Business Associate Charged In McStay Family Murder Case

(November 10)  The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office late last week took action on sheriff’s department investigators’ conclusion that it was a business associate who murdered Joseph McStay, his wife and the couple’s two children before burying them in the desert near Apple Valley.
The McStay case baffled investigators in San Diego County, where the McStays lived in a home in Fallbrook until they mysteriously disappeared on February 4, 2010. Investigators said the family appeared to have left their home in northern San Diego County abruptly, leaving food to spoil on the kitchen counter and abandoning the family dogs.
The family’s SUV was found less than a week later near the Mexican border in San Ysidro.  A grainy surveillance video from around the time the family went missing showed a family believed to be the McStays, consisting of two parents and two small children, walking into Mexico. It was assumed on that basis that Joseph McStay had willingly taken refuge in Mexico for some unknown but widely speculated upon reason, taking his family with him.
Theories abounded as to what the rationale for the family’s exodus from their country was. Joseph McStay owned a business that designed decorative fountains, artificial waterfalls and birdbaths, which utilized some materials imported from Mexico. One rumor held that Joseph McStay’s business was a front for a drug cartel and that the McStays were seeking refuge in Mexico, either from authorities or a rival drug importation organization. San Diego detectives also focused on McStay’s ostensibly legitimate business operation and anything that might be amiss in this regard. Contacted and interrogated relatively early on in that process was Charles “Chase” Ray Merritt, who had manufactured, fabricated, assembled and installed Joseph McStay’s designed products. That trail appeared to be a dead end and investigators went on to other leads, including hundreds of phoned-in tips.
In April 2013, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department announced they were transferring the McStay family case to the FBI.
The case took a startling twist when on November 11, 2013, an off-road motorcyclist spotted what appeared to be human remains. When deputies from the Victorville sheriff’s station were dispatched to the remote desert area near Quarry Road and Interstate 15 and north of Stoddard Wells Road they encountered what ultimately proved to be the bodies of all four members of the McStay family, which had apparently been interred in hastily dug shallow graves.
Just a little less than a year after that grisly discovery, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office jointly announced that on November 5, 2014,  Merritt, 57,  had been arrested on suspicion of killing Joseph McStay, 40, his wife Summer, 43, and their two young boys Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3 in February 2010. Merritt, who was at that time a resident of Homeland in Riverside County, was arrested “without incident,” officials said, in Chatsworth in Los Angeles County.
An investigative team from the sheriff’s office, led by captain Leland Bolt and sergeant Chris Fisher and working in conjunction with the FBI and in communication with San Diego County authorities, conducted over 200 interviews and interrogations and obtained and served 60 search warrants in conjunction with the case.
There was a slight variance in the statements of the sheriff’s investigators and the district attorney’s office with regard to the nature of the evidence against Merritt. The sheriff’s department indicated it was the totality of evidence implicating Merritt rather than a single “smoking gun” that led to his arrest. The district attorney’s office, however, which charged Merritt with four counts of murder with a special circumstance of multiple murder on November 7, intimated that there was direct forensic evidence linking Merritt to the scene where the McStays were buried that would be presented at trial.
Sheriff John McMahon said, “There is no information to suggest there were any other suspects involved in this crime. Chase Merritt was a business associate of Joseph McStay. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma and based on the entire investigation and the evidence obtained, investigators believe the murders occurred at their residence in Fallbrook. Investigators are not disclosing the motive for the murders at this point.”
Investigators now believe the family videoed crossing the border into Mexico at San Ysidro in February 2010 was not the McStays. Neither investigators nor the district attorney’s office offered an explanation on how it was that the McStay family vehicle came to be parked near the border.
Merritt had a connection with the Victor Valley, where the bodies of the family members were found. In his youth his family lived in Hesperia and he attended Apple Valley High School in 1972, 1973 and 1974. In 2012 he was in a partnership with Abayomi Adepoju in a steel sculpture fabricating business run out of the Clock Tower Professional Center in Hesperia.
On Wednesday November 12, he was arraigned in Victorville Court before Judge Raymond Haight III. The prosecutor present was deputy district attorney Sean Dougherty. Merritt was represented by attorney Robert Ponce. Merritt pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder and denied the special circumstances alleged by the district attorney. Haight continued his no bail status. After the arraignment, Merritt was returned to custody at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

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