 5, 2010] by telephone. I probably tried every day and a few times on Tuesday and Wednesday [February 9 and 10]. Joseph’s mom may remember the exact day. I believe I drove to Joseph’s house on the ninth or tenth. I knocked on the door, rang the doorbell. His white car [the Isuzu Trooper] wasn’t there. Their dogs were barking.”
Merritt said that in the backyard he saw that “the water dish inside the shed was empty. They had no water. I filled the water dish.”
He said it was clear something was amiss because “They never kept them [the dogs] outside. I would not see Joseph leaving his dog outside.”
The part of the interview recording which the prosecution presumably deems valuable to its case comes some three-quarters of the way into the interview, at roughly the 1 hour and 59 minute and 30 second mark, when Fiske, who all along had been playing the role of the good cop, suddenly transitioned into being the bad cop. Ignoring that DuGal had several times framed his questions in the past tense, Fiske zeroed in on Merritt’s occasional use of the past tense in referring to Joseph McStay.
“Do you have any knowledge or information that indicates to you that they are dead?” Fiske asked.
“No,” Merritt responded.
At that point Fiske pounced. ““The reason I ask is because you have used the past tense about Joe a couple of times,” Fiske said, “You said, ‘Joe was.’ Typically, people don’t do that, if they think people are alive. Any explanation as to why you may have done that?”
“Not really, I just… Nah, I…” Merritt said, for the first time in the interview struggling to come up with words.
“Do you understand what I am asking?” Fiske asked, tacitly accusing Merritt in being involved in the family’s demise.
“Of course. I completely understand,” said Merritt. “But no, I’ve never really even thought of him as possibly being — well, I can’t say I haven’t thought of him as possibly being dead, because I have, but I don’t like to think of it that way, of course.”
Fiske did not relent, but pressed on, saying, “It is interesting. We deal with families of people who have passed all the time. Oftentimes we will notify them their loved one is dead and they will still use the present tense. You used the past tense a couple of times, which is real unusual.”
“Yeah,” said Merritt. “I have no idea. I’m not sure what I used the past tense in context with, but I have no idea why.”
“You said, ‘Joe was my best friend,” Fiske said.
“Oh,” Merritt said. “I did.”
“You did,” said Fiske.
“I don’t know why,” said Merritt.
“Did you guys have a falling out at all?” Fiske asked.
“Never,” said Merritt. “Never.”
“So, it wouldn’t be like, ‘He was my best friend, but now we’re just…” Fiske said.
“No,” Merritt interrupted her before she finished the question. “Absolutely not. Joseph is…”
“Still your best friend,” Fiske said.
“Oh yeah,” Merritt said. “Definitely.”
Merritt described Summer McStay as “verbal.” He said that Joseph had told him that his brother Mike and Summer “couldn’t get along.”
He said that Joseph referred to Summer as “My little Colombian girl.” He said that many of Joseph’s friends did not like Summer. “Everybody that loves Joseph – I can’t say everybody – but most of the people who love Joseph dislike… Summer.”
“Why is that?” asked Fiske.
“Because she has always treated Joseph -” Merritt began, and then said, “Everybody told Joseph don’t marry her.”
“Why,” asked Fiske.
“Because she’s a pain in the butt,” said Merritt. “She’s just very, very difficult. He would always say, ‘No, no, she’s just Colombian. He always talked about her being Colombian as something positive.”
Despite the attitude of others toward Summer, Merritt said, Joseph was absolutely committed toward her. “He definitely loved her,” Merritt said.
Merritt described Joseph McStay as generous. “Joseph is just a super-nice guy,” said Merritt. “He’ll give you the shirt off his back. He’ll do anything for you.”
Merritt said the financial arrangements in the business between him and McStay were very casual.
“Mine and Joseph’s running tab is he owes me $10,000, I owe him $15,000, he owes me $5,000, I owe him $15,000,” said Merritt. “It just goes.”
During the interview, Merritt indicated to DuGal and Fiske that he had access to Joseph McStay’s QuickBooks account for Earth Inspired Products and had upgraded that accounting system, by which checks were issued, from an earlier version to QuickBooks Pro.
Merritt told DuGal and Fiske that in the days after the McStay family first dropped out of sight, he had a greater degree of concern over what might have befallen them than others apparently did and that his own wife voiced greater concern than had Joseph McStay’s mother and brother at that point. “My wife is still chewing my ass out about me not calling the police,” Merritt said. “Mikey and his mom kept saying, ‘I know Joseph, and he probably just wanted to be away from California or whatever, and they’re probably on vacation and they’ll be back.’ And Mikey said ‘Well, if they took a ten-day vacation, which most vacations are, they’ll be back no later than Sunday and so on.’ And I was just like, ‘Just call the police. I told his mother, ‘It’s not going to hurt anything. It’s not going to cost anything.’ And that day, on Saturday [February 13], I told Mikey, I said, “What if Joseph did go to the mountains and he drove off a cliff? And he’s gone 200 feet down a ravine and nobody sees the car down there for two or three weeks?’ I said, ‘You should call them now.’ That’s when he said, ‘We’ll wait until tomorrow. Today’s the absolute last day.’”
Merritt told DuGal and Fiske that on February 13, 2010, after arranging to go to the McStay’s residence in Fallbrook with Michael McStay, he had to meet Michael McStay and his wife and children at a gas station in Fallbrook because Michael McStay at that point had never been to his brother’s house. Merritt said that after they got to the McStay residence that day, they each went around the neighborhood to check with nearby residents if any of them knew about the family or where they had gone. Merritt said that upon Michael McStay arriving at his brother’s home and taking stock of the situation, the seriousness of the circumstance seemed to dawn on him. “Mikey was walking around, kind of talking to himself,” Merritt said. “He didn’t seem to be in very good spirits. He was upset, which I can understand why.”
Merritt said Michael McStay gained entrance to his brother’s family residence by going through the he window to the home’s office at the back of the house.
“Did you go in?” asked DuGal.
“Yeah, he went to the sliding glass door, let me in the sliding glass door, and then I went to the front door and let his wife and kids in because they had to go to the bathroom pretty badly,” Merritt said.
Merritt’s statement clashed with the testimony provided by Michael McStay during the first week of the trial. Michael McStay said that Merritt did not enter the house, even though he had opened the sliding glass door to let him in, and that Merritt explained his reluctance to go inside because he had an outstanding arrest warrant.
Merritt said he did not go upstairs while he was at the house on February 13.
Merritt also told the investigators that the light on the desk in Joseph McStay’s home office was on when they were there on February 13, 2010, which he said was consistent with Joseph McStay’s custom. “I can tell you beyond a shadow of doubt, I know for a fact that light, I’ve never seen it off. He always left it on because his kids get up in the middle of the night and they get water out of the refrigerator and he always left that light on so they didn’t fall down the stairs.”
Merritt gave a description of the house’s interior, and to Fiske’s question about where the family members slept, Merritt said he believed all four members of the family slept together in the house’s master bedroom upstairs.
Throughout the interview, there was little hesitation in Merritt’s responses to questions and he gave the impression of being candid, consistent and calm, even in the face of sometimes pointed questioning. He did not dodge any questions, nor overly rely on a lack of memory in seeking to avoid making an answer.
With a single exception, on those occasions where he paused or hesitated in answering, Merritt seemed to be searching his memory for the detail or details he then provided in a matter-of-fact manner. When Fiske was pursuing one line of inquiry, that which pertained to whether Joseph McStay or he had any business dealings in Mexico, Merritt did make an uncharacteristic delay in providing his answer.
“Did he [Joseph McStay] have anybody he did business with in Mexico or near the Mexican border?” Fiske asked.
“Not that I know of,” said Merritt, with no delay.
“Did you have anyone that you did business with?” Fiske asked.
“No, none,” Merritt responded immediately.
“When was the last time you were down by the Mexican border?” Fiske asked.
Eleven seconds elapsed before Merritt said, “Probably…” and he then delayed another seven seconds before saying, “I want to say a year ago. I went to Tijuana.”
“About a year ago,” said Fiske.
“Yeah,” said Merritt.
“Have you been down to San Ysidro or Mexico since?” Fiske asked.
“No, uh-uh,” said Merritt.
“Not at all?” said Fiske.
“Not at all,” said Merritt.
After a slight pause Merritt said, “The only time, the reason I went into Mexico is specifically, I specifically went there to get, specifically, something specifically.”
“What kind of thing?” asked Fiske.
“Viagra,” said Merritt.
“Okay,” said Fiske.
“You can get Viagra there over the counter. So, about a year ago, I went there and got Viagra. . ‘, said Merritt.
During the interview, Merritt came across as being straightforward, sincere and earnest in wanting to assist DuGal and Fiske in getting to the bottom of the family’s disappearance. He seemed intent on being as accurate and factual as he could in his responses and he did not seize any of several opportunities to cast suspicion on any of the various people in Joseph McStay’s orbit. When pressed, he offered, with what seemed to be slight understatement and polite reservation or reluctance, derogatory information about others as those issues came up in the course of the questioning.
Based on tension apparent in his voice, the only nervousness discernible came when there was discussion with regard to Merritt’s outstanding warrant, and whether DuGal and Fiske would or would not take him into custody as a consequence of it. That level of tension did not seem to be provoked in Merritt by any of the other questioning or discussion throughout Merritt’s encounter with the two detectives.
At two points during the interview, Merritt talks about his own young son, referring to him as “my little guy” and saying, “He’s a perfect little kid. I’m partial, of course.” The emotion and affection he expresses for his own offspring, not distant in age from the McStay children, comes across as absolutely genuine and seems incongruous with the suggestion that just 13 days before he had bludgeoned the children of the man he called “my best friend.”
Indeed, if Merritt is guilty as the prosecution is alleging, his performance during the interview with DuGal and Fiske demonstrates he is one cool customer.
Unclear at this point, beyond the discrepancy between Michael McStay’s testimony that Merritt did not go into the McStay residence on February 13 and Merritt’s statement that he did, are what further contradictions exist between Merritt’s statements to DuGal and Fiske and evidence to be presented later in the trial which could serve to boost the prosecution and undercut the defense. The prosecution is playing its cards close to the vest, and holds in reserve material, including records of financial transactions and further recorded interviews of Merritt with investigators which it is anticipated will be presented to the jury.
In the day-and-a-half of testimony that came before the playing of the audio recording of DuGal’s and Fiske’s interview with Merritt, five witnesses had been heard from. Tuesday morning, David Sequeida, who was in the midst of his testimony on January 17 when the court recessed until this week, was again on the stand. On January 17, Sesqueida had testified that a loosely-knit partnership of sorts had existed between his father’s business, Metro Sheet Metal, which supplied the sheet metal and the foundry where fabrication could take place; Merritt, who built the waterfalls and water fountains; and Joseph McStay, who marketed the water features that were produced.
On Tuesday morning, Sequeida testified that the venture involving Joseph McStay, Charles Merrit and Metro Sheet Metal lasted less than a year. Sequeida acknowledged that during the time Merritt was working at the Metro Sheet Metal premises, located in Azusa, he had befriended Merritt “but I never invited him to my house or anything like that.”
“At some point in your relationship there was a falling out, correct?” Raj Maline, one of Merritt’s defense attorneys asked.
“With me and Chase, no. It was my father,” said Sequeida, who characterized the problem as arising over a disagreement with Merritt in regards “to him working in the shop.”
“You were afraid that if he were to get hurt, that would expose your company to some liability, correct?” asked Maline.
“Of course,” said Sequeida, who further indicated that he and his father had misgivings over Merritt’s use of Metro Sheet Metal’s equipment.
“I tried to rein in his activity because he was not familiar with the equipment and at best he was a butcher when it came to stainless steel,” said Sequeida. “He didn’t know how to work stainless steel.”
Maline probed about a “shouting match” involving Merritt that occurred at the Metro Sheet Metal factory. Sequeida said that argument involving Merritt was with his father and that he had not been involved in it. “I was always trying to keep the waters calm and continue working,” Sequeida said.
Sequeida said that after that confrontation between Merritt and his father, he did not want Merritt around.
“He wasn’t to be trusted,” said Sequeida.
To Maline’s suggestion that he held a grudge against Merritt, Sequeida said, “No.”
To Maline’s question, Sequeida said he was not aware of the percentage split between McStay, Merritt and Metro. Sequeida said he did not know the exact arrangement between McStay and Merritt with regard to the Earth Inspired Products, but that “Chase [Merritt] said they were partners.”
The “type of relationship Chase had with Joseph” Sequeida said, “didn’t concern me.”
Sequeida testified that he was looking forward to the venture involving his father’s business, Merritt and McStay, and that it was lucrative, at least “when it started out.”
Sequeida acknowledged that “Chase came up with a diffuser that was of use in the waterfall fabricating process.” He said that at one time Metro Sheet Metal “did all the stainless steel work, the trough that held the pump and the water, all the the uprights everything that would hold the glass in place” on the waterfalls.
On January 17 Sequeida gave testimony to indicate that Merritt’s productivity in the fabricating process had begun to slip toward the end of the arrangement between Metro Sheet Metal, Merritt and McStay. On January 21, however, he acknowledged that during that period Merritt was installing the completed projects all over the country and that he had installed a waterfall custom-built for Paul Mitchell in New York during that timeframe.
“It wouldn’t be so far-fetched for Chase to be gone for several days if he had to go and install the Paul Mitchell one in New York, correct?” Maline asked.
“If he had to go install that, correct,” said Sequeida.
Sequeida testified that Merritt did not have free access to the Metro Sheet Metal shop or a key.
Sequeida injected into his testimony that he had “a conversation about gambling” with Merritt and that “he mentioned on one occasion that there was a system” Merritt could use in placing his bets to ensure he could make money before Maline foreclosed that avenue of inquiry.
Maline sought, and to some degree succeeded in wringing from Sequeida an indication that his father’s dispute was less with Merritt and more with Joseph McStay, and that his father wanted to cut ties with Joseph McStay rather than Chase because of the dispute over money.
“Joseph wasn’t telling your father what the selling price of the fountains were,” said Maline “Do you remember that?”
“Yes, there was some issue with that,” said Sequeida.
“And your father was upset because he wasn’t able then to quote an appropriate amount so he could make whatever profit he wanted to make,” said Maline.
“He just felt he wasn’t being forthcoming with what the fountains were being sold for, where his price should be,” said Sequeida.
“Your father was angry about that,” said Maline.
“Describe angry,” said Sequeida.
“He called Joseph a crook,” said Maline.
“It’s possible. My dad does fly off the handle, yeah,” said Sequeida.
When Maline asked about Dan Kavanaugh, Sequeida said, “I did not hear that name until the Joseph McStay family went missing.”
Sequeida said he was present for conversations between Dan Kavanaugh and his father after the McStay family’s disappearance and “at the end because there were some issues with the Saudi Arabia job.” The Saudi Arabia job was a large scale waterfall project that was entering production just as the McStay family disappeared.
On redirect examination, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Brit Imes asked Sequeida, “Do you remember any time when the defendant was in or around Metro Sheet Metal him being injured in any way on stainless or a machine or anything like that?”
“No, sir,” said Sequeida.
“Suffering any cuts, broken bones, things dropped on his head?” asked Imes.
“No, sir,” said Sequeida.
“What jobs did you have to work on due to the defendant’s absences?” Imes asked.
Sequeida said he could not describe the jobs, per se, because he knew the assignments “by job numbers.”
“You said the defendant was not to be trusted,” said Imes. “Why?”
“His lack of experience utilizing the equipment,” said Sequeida. “His welding skills weren’t consistent with what we wanted to put our name on.”
Judge Michael Smith, who is presiding over the trial, asked Sequeida if he knew what project a check from Earth Inspired Products pertained to that McStay had entrusted to Merritt to be delivered to Metro Sheet Metal which Sequeida had previously testified had not been received. Sequeida said he did not know.
The next witness was John Charles Bluth, who confirmed he was dirt bike riding when he came across the top part of a skull, which subsequent testimony from others established was determined to be that of Joseph McStay, Jr.
Bluth said he was riding alone on his Kawasaki in the desert on November 11, 2013 in the area of Stoddard Wells Road and Quarry Road, looking for a motorcycle trail which he failed to spot. “I thought I’d passed the trail but I wasn’t sure so I kind of went up a ways and off the road and circled back to angle towards it,” said Bluth. “ Well, I didn’t find it, the trail, that is. On the way back to the dirt road, I stumbled across the remain.”
“So you saw something that attracted your attention?” Imes asked.
“Yes,” said Bluth.
“At the time did you know what it was?” asked Imes.
“A bone,” said Bluth.
“Did you know what kind of bone?” Imes asked.
“No, not for sure,” said Bluth.
“What about it attracted your attention to make you stop and go ‘Hey, what’s that?’’” asked Imes.
“It looked out of place,” said Bluth.
He said he stopped and put his bike on its stand and looked at it. “I thought it might be human,” he said, and called 911.
He said he did not handle the bone but “turned it over with a stick.”
After a deputy responded, he showed the bone to the lawman, he said.
The deputy, he said, called the forensic team.The recording of Bluth’s 911 call was played in court.
Gary Hart, who was a sheriff’s homicide detective for 23 years and has now been promoted to sergeant, next testified. Hart said he was dispatched to the scene on November 11. Subsequently, according to Hart, an investigative team of four detectives and one sergeant arrived at the scene. What were believed to be remains were found, Hart said, but dusk was approaching and the investigators were running out of daylight. A deputy was stationed on high ground all night to make sure nobody touched the evidence, he said.
Hart testified that on November 12, roughly 15 sheriff’s personnel returned to the scene and did a line search, walking in a methodical fashion across the desert floor, covering 64 acres over several hours. Hart said two graves were found and excavations were initiated. He said the excavations unearthed bones and clothes in the two graves and that the investigative team found animal activity near and around the area of the graves. Photos were displayed for the jury. Hart said he secured the site and Dr. Alexis Gray, a forensic anthropologist, was brought in to assist in the excavation and the gathering of remains outside of the graves through her expertise in determining as human or animal the bones being collected.
Hart said a compass was used to orient the team as to direction and location, and as a way of marking items found. He said an awning was pitched over the gravesites to limit the excavation team’s exposure to the sun. He said he noted the presence of deep and grooved truck tire marks at both graves.
Hart read an exhaustive list of bones found, which included a scapula, femur, ribs, fragments and many bones found outside the graves, including fingers found 84 feet from the grave. The bone item furthest from the grave was at a distance of 224 feet, Hart said.
Hart stated he had completed death investigations in the desert in the past in which the scattering of bones was consistent with this case.
Following Hart to the witness stand was Sergeant Jose Armando who in 2010 was a detective assigned to the department’s homicide detail.
Avila said on November 11, 2013, he had been given a call to respond to the desert area north of Stoddard Wells Road east of Quarry Road and West of the I-15 “regarding human remains found.” He said he understood that other department personnel had been at the scene on November 11 but that he arrived there the next morning between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. where he participated in a briefing involving investigative personnel as well as those from the office’s coroner’s division. They set up a command post, Avila said. From aerial photos of the area taken that day displayed to the jury, Avila pointed out the area of the graves and the command post. Avila said a line search was conducted for evidence and that thereafter, “I was assigned to document the excavation of one of the graves.” Avila identified that as “grave B,” which contained the remains of Summer McStay and Gianni.
He said that the excavation of grave B had begun prior to his arrival and that some items had been recovered or removed from the grave prior to his arrival.
Avila said that during his presence “remains, basically skeletonized remains, bones, some clothing items” were removed from the grave. He said that “As the excavation continued, other items such as a phone case, and ultimately a sledge hammer” were unearthed from grave B. He identified for the jury photos of various stages of the progression of the excavation, ones depicting hair, bone fragments, portions of the skeleton and skull, as well as a pair of pants and panties subsequently determined to have been Summer McStay’s that were removed from the graves. Also found and removed from the grave during his presence, Avila said, was a child’s backpack.
“During the excavation, were there multiple bones recovered as the dig went through the dirt?” Imes asked.
“Yes,” said Avila.
Avila said the ultimate depth of the grave was eighteen-and-one-half inches.
Imes displayed for the jury on the courtroom’s monitors a photo of the head of the sledge hammer as it was being uncovered in the grave. Avila said it lay at a depth of about 17 inches. Avila said it was a “Stanley three-pound sledgehammer.”
“Who was ultimately responsible for the collection, the documentation and the processing of all of the items that were removed from the gravesite?” Imes asked.
“That was a coroner’s office responsibility,” said Avila.
Avila said Sheriff’s Crime Scene Specialist Heatherly Radeleff was responsible for processing the items removed form the grave.
On cross examination by Merritt’s defense attorney, James McGee, Avila said he had assigned himself to monitor the excavation of grave B and had assigned Detective Edward Bachman to oversee the excavation of grave A.
On November 12, Avila said he was serving in the capacity of case agent in the investigation of the gravesites, in response to McGee’s questioning.
McGee asked if Avila had assigned Becky Burnell to assist Bachman in the excavation of grave A. Avila said he did not remember who had assisted Bachman.
“Ms. Burnell – you said she was a volunteer?” asked McGee.
“Correct,” said Avila.
“Did she have any expertise that would have allowed her to be in that crime scene?” McGee asked.
“I don’t know that,” said Avila.
“Did you let someone into your crime scene without knowing whether she could contaminate evidence?” McGee asked.
“Objection, argumentative,” protested Imes.
Judge Smith sustained the objection.
Avila said that after the excavation of the grave was completed it was determined that the dimensions of the grave were 72 inches in length, approximately 20 inches in width at the middle and approximately 18.5 inches in depth at the deepest level.
“You said on direct [examination] that part of grave B was sunken below the regular ground level. Do you remember that prior testimony?” asked McGee.
“Yes, said Avila.
“And you also stated that part of the excavation process started before you arrived,” said McGee.
“Correct,” said Avila.
“Did you see grave B before the excavation started and that’s when you saw the sunken area?” asked McGee.
“Yes, I did,” said Avila.
“So, it was based on a prior observation before everything started?” said McGee.
“That is correct,” said Avila.
Avila said that the excavation of the grave, in addition to progressing from the top to the bottom also progressed from the north side to the south side.
Under redirect examination by Imes, Avila indicated that exhibit 748, which was provided by the defense, was in error and in contrast to exhibit 222, provided by the prosecution, in that the sweatpants and panties were listed as being a little left of center but that they were found at the top of the grave near Summer McStay’s head. Avila said that a listing placing the sledgehammer at the south end of the grave was “inaccurate.”
“Where do you recall it being seen in the grave?” asked Imes.
“It was just about the middle of the grave,” said Avila. “It was east of the adult remains and above the child remains. The skull of the adult female was near the top of the grave…”
“The north end of the grave?” Imes asked for clarification.
“Yes,” said Avila. “The child remains were toward the bottom half of the grave. The sledgehammer was located east of what I would estimate the torso of the adult female and above the skull of the child and a little bit east in the grave.”
On recross examination, when McGee sought to get before the jury that exhibit 748 was not a list of the items in the grave as they progressed from the north to the south but from the top to the bottom, he encountered a series of objections from Imes that were sustained by Smith.
“When everybody was working the gravesite excavation in your presence, did you see that everybody had some type of gloves or protection on their hands when they were working that scene?” McGee asked.
“As far as I remember, yes,” said Avila.
“So at no point you saw anybody with gloves off, touching anything with their bare hands?” asked McGee.
“That’s correct,” said Avila.
“As far as you could direct, everybody that was working that scene was trying to maintain the scene integrity of the evidence being removed. Is that a fair statement?” asked McGee.
“Yes,” said Avila.
“And you saw no lapses in that the entire time you were there?” asked McGee.
“Not that I can recall,” said Avila.
Dr. Alexis Gray, a forensic anthropologist who consults to the sheriff’s departments and coroner’s offices in San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern and San Diego counties and responded to the burial site on November 11, 12 and 13, 2013 testified on Wednesday morning, January 23. She had previously examined skeletal remains over 500 times and had encountered skeletal remains that had sustained blunt force trauma approximately 200 times.
Gray said she was requested to go to what what was later determined to be the scene of the McStay family gravesites on November 11, 2013 and was called upon to make a determination as to whether the skull bone, later established to be that of Joseph McStay, Jr., was human on nonhuman.
She said she arrived there as members of the sheriff’s department were securing the scene.
“In this case I determined the remains were human,” she said.
Gray said she took photos of the scene upon arriving there. Upon examining the bone in question, she determined it was the “frontal” bone of a child. She asked, she said, “if we could then do a quick canvas because children’s remains in particular get carried off quite easily by animals, so if we could preserve anything, now is the time.”
She said they then “walked about in animal tracks and riverbeds, in those places where animals would carry remains to feed. We spread out some distance and then came across a femur of an adult, and then close to that, the gravesites.”
Dr. Gray said she spent around two hours at the site that day and returned the following day near dawn where she waited for the other responding personnel, a total of between 20 and 30 people, she estimated. They did a briefing and then walked into the area near the graves single file. Personnel were directed into teams by the homicide detective on scene and Robert Hunter, who was a supervisor in the sheriff’s department’s coroner’s division.
Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez, who handled the direct examination of Gray, asked, “How do you and this team ensure that you’re not going to contaminate anything with your own DNA?”
“I’m not sure that we don’t,” said Gray.
“Why?” asked Rodriguez.
“In an outdoor crime scene environment, it’s impractical,” said Gray. “It’s impractical to imagine that we would suit up to get into a hole. In Europe, they do it that way. But here, we’ve never done it that way.” Gray said she has already submitted a sample of her DNA to the Department of Justice so hers will not be confused with DNA analyses being done off evidence churned up at the crime scenes she is involved in processing. “DNA can be recovered in a lab from the remains or from anything if it’s intact, but it’s not something we would try to necessarily recover at that location.”
Gray said the team made an estimate of the dimensions of the grave and then began to excavate, revising its estimate as they proceeded. She said that Hunter was observing the progress of the excavations of graves A and B, putting information about the progressions of the excavations into his report. Gray said she was involved primarily in the excavation of grave B, while the excavations of both graves were ongoing simultaneously.
Multiple photos of grave B were displayed on the courtroom’s overhead and sidewall video displays. Gray testified that it was evident that “some sort of canine carnivore, some coyote or dog, has pulled at the grave and changed it from what it was at the time of placement.”
Gray identified from a series of photos presented to the jury body parts extracted from the grave as it was being excavated.
Gray said she was also engaged, while she was at the scene, in identifying items that were flagged by searchers walking the area around the gravesites.
She had to leave in the afternoon because of a class she had to teach that evening. She said she returned on November 13, and that the excavation of grave B was not completed. She said she did not participate in the further excavation of grave B, but instead went around to all of the flagged remains in the general area to ascertain which of those were and were not human. She said efforts were made to ascertain the distances of the human remains that were found from the graves. She said she observed for a short time the progress of the excavation of grave A.
Gray testified that she was present a few day later when autopsies on the recovered bodies were carried out and that she had participated in ensuring that the body parts were assembled and properly differentiated as to victim for the autopsy to take place.
Gray said some of the bones recovered had been exposed to the elements. She said the remains outside were dried out and bleached and that the bones in the grave that were protected were darker in color, somewhat moist and had some tissue yet clinging to them.
Photos of the four sets of remains as they were examined in the coroner’s office were displayed for the jury. Extensive skeletal remains of Joseph McStay, Summer McStay and Gianni McStay were present. Very little of of Joseph, Jr..’s remains were present, consisting of the top portion of his skull located by Bluth, three bones and four bone fragments, indicating most of his body had been carried off by predators.
Rodriguez asked Gray about her observations with regard to blunt force trauma she observed relating to the remains. She said, “I observed a lot of trauma, mostly to the heads, but also to the legs of an adult.”
After the playing of the audio recording was concluded Thursday morning, Sergeant Edward Bachman, who in 2013 was a homicide detective, testified that on November 11 he had been contacted by Homicide Division Sergeant John Gaffney, advising him that human remains had been discovered and he was directed to respond first thing in the morning to a location off of Stoddard Wells Road north of Victorville.
Bachman said after those arriving, including homicide detectives and coroner’s office division personnel, were assembled, they “did a crime scene walk-through of where the skull was located.” He said what was believed to be two gravesites had been located and that he was assigned to oversee the excavation of what was labeled as gravesite A.
Bachman testified that the grave was “sunken down below ground,” which he approximated at roughly three inches at the north end, four inches in the middle and six inches at the south end of the grave. He said portions of what appeared to be a woven blanket were protruding from the grave.
Bachman said he and those he was working with started at the north end of the grave and used brushes and dust pans to remove layers of soil in a methodical fashion, putting the soil removed into buckets. The soil was then taken to sifters to make sure that no bone fragments or other items were missed. In short order, he said, they were encountering what they believed to be body parts, as well as a woven blanket which he said was “soiled with body decomposition fluids.”
As they progressed, Bachman said, “Part of a human skull” came into view. Bachman said they continued with the process and over a two day period found the skeletal remains lying on its side.
After Bachman’s testimony, Heatherly Radeleff, a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department crime scene specialist for 17 years, was called to the stand as a prosecution witness. She possesses, Radeleff said, expertise in crime scene investigation, crime scene processing, blood stain pattern interpretation, gunshot trajectory analysis, and evidence detection and enhancement.
Radeleff said that she received instructions on the night of November 11, 2013 to go on the morning of November 12, 2013 to the scene of a crime off of Stoddard Wells Road north of the city of Victorville to meet with detectives and assist with the excavation of some graves. She said that the removal of evidence from the graves was primarily under the control of the coroner’s office and that she assisted by photographing and collecting the evidence but did not herself assist in the excavation of the graves and that she walked about the area documenting the scene after doing a walk-through of the area with the detectives.
Rateleff said she was on the scene from 8:01 a m to 4:46 p.m.
Rateleff said “I could see the freeway from the location” and that there “were more than one grave, more than one decedent and the three of them were completely buried.” She said she was aware that there was a fourth victim. “The briefing I was given, the circumstance was that bones were located outside of the grave, most likely from animal activity,” she said. “So, I knew that one of the decedents had been – the bones were scattered. I witnessed the other three during the excavations.”
Rateleff said the team of investigators “did a line search of quite a large area” and that the scattered bones outside the grave were marked with pin flags which she photographed as she walked about the scene.
Rateleff said that Dr. Alexis Gray took measurements.
She said both graves, one designated A and the other B, were being excavated simultaneously.
Photos that Rateleff took of the items excavated from the graves were shown in the sequence she took them, such that the photographs taken of both graves were intermixed in her progressive photographic documentation, she said.
As photos of the items excavated from grave B, in which Summer and her son Gianni had been buried, were displayed for the jurors on the courtroom’s monitors, Rateleff described them, including bones, a skull, hair, sweatpants and panties, as well as the contents of a backpack found in grave B, consisting of a spoon, a small pickaxe and a brush. Also shown was a sledgehammer taken from grave B. To Imes inquiry, Rateleff noted the sledgehammer had paint on its handle.
She identified a white electrical cord socket displayed for the jurors on the courtroom’s monitors as having been found outside the graves.
She further identified items taken out of grave A, which had contained the remains of Joseph McStay and Joseph McStay, Jr.
She identified a somewhat corroded key stamped with the word “Chateau” as having been “collected” from the right front pocket of Joseph McStay’s short pants, and four keys and the remnants of a key chain found in the left back pocket of those same pants.
Rateleff said she was present during the autopsies of the bodies and that she had retrieved the keys from Joseph McStay’s short pants during the autopsy.
Also in grave A was a blanket with what she called a “pull up” in it. She said a pull up is a “tall diaper.” She was shown two pieces of a red strap, one of which had been in the grave and retained much of its original color. One of the pieces of strap that had been outside of the grave appeared to have been bleached on one side by the sun.
Rateleff identified two pieces of a cut or ripped bra, one found inside grave B and one found outside of the grave.
Summer McStay’s mother, Blanche Aranda, was present on Thursday, sitting quietly observing the proceedings from the front row on the left side of the gallery. Twice, during the direct examination of Rateleff and later during Rateleff’s cross examination, when photos of the corpses in the graves were shown on the courtroom’s overhead and sidewall monitors, Aranda, overcome by the graphic nature of the images, left the courtroom to go out into the court hallway on the second floor to compose herself.
Rateleff was called on to describe various items found outside the graves. She referenced an azimuth circle that had been set down near the graves to allow for the relative location of the items to the graves to be referenced.
Imes asked if Rateleff had processed any footwear. She said that she had not.
An examination of the dark sweatpants removed from grave B were displayed. An orange discoloring in the crotch and internal leg areas was noted. Rateleff indicated the discoloration might have come from bleach.
Under cross examination by James McGee, Rateleff testified that it appeared that Joseph McStay was in grave A lying on his right side. Rateleff also told McGee that the panties and pants found in a “clump” together in gave B were not on Summer McStay’s body when she was in the grave and that in her notation with regard to them she had observed that it seemed as if the “pants and panties were taken off together.”
McGee had some back and forth with Rateleff with regard to the orange discoloration on the sweatpants found in grave B. He took issue with her assertion that the discoloration had necessarily resulted from bleach and suggested that the stain might have been the result of a prolonged exposure to the ammonia content in urine. The exchange was beset with objections from Imes.
McGee questioned Rateleff about measurements taken of the separate sets of tire tracks leading to grave A and grave B. He established from Rateleff’s responses that the distance of the width from the outer side of the right tire to the outer side of the left tire on the vehicle at grave A was 73 inches and that the measurement from the outer side of the right tire to the outer side of the left tire on the vehicle at grave B was 76 inches. McGee’s efforts to extract from Rateleff a conclusion that there were two vehicles involved in depositing the bodies into the graves ran into a series of objections from Imes that were sustained by Judge Smith.
McGee inquired about Rateleff’s evidence collection and processing effort done on the McStay family’s Isuzu Trooper, which had been processed similarly three-and-a-half years earlier by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department shortly after the family went missing.
“You understood that the Trooper was processed by San Diego, correct?” asked McGee.
“That’s correct,” said Rateleff.
“Did you discuss with detectives, ‘We might need to go back through this because they might have missed things?’” McGee asked.
“Yes,” said Rateleff, who said she was looking for fingerprints and latent blood.
“When you did the processing of the inside of the Isuzu trooper, was there anything that you saw that indicated to you the possibility of blood that required further testing?” McGee continued.
“No, sir,” said Rateleff.
“And you checked the floorboards?” asked McGee.
“Yes I did,” said Rateleff.
“The seats?” asked McGee.
“Yes, sir,” said Rateleff.
“The interior?” McGee asked.
“The entire vehicle,” Rateleff said.
“And the other items that were contained within the vehicle, as well, correct?” McGee asked.
“That is correct,” said Rateleff.
Rateleff said she was able to obtain latent fingerprints off of several of the surfaces within the vehicle and had logged that in as evidence.
By Mark Gutglueck