The Southern California jury that convicted a man of murdering his business associate, the man’s wife and two children with a sledgehammer will now have to decide whether he is sentenced to death or life in prison – as major questions concerning the quadruple homicide remain unanswered nearly a decade later.
Charles ‘Chase’ Merritt, 62, was found guilty on Monday, following a trial that spanned more than four months and hinged largely on circumstantial evidence in the February 2010 slayings of Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, and the couple’s sons, four-year-old Gianni and three-year-old Joseph Jr.
What is still unknown, despite a large-scale investigation and a months-long murder trial, is where the victims died, and when.
Merritt, who has maintained his innocence, has not been forthcoming with that information.
Merritt’s defense attorney James McGee said after the verdict, which was reached on Friday but announced in court on Monday, that his client was ‘devastated, in shock, and disappointed,’ reported the Los Angeles Times.
Prosecutors say Merritt killed the family with a sledgehammer at a time when he owed McStay $30,000 and was being cut out of the victim’s business making and selling custom water fountains, reported KTLA5.
What still remains a mystery, however, is where and exactly when the McStay family died.
‘What exactly happened in that house?’ a prosecutor said during Merritt’s trial last month. ‘Only one person knows: the killer.’
After the McStay family disappeared from their Falbrook, California home in early February 2010, authorities found bowls of uneaten popcorn, vegetables left out to rot, and no signs of forced entry or evidence of a violent killing, such as blood stains or signs of struggle.
Their car was later found parked at a strip mall near the Mexican border.
For years, officials couldn’t determine what happened to the McStays. At one point, investigators said they believed the family had gone to Mexico voluntarily, though they couldn’t say why.
In 2013, their bodies were found in shallow graves in the desert after an off-road motorcyclist discovered skeletal remains in the area. Authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer that they said was used to kill the family.
Joseph Sr and both of his his young sons had their skulls fractured. Summer McStay suffered a broken jaw.
‘It was blow, after blow, after blow to a child’s skull,’ the Los Angeles Times reported prosecutor Britt Imes said during closing arguments.
Merritt, who worked with McStay in his water features business, was arrested in 2014.
Authorities said they traced Merritt’s cellphone to the area of the desert grave sites in the days after the family disappeared and to a call seeking to close McStay’s online bookkeeping account.
Merritt also referred to McStay in the past tense in an interview with investigators after the family vanished, and while the evidence linking him to the killings was largely circumstantial, it was ‘overwhelmingly convincing,’ Imes said.
Prosecutors say financial records show Merritt tried to loot the business bank accounts just before and after the family disappeared and backdated checks to February 4, 2010, knowing it was the last day anyone had contact with McStay.
San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty told jurors at the start of the trial that Merritt wrote checks for more than $21,000 on his dead partner’s online bookkeeping account.
‘Greed, and greed’s child, fraud’ were the motive, Daugherty argued.
McStay’s mother, Susan Blake, and his brother, Michael, were present in court on Monday when the jury returned for guilty verdicts. They cried and hugged, as family members of the defendant ran out of the courtroom in tears.
Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty – despite California Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment in the state in March 2019.
Jury will begin hearing testimony on Tuesday to decide Merritt’s sentence.
Merritt served time in prison for burglary and receiving stolen property in the 1970s and 80, reported the Los Angeles Times.
In 2001, he pleaded no contest to burglary and grand theft, earning him a six-month stint in jail followed by probation.
Eventually, he was hired by Joseph McStay’s company, Earth Inspired Products, to design decorative water fountain, but his troubles continued as he racked gambling debts and more than $20,000 in unpaid taxes, according to court documents.