McStay family bludgeoned to death with sledgehammer, court hears

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Charles "Chase" Merritt

SAN BERNARDINO, California (CNN) — The 2010 disappearance of the McStay family has been one of Southern California’s most enduring mysteries.

Heartbreaking details of how the couple and their two young boys died began to emerge Monday at a preliminary hearing for the man charged with their murders.

The McStays — Joseph, Summer and their sons Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3 — were bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer and buried in shallow graves in the high desert outside Victorville, northeast of Los Angeles, according to testimony.

Joseph McStay sold outdoor water displays over the Internet. A former business partner, Charles “Chase” Merritt, was arrested late last year on four counts of murder. Merritt has pleaded not guilty.

Monday’s hearing in San Bernardino Superior Court was being held to determine if there is enough evidence to send the case to trial.

One after another, half a dozen detectives and an FBI agent took the witness stand to provide the details of the family’s violent end.

For a time after their disappearance, the McStays were believed to have taken off on an extended vacation to Mexico. But the details didn’t add up: Eggs were left on a kitchen counter and the house was being renovated. The family dogs were left, tethered and unfed, in the backyard.

In this story

  • McStays were bludgeoned to death with sledgehammer, according to testimony
  • Joseph, Summer and sons Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, were buried in shallow graves northeast of Los Angeles
  • Monday's hearing was to determine if there is enough evidence to send Charles "Chase" Merritt to trial

And then in November 2013, their skeletal remains were found in two shallow graves in the desert. None of the victims were wearing shoes, authorities testified. All died of blunt force trauma.

Summer and Gianni were found in “Grave B,” as investigators dubbed it, along I-15 near Victorville; her husband lay in “Grave A,” along with the scattered bones of the younger boy, Joseph Jr.

Grave B also held what authorities say was the murder weapon: a 3-pound Stanley sledgehammer. Investigators believe it came from the family’s home in Fallbrook in San Diego County.

Joseph and Summer’s skulls had been smashed multiple times. The boys’ skulls were fractured as well — Gianni’s as many as seven times, according to testimony.

Joseph had a broken leg and rib. He was tied with an extension cord and wrapped in a futon cover taken from the Fallbrook house, a detective testified.

The evidence heard so far seems to indicate the family was accosted and perhaps even bludgeoned to death at home. Signs of renovation work — paint and new hardwood flooring — were found in the open kitchen and family room.

Summer McStay wore no top when her body was unearthed, and her bra was spattered with paint. The paint color matched the paint found in the home, according to testimony. The sledge hammer contained smears of the same paint.

Merritt, the man accused of the murders, was among the first to raise the alert about the missing McStays. He told their family he couldn’t reach McStay and helped a brother search the house. Merritt has also previously spoken to the media about his relationship with the McStays and professed his innocence in the case.

Although Merritt denied he’d ever driven the family’s Isuzu, 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.

Judge Michael Smith also heard from an FBI agent who analyzed phone records. He found 27 calls between Merritt and Joseph McStay on February 4, 2010 — the last day the family was seen alive.

Merritt called McStay five times the next day, but none the day after that, February 6. On that morning, Merritt’s phone pinged off cell towers in the Victorville area, where the graves were unearthed three years later.

Prosecutors on Monday also began to home in on a possible motive: money.

A detective testified about several checks written to Merritt on McStay’s business accounting software. They were written after the family disappeared, but were backdated to February 4, 2010. The checks were printed, but deleted from the software. They were deposited to an account Merritt set up on February 3.

Asked about the checks, Merritt offered no explanation or gave conflicting stories, a detective testified.

 

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