The 2010 disappearance of the McStays has been one of Southern California’s most enduring mysteries.
In 2010, Joseph McStay (age 40) and his wife Summer (age 43) lived in Fallbrook, California, with their sons Gianni (age 4) and Joseph Jr. (age 3). Joseph owned and operated Earth Inspired Products, a company that built decorative fountains, and Summer was a licensed real estate agent.
Joseph McStay sold indoor water features and fountains, and often hired Merritt, a welder, to craft them. Prosecutors say Merritt had been dipping into McStay’s business account. Merritt’s attorneys pointed the finger at another McStay associate.
On Feb. 9, 2010, Joseph’s father, Patrick, received an email from a business partner of his son’s saying that he hadn’t heard from him. He found no sign of foul play in the empty residence, only evidence of a family’s everyday life: paint cans in the kitchen that they were renovating, a carton of eggs on the counter and two small bowls of popcorn on the futon in the living room. The family’s two beloved dogs, Bear and Digger, were left un-fed behind in the backyard.
After the McStay family went missing, Patrick wanted to speak to his son’s friends , even if it meant possibly speaking to the killer. He had a list of people he thought could have harmed his son and his family. One of the names was Charles “Chase” Merritt, a former business associate who worked with Joseph and helped with his company.
Three years and nine months after they vanished, the family’s remains were found outside Victorville in San Bernardino County, buried in shallow desert graves — answering the question of their whereabouts, but also deepening the mystery. Merritt was arrested a year later.
The deaths were ruled a homicide and San Bernardino County authorities said they believed the family died of blunt force trauma inside their home, but declined to discuss specifics of the deaths or a motive.
Although Merritt denied he’d ever driven the family’s Isuzu Trooper, his DNA was found on the steering wheel and gear shift. The truck was found abandoned near the Mexican border soon after the family disappeared.
On June 10, 2019, a San Bernardino County jury found Merritt guilty of murdering the McStay family. On June 24, the jury recommended that Merritt be sentenced to death. The court upheld the jury's recommendation, and Merritt was sentenced to death on January 21, 2020.