SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A California man was ordered to stand trial Monday for murder in the killing of his business partner, his partner’s wife and the couple’s two young sons, whose remains were found in shallow desert graves more than three years after they disappeared.
A judge made the ruling in the case against Charles “Chase” Merritt after witnesses testified at a preliminary hearing that Merritt had cashed checks written from victim Joseph McStay’s online business account after he and his family vanished in 2010 that were backdated to the last day they were seen.
Authorities found the victims’ fractured skulls and other remains in 2013 in two shallow graves about 100 miles from the family’s San Diego County home. They also found a rusty, three-pound sledgehammer and a child’s pants and diaper. The elder McStay had an electric cord tied around his neck and was wrapped in a woven blanket.
Detectives questioned Merritt two days after a missing persons report was filed for the family when he used the past tense to describe McStay, who he called one of his best friends.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- U.S. Navy shares photos of enormous Arabian Sea weapons seizure
- Vatican warns US bishops over get-tough Communion proposals
- Fauci Says Indoor Mask Guidance Can ‘Start Being More Liberal’
- Melinda Gates reportedly met with divorce lawyers in 2019 ahead of split with Bill Gates
- An obscure Texas security company helped persuade Americans that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump
“There were also times when he used present tense but he frequently used past tense,” San Diego County sheriff’s Detective Troy DuGal testified.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Hanke testified that he spoke later with a customer service representative for QuickBooks who remembered receiving a call about McStay’s account on Feb. 9, 2010, five days after he and his family vanished.
“He told me the caller identified himself as Joseph McStay,” Hanke testified, adding that the call was from a cellphone used by Merritt.
The QuickBooks account was used by McStay to write checks to vendors connected to his water features business.
Authorities testified that Merritt was added a vendor to the account on Feb. 1, but the profile did not appear to be created by McStay.
Merritt cashed a check from the account the next day, authorities said. McStay logged onto the system and called his bank on Feb. 4, the last day anyone saw him.
In the days after McStay’s disappearance, authorities said, checks backdated to that day for more than $13,000 were cashed or deposited by Merritt.
Merritt has pleaded not guilty. The defense did not call any witnesses at the hearing, but Merritt’s lawyer, Jimmy Mettias, told the court prosecutors failed to place his client at the family’s home when they vanished.
Outside court, Merritt’s lawyers declined to address the accounting allegations but said Merritt is innocent.
“At their best, they put on an embezzlement case today. We’re here for a murder case, and we’ll take care of the embezzlement at the time of trial,” defense lawyer Jim Terrell told reporters.
The McStay family’s disappearance initially puzzled investigators who said there were no signs of forced entry at the home and the couple’s credit cards and tens of thousands of dollars in bank accounts were untouched.
The remains of McStay, 40; his wife, Summer, 43; 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. were later found in San Bernardino County, 100 miles from their home in the San Diego County community of Fallbrook.
All were found to have been killed by blunt force trauma to the head, with Gianni suffering at least seven blows, San Bernardino County sheriff’s Detective Edward Bachman testified.
None of the victims were wearing shoes. The blanket wrapped around the elder McStay’s skeletal remains appeared similar to a futon cover that was missing from the home after the family vanished, said Joseph Steers, another detective from San Bernardino County.
At the family’s two-story home, there were towel racks but hardly any towels, he said, adding some were found at the grave. Investigators also found blue painters’ tape on the wall and a paint tray as the McStays had recently been repainting the house, Steers said.
At the desert gravesites, paint was found on the sledgehammer and running sideways along a brassiere belonging to Summer McStay. Steers said that meant she was likely painting while lying on her side, or incapacitated as a drip fell.
After the hearing, Mike McStay told reporters that knowing the case will move forward will help his family heal as he believes his brother Joseph would want them to.
“We’re just grateful, you know they got the right guy, and they have what they need to put him where he deserves to go,” he said.