On November 11, 2013, a dirt bike rider was riding through the desert in Victorville when he came upon what he believed was a human skull. When two San Bernardino police officers arrived at the location west of 15 Freeway and north of Stoddard Wells Road, they made another startling discovery. Near the location of the skull was two shallow graves. Unknowingly the dirt biker had just unearthed an entire McStay family, which mysteriously vanished in 2010. Each of the two graves had one adult skeletal remains and a child’s’.
Joseph Sr., 40, Summer, 43, Gianni, 4 and Joseph Jr., 3 were a happy family. From the start of the investigation, police had little evidence. Detectives saw no usage on the family’s credit cards or cellphones since February 4th, 2010. The McStay’s just moved into a new five-bedroom home in Fallbrook, California and still had boxes to unpack. The home sat on a quiet cul-de-sac, had a fenced-in backyard perfect for a 3- and 4-year-old plus two dogs. The McStay’s put down $30k for $300k home and spent another $4k on replacing the flooring. New carpets, paint, and even a granite countertop were still being installed in the home. The father Michael McStay tells a CNN reporter “My gut feeling is telling me that they are being held against their will in some way” It was not usual for Joseph McStay to not answer his cellphone, running a profitable business he had his phone on 24 hours a day and friends and family said he never would miss a call. There was no suspicious activity from the family’s bank account, and they had no financial problems. Both Joseph and his wife Summer each had $20k in separate savings accounts, Summer using some of her money to buy baby clothes for her sister’s new baby the afternoon before the family disappeared. There were speculations that the entire family walked across the border to Tijana, Mexico on the evening of February 4th. A towing company picked up the family’s 1996 Isuzu Trooper in a mall parking lot in San Ysidro. The car abandoned, presumably at the time by the family. A video surfaced which turned out to be a coincidental hinderance to the case of a family resembling the McStays crossing the border.
The McStay family was first reported missing on February 10th, 2010 by Dan Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh maintained the website for the father, Joseph McStay’s business, Earth Inspired Products. Initially Dan Kavanaugh was a suspect in the family’s disappearance, however he maintained a solid alibi of being on vacation in Hawaii, telling CBS News 8 “I was in Hawaii. I have a hundred witnesses that saw me there (in Oahu) and can attest that I was there the whole time.” A week after the family went missing, Kavanaugh withdrew money from the business bank account and even sold the business in July 2011. Kavanaugh claims that he was the one who built the business by sending web traffic to the webpage. Police ruled Dan Kavanaugh out as a potential suspect, and the investigation stalled.
In 2006, Joseph McStay met future business associate Chase Merrit. Joseph operated Earth Inspired Products, which sold pre-fabricated office water fountains. Chase Merritt’s expertise allowed the business to move into the custom fountain distribution, which he handled. It it highly improbable that the McStay family knew about Merritt’s true business and personal background, which comprised gambling, fraud, theft, and scamming customers and merchants out of their money. Police focus more attention on Merritt’s whereabouts on February 4th, 2010.
The last known phone call from Joseph McStay was to Merritt at 5:48pm. Police believe the murders happened between this time and 7:56pm, which was when Charles Merritt logged into Quickbooks from Joseph’s computer to write himself a $4000 check. At 8PM Chase Merritt calls his own phone from Joseph’s while at his home. In the following days Chase Merritt will create many Quickbooks checks taken directly out of the Earth Inspired Products account, pay himself, and then gamble the money away at the casino. In an interview with detectives Chase Merritt refers to Joseph McStay as his “best friend” even though he had annihilated his entire family. Since Merritt still maintains his innocence, exactly how Merritt committed the murder is unknown, but the condition of the families skulls and bones gives us a good idea of the brutality of the event.
When police discovered the two shallow graves on November 11, 2013 they also found a 3 pound Stanley hammer, attributed to the murder weapon. Joseph McStay was the most persevered as Merritt encased him in a woven fabric like material. However, like the rest of his family suffered massive blunt force trauma to the head. Joseph Sr. suffered a fractured tibia bone, meaning that Chase Merritt may have attacked him first to assure that he could not overpower him. Also in the grave detectives found Summer’s panties wrapped inside of her black pants, showing that Merritt forcefully pulled them down together. Police surmise that Chase Merritt raped Summer either before or after he killed her. The children suffered equal brutality before death. 4-year-old Gianni McStay suffered 7 impacts to the head from the 3 pound hammer. There was little left of 3-year-old Joseph Jr. as his bones rested in several pieces inside the grave.
Much evidence linking Chase Merritt to the McStay family murders were presented by the prosecution. Perhaps the most damning of his DNA on the Isuzu Trooper found by police, which he claimed he’s never driven. Also Merritt’s cellphone pinged at the gravesite location on February 6th, however the exact location showed only that he was somewhere near the location. Merritt claimed it was impossible for his phone to have been at the dump site; the jury saw the possibility. In an exhaustive trial, the jury found Chase Merritt guilty of all four murders and sentenced him to death. Merritt still maintains his innocence.