The McStay Family Murders

This is an unusual post for me.  I generally try to stay away from cases that are still pending or officially unsolved.  We all know that not every charged in a case is guilty and that it is up to the state to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that someone is guilty.  We all also know, and should in fact live by, the saying "Innocent until Proven Guilty."  With that said, while I will admit that I will discuss the charges that have been filed and that a trial is pending (although at this point I have been unable to determine if a date for such trial has been set), but I will make every attempt to reserve complete judgment until all of the evidence is in.  So, if I have all of these reservations why would I even blog about a case that ultimately I will eventually have to come and update later? Well, that is because I have found this case very interesting from the beginning for one, and for two, to be honest, if the person who is now awaiting trial is acquitted for the crimes I truly believe that no one will ever be charged in this case due to a flawed investigation.  There is some evidence supposedly against the person faces charges now but if he were to be acquitted any subsequent suspects would likely use the fact at how sure the prosecution is that this person was guilty and after all of this time if they have not found any other evidence against others, it is unlikely they will.  An adequate defense attorney would likely be able to refute any evidence that is discovered due to an inadequate investigation.  In fact, this investigation was so flawed in the beginning when the family first disappeared in 2010 that Joseph McStay's father filed a civil suit against the police department for their lack of investigation in 2011. I was unable to determine if that case has been dealt with at this time.  So... on with the story.

On February 4, 2010 a surveillance camera showed the McStay family vehicle, a 1996 Isuzu Trooper, leaving the McStay home in Fallbrook California, a suburb of San Diego around 7:47pm. Footage was not adequate enough to show who in fact was inside, but regardless the family was never seen or heard from again, at least not officially.  The McStay family consisted of husband Joseph Sr (40), his wife, Summer (43) and their two children, Gianni (4) and Joseph Jr. (3).  At around 8:30 that night it seems that Joseph's business partner, Charles Merritt, received a call from Joseph Sr but he claimed to have no taken the call. Cell phone records appeared to show that the family was still in Fallbrook at the time.  On February 8, 2010, the McStay family vehicle was found in a strip mall parking lot in San Diego near the Mexican border.  Authorities had it towed. The family had not been reported missing as of yet.  Between February 4th and February 13th several different people had attempted to reach the McStay family.  Finally on the 13th, Joseph's brother, Mike, went to the home and crawled in through an open window.  He found some strange things that indicated that the family had left in a hurry.  There was a carton of eggs left out on the counter, plates of food on the table and even spilled popcorn on the couch.  Mike also found the families two dog were left unfed.  These things disturbed Mike but yet the family did not notify the police until the 15th. The McStay's were officially considered missing.

I was unable to determine exactly when the police entered the home to investigate things but when they did enter they seemed to just look around without doing much, if any, evidence collection.  It was later discovered through information that likely prior to the police searching that Joseph's mother, Susan had called a contractor the McStay's were using (he had also attempted to contact the family during this time) and asked him to meet him at the home as she did not want to enter alone. The contractor would later state that he had been in the home within days of the family's disappearance and that he was helping Summer McStay with painting in the home.  He noticed some things such as a cover that had been on a futon bed missing and some other things out of place.  He would inform investigators that while he noticed these things Joseph's mother seemed to be cleaning up the home.  This indicated that when the police entered the home if there had been a struggle inside it would have been less evident.  To add to this this family had not been seen in nearly two weeks (at least) before the home was searched by the police.  Their cursory search did not indicate to them that anything had occurred in the home and so no fingerprints or testing was done on the home.

Once it was realized that the McStay's vehicle had been found near the border of Mexico surveillance cameras at the border were looked at.  There were some that believed a family of four seen crossing near the time it was suspected the McStay's would have crossed resembled the family.  Neither Joseph or Summer's family believed this to be them. Nor did either family believe that the McStay's would have gone to Mexico, at least not voluntarily, because they were concerned about the level of drug activity and crime that occurred in Mexico. 

The McStay story hit the media like a storm.  How did a family of four just up and disappear?  For the next three and a half years every theory imaginable was conceived.  There was even a book written by a radio show host who did some investigating named Rick Baker.  In his book "No Goodbyes: The Mysterious Disappearance of the McStay Family," Baker theorized that Summer may have been to blame.  There was another mystery surrounding Summer that had come out.  Summer had been born Lisa Aranda but she had sometimes used the name Lisa Martelli, her stepfather's surname.  Just when she started using, or even if it was official, the same Summer was questioned and unclear. The McStay family chastised Baker for his portrayal of the family. The ongoing theory of most, that was portrayed by the media however, was that the McStay family had simply picked up and left their life.  This did not make sense to not just the McStay family but also investigators.  While some would claim the McStays were in financial difficulty, investigators would say there was no evidence of this.  A bank account containing around $100,000 had been left untouched prior to the disappearance, indicating there was no plan for a trip, nor had any monies been subsequently removed at any point. By 2011 Joseph McStay's father had filed his civil suit claiming that the investigation was never done properly and that investigators were quick to assume the family had simply taken off.

Then on November 13, 2013 in a desert area in Victorville California a motorcycle rider found what was discovered to be two shallow graves. The only thing anyone knew for sure when they were found was that the two graves contained the bones of two adults and two children.  Also amid the graves was a sledgehammer and clothing.  Two days later the adult bodies were identified as Joseph McStay Sr. and his wife Summer.  It was a pretty good assumption that although the children's bodies had not yet been identified that they would be the remains of the McStay children, Gianni and Joseph Jr.  So the mystery was over.... or had it just begun? I should state here that Radio host/author Rick Baker at this time offered refunds of his book to anyone who bought it prior to the discovery of the bodies.

During the initial investigation, while it was still a missing person's case, the investigators had interviewed some people.  It was pretty common knowledge that Joseph's business partner Charles Merritt had been the last known contact with at least Joseph McStay.  Not only had he received the call that he claimed to have not answered but he admitted to meeting with Joseph earlier on the day they disappeared to discuss some business. At the time of the interview it does seem that investigators were a little suspicious of Merritt.  They would later claim that throughout Merritt often referred to the McStay family in the past tense and he had an injury on his hand.  He claimed in the interview that he had cut his hand on some sheet metal recently.

Subsequently, if not before than after the bodies had been found and recovered, Merritt was looked at more closely.  It seems that Joseph Sr, Merritt and a man named Dan Kavanaugh were all considered partners in a business called Earth Inspired Products (EIP) in which they designed and built decorative fountains. Police soon learned that not only did Merritt seem to have issues with Summer McStay but also with Dan Kavanaugh.  Kavanaugh would tell investigators that Joseph McStay had loaned Merritt $30,000 to pay off a gambling debt and that due to discord over that and his work performance Joseph McStay had planned to fire Merritt.  As Merritt was on their radar, at least prior to the discovery of the bodies, the McStay family did not believe that he was involved.  In January of 2014 Merritt had apparently stated he planned to write a book on the subject of the McStay's.  He indicated that Joseph Sr. had suffered from some sort of mysterious illness just months prior to the family disappearing and it was his belief that his wife Summer was poisoning him.  Of course he could hardly say she was responsible for their deaths since she too was found buried with her family.  That would have obviously been a neat trick. Joseph McStay's family would agree that Joseph had suffered an illness prior to February 2010 and that his wife was a bit possessive of him but they did not believe she was involved in any way with his illness or especially their deaths.  

By the time investigators were certain there had been a murder, the time to go back to look at some evidence was gone.  The McStay home had obviously been cleaned as it was sold several months after their disappearance.  Of course blood evidence could have possibly been found later but it would obviously be brought into question.  Apparently however, police had gathered some DNA evidence from the vehicle after it was discovered that it had been towed from the strip mall and had gotten samples from various people, including Charles Merritt.  Merritt would go on to claim to have been inside the vehicle a few days prior to the family missing but denied ever driving the vehicles.  Investigators have claimed that Merritt's DNA was found on the steering wheel, gear shift, radio and A/C controls in the vehicle.  

Ultimately Charles Merritt was arrested and charged with 4 counts of murder on November 7, 2014.  The prosecutors have announced they are seeking the death penalty.  In July of 2015 defense attorney's filed to have the case dismissed saying that the filing was improper.  According to prosecution theory, or at least what has been released at this time, they believe the family was killed in their home and then transported to the desert where they were found. This theory is prompted by the fact that the cover to the futon in which the contractor stated was missing is believed to be the same article that was found around Joseph McStay's body.  According to the defense because the case was filed in San Diego county, the one in which the bodies were found it was not the proper jurisdiction in which goes with the prosecution theory.  The following month the judge rejected this claim saying that when a murder occurs that jurisdiction can be in either place.  Now, as a former pre-law student, a self study of law and an obvious reader (and watcher) of more true crime stories than I can count, I have to admit that I do think the defense may have a valid point here.  Jurisdiction is the number one thing you learn in law school, and it is one of the most important things that matter.  Of course this is not the first case in which a body, or bodies, have been found in one jurisdiction while the actual murder occurred in another.  However, I have to say that it is the first in which it was not argued, and succeeded if needed, that I have heard of in which this decision was made.  One large case that comes to mind is the Jessica McCord case.  Her ex-husband and his wife were found in the trunk of their burning rental car in Georgia.  Jessica and her current husband were immediate suspects who lived in Alabama.  While the Georgia detectives first on the case were involved and ultimately helped with the investigation, it was widely known that they had to determine just where the murder had taken place before knowing exactly which police force had jurisdiction.  Presumably prior to the discovery of the bodies all the investigation had taken place in the county in which the McStay's lived since that was the last place they had been seen and the missing person's report was filed there.  The death investigation would not have occurred in San Diego county until after November of 2013 when the bodies were found there.  Merritt's trial was originally scheduled to begin in August of 2015 but there were obvious delays.  In September of 2013 the defense filed a motion asking for funding for expert witnesses and at a hearing in October the defense made a claim that was ambiguous at best.  They claimed that a woman (who they say they did not know the identity of) had been interview by police and had given the police other suspects that included people involved with drugs and they needed time to investigate this claim.  The last I could find was that yet another pre-trial hearing was set for November 6, 2015 but I could find no evidence that this actually occurred or that there has been any activity since the October hearing.

So what evidence do prosecutors have on Merritt or a least that of which they have been willing to divulge?  First they have the DNA in the vehicle that Merritt claims he never drove.  They have testimony from Dan Kavanaugh who says Merritt owed Joseph McStay a significant amount of money and that Joseph McStay was prepared to fire Merritt.  They have evidence that Merritt cashed checks in amounts that totaled over $15,000 from Joseph McStay dated February 4, 2010 from the business account.  They also have, if a judge allows it, that Merritt has a prior criminal history that includes, theft, receiving stolen property and burglary.  They also will most likely use the injury to his hand (if they followed proper procedures and took pictures of the injury) just days after the disappearance.  They also have evidence that not only did Merritt's sister live only a few miles from the grave site, that on January 6, 2010 cell records show 6 calls on Merritt's phone between 10:45 am and 1:30 pm to which it pinged on a tower near the area.

Aside from Merritt were there any other leads or suspects?  There were rumors of drugs and possibly the drug cartel being involved but apparently there was nothing to those rumors.  In 2013 (I am unsure if this was before or after the bodies were discovered) family members of the McStay's claimed they believed a man by the name of Vick Johnansen was involved.  Johnansen had once dated Summer McStay and the family claimed that he was obsessed with her and had not taken their split well.  They claim to have seen or possess emails to prove this.  Prosecutors obviously did not find this a credible lead. 

This is a case that I will be watching and will update at a later time.


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