Family of 4 who vanished without trace was mystery until friend used past tense

A carton of eggs and some half-prepared vegetables sat on the kitchen counter at the suburban home of the McStay family. Two small bowls of popcorn were on the sofa and their two dogs, Bear and Digger, were around outside in the backyard.

But there was no sign of couple Joseph and Summer, or their two young children Gianni, four, and Joseph Jr, three. It was clear they hadn’t been there for some days, and loved ones hadn’t heard from them either.

It looked as though the McStay family had simply upped and left… but why?

It was February 2010 – Joseph, 40, and Summer, 43, had only moved into their home in Fallbrook, California, four months earlier.

Joseph ran a successful decorative water fountain business, called Earth Inspired Products, with his business associate Charles ‘Chase’ Merritt – a welder who helped with the construction. Summer was a real estate agent and devoted mum.

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They worked hard and raised their family with fun and laughter.

On February 15, 2010, concerned family visited Joseph and Summer’s home as they hadn’t heard from them. There was no sign of the family and with food left out, and dogs in the yard, it was as though they would be back any minute – but they had vanished.

The last time they had been seen was on February 4 when Joseph had met with Merritt – he was also the last person Joseph had called.

There was no sign of forced entry or any sign there had been a crime committed or a struggle had taken place. The family were declared missing.

Soon after, the McStays’ family car – a white Isuzu Trooper – was discovered parked at a shopping mall near the US-Mexican border, and CCTV showed a similar-looking family walking into Mexico.

On their computer, investigators found searches looking up what type of documents children might need to travel around Mexico, and it looked like someone had done research into Spanish lessons.

Had they disappeared voluntarily to start a new life in Mexico? No one could come up with any reason why they would.

They hadn’t packed any of their things and there was over $100,000 that remained untouched in their bank accounts. Investigators were perplexed and the family’s loved ones were racked with worry.

Joseph’s mum, Susan Blake, helped Merritt access money to keep the business going, but the company couldn’t work without Joseph at the helm.

Susan sent Joseph emails begging him to get in touch. ‘Call me,’ she wrote. ‘I’ll help you.’

No one had a clue whether the family had been hiding something they were worried about and for three years, their disappearance was a complete mystery.

The case was covered in TV shows and there were so many theories. Merritt even started writing a book about it – after all, he had been the last person to see Joseph on the day he went missing when they’d allegedly talked business for around an hour.

In the book, Merritt planned on revealing how Joseph had confided in him that he thought Summer was trying to poison him. It was a wild suggestion that no one else thought was true.

Investigators did have their suspicions about Merritt. In an interview right after the disappearance, he referred to Joseph in the past tense saying ‘he was my best friend’, despite there being no evidence he was dead.

Friends of Joseph said he’d confided in them that Merritt was doing ‘shoddy’ work and suspected he was pilfering money from him.

There was another business partner, Daniel Kavanaugh, who told police Joseph was considering firing Merritt. It would have been a disaster for Merritt, who had a gambling habit that had racked up debts. Along with unpaid tax bills, he owed $30,000.

On November 11, 2013, an off-road motorcyclist was riding through San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert – about an hour north of the McStay family home – and came across human skeletal remains just off the interstate.

It led police to two shallow graves. The McStay family had finally been found. Joseph’s remains had been buried with Joseph Jr. Summer was buried with Gianni – and found with them was a rusty 3lb sledgehammer.

They’d all suffered skull fractures and the sledgehammer was believed to have been the weapon. Investigators determined Joseph and Summer had been murdered and the boys had been, too, as they would have been able to identify the killer.

Local people placed crosses at the scene in memory of the family whose remains had been desecrated by wild animals.

After three years of hoping they would be found, the fate of the McStay family had been discovered. But who had killed them? They didn’t seem to have an enemy in the world.

The focus went back to Charles Merritt.

Police discovered that the mobile phone belonging to Merritt had been placed near the location of the graves on February 6, 2010, shortly after the last time the family had been seen.

And his DNA was found in the McStay car that had been abandoned near the Mexican border to make it look as though they had left of their own accord.

There was evidence Merritt had been taking money from the water fountain business in the lead-up to the murders and that Joseph had confronted him about it. After Joseph disappeared, he continued to take money from the business and gambled thousands away.

Despite the evidence being largely circumstantial, Merritt was arrested in 2014 and charged with the murder of Joseph, Summer and their two children. The trial was repeatedly delayed as Merritt fired several lawyers and even tried to represent himself.

Finally, in 2019, the trial began. His defence said that there was no physical evidence to connect Merritt with the killings and there was no sign of attack in the home. They accused police of not considering other suspects – arguing Merritt wouldn’t have killed his best friend for money.

The prosecution said Joseph was planning to cut Merritt out of the business. Had Joseph accused him of taking the money and told him of his plans?

Merritt had gone on to take over $7,000 from Joseph’s account after the killings because he knew he wasn’t coming back. The motive was greed and the murders were brutal. ‘It was blow after blow after blow to a child’s skull,’ the prosecutor said.

After a four-month trial, nine years after the McStay killings, Merritt was found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. In January this year, he was sentenced to death for his crimes.

Merritt, now 62, continued to insist he was innocent and accused authorities of framing him.

‘The thing that is bringing you solace is ending my life, at least for a while, for a crime that I did not commit,’ he told the court.

‘I loved Joseph. He was a big part of my life and my family’s life. I would never have hurt him in any way. I would never raise my hand to a woman or child. I did not do this thing. I know you do not believe this.’

Joseph’s mum, Susan, was emotional and called him a ‘despicable, evil monster’ and said that her life was a nightmare knowing how the family died.

‘You beat two precious little babies…’ she said to Merritt. ‘How scared were they? Crying for mommy and daddy? You are a low-life coward and a baby killer.’

Joseph’s brother spoke of his heartache. ‘You cannot get back time. And that was stolen from us,’ he said. ‘This world was robbed of four beautiful souls.’ Summer’s sister, Tracy Russell, said their family were scarred for life and the pain hasn’t subsided with time.

‘Our family has already received a life sentence,’ she said.

The judge said the sentence fitted the crime.

‘Death was the appropriate verdict for those three offences,’ he said. ‘The extreme violence and savagery of the nature of the killings – particularly of two small children – far outweigh the totality of all of the mitigating evidence.’

Merritt will serve his time at the San Quentin Prison until an execution date is scheduled. However, no one has been executed since 2006 in California under the request of the current Governor.

Still today, there are so many unanswered questions about the McStay murders.

Without a crime scene, exactly when, where and how the family died, remains a complete mystery. But what is known is that they died in terror.

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