Jurors deciding the fate of a California businessman accused of bludgeoning to death his partner Joseph McStay and the man’s family in 2010 on Tuesday heard testimony from the victim’s mother, who recalled the harrowing moment she learned their remains were found in the desert.
‘They were dead, all of them. And I fell to the ground,’ Joseph’s mother, Susan Blake, said from the witness stand on Day 2 of Charles ‘Chase’ Merritt’s murder trial.
Merritt, 61, has pleaded not guilty to killing Joseph, 40, his wife, Summer, 43, and their two sons, four-year-old Gianni and three-year-old Joseph Jr. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The family’s disappearance perplexed investigators for three years, with no signs of forced entry at their San Diego County home.
Defendant Charles Ray Merritt sits in San Bernardino County Court prior to opening statements on Monday. He is on trial for the murder of the McStay family in 2010
Merritt’s attorney Rajan Maline, right, accused Joseph McStay’s other partner of killing the family for financial gain
In November 2013, the McStays’ skeletal remains were unearthed found more than 100 miles away in a remote corner of San Bernardino County, along with a three-pound rusted sledgehammer believed to be the murder weapon and a child’s pants and diaper.
Blake told the jury Tuesday that she visited her family’s final resting place in the Mojave Desert six months later.
‘I just dropped me to my knees,’ she recalled. ‘It’s such a shock. I will never go back to that spot.’
Blake also recounted how on February 9, 2010 – just days after it is believed the McStays were killed – Merritt came to her saying he could not reach Joseph and asking if she had heard from him.
The day after the family-of-four were reported missing, Blake headed over to her son’s in Fallbrook looking for any clues to what had happened to them.
She found the residence reeking of rotten food, mildew and dirty diapers, and crawling with maggots.
With the permission of a police detective, Blake said she cleaned up the kitchen.
The mother also revealed that she wrote more than $5,400 in personal checks to Merritt to help carry on her son’s water fountain business, but she said customers were complaining that their orders were not being fulfilled.
She described one heated meeting with Merritt and their third partner, Daniel Kavanaugh, which she said turned into a ‘scary’ shouting match.
‘He [Merritt] wanted money and Dan didn’t want to put out any,’ she said.
Summer McStay, her sons, Gianni and Joseph Jr, and her husband, Joseph McStay, went missing from their California home in February 2010
The defense previously suggested Kavanaugh was the real killer.
Attorney Rajan Maline said in his opening statement Monday that Kavanaugh stole $7,900 from McStay’s account in the days after the family vanished ‘because he knew Joseph wasn’t coming back.’
San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty told jurors Monday that Merritt wrote checks for more than $21,000 on his dead partner’s online bookkeeping account after the family was last seen alive in February 2010.
‘Greed, and greed’s child, fraud’ were the motive, Daugherty argued.
The prosecutor claimed that Merritt ‘desperately tried to cover his tracks after the murders . misled investigators, talked in circles, and played the victim.’
Daugherty showed the jurors images of the family and described how wild animals tore at their decomposing remains in their shallow graves near Victorville, where in November 2013 a motorcyclist finally discovered them.
The court also heard recordings of Merritt’s interview with investigators, in which the defendant referred to Joseph McStay in the past tense, before anyone knew he was dead, Press-Enterprise reporter Richard K. De Atley live-tweeted.
The prosecutor talked about the checks that Merritt allegedly forged for himself from McStay’s business account, and walked the jurors through cellphone records that placed the suspect on February 6, 2010, near the location in the desert where the family’s skeletal remains will later be found.
In his opening statement, Merritt’s defense attorney James McGee argued that his client and Joseph McStay were best friends, and pointed out that it was Merritt who first raised the alarm about his business partner’s disappearance by contacting the man’s mother.
‘The only urgency in finding Joseph was from Chase,’ McGee stated.
The defense attorney also sought to explain away his client’s use of the past tense in reference to the McStays during the police interview, claiming that he only did it because a detective asked a question in the past tense.
McGee accused law enforcement officials and prosecutors of zeroing in on his client from the outset of the case, instead of following other leads.
For years, the disappearance of the McStays puzzled investigators, with no signs of forced entry and the couple’s credit cards untouched.
In November 2013, an off-road biker made a grim discovery when he came upon the skeletal remains of Joseph McStay, 40, his wife Summer, 43, and their sons, four-year-old Gianni and three-year-old Joseph Jr, near Victorville, more than 100 miles away from their San Diego County residence.
A year later,Merritt, who knew the family through Joseph’s water-fountain business, was arrested for allegedly bludgeoning the married couple and their children to death with a sledgehammer because he owed them $30,000.
Merritt is being tried on four counts of first-degree murder, to which he has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The McStays’ skeletal remains were found buried in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, California, in November 2013 (pictured)
Authorities have said Merritt’s cellphone was traced to the remote gravesites and to a call days later seeking to close out his then-missing business partner’s online bookkeeping account.
They also have said Merritt’s DNA was discovered on the steering wheel and gearshift of McStay’s Isuzy Trooper SUV, which was impounded near the Mexican border four days after the family vanished.
Defense attorney James McGee said that DNA could have been transferred to the vehicle by McStay from a handshake after he met with Merritt shortly before the family vanished.
McGee also said none of Merritt’s DNA was found at the gravesites but DNA belonging to other unidentified individuals, among them three men and a woman, had turned up there.
Merritt, who was McStay’s business partner, is accused of killing and burying the family because he owed them tens of thousands of dollars
Joseph (pictured left with son Gianni) allegedly planned to fire Merritt from his company before his death. Pictured right: A photo display at a press conference at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department headquarters in San Bernadino in 2013
‘From the evidence the government is going to present, our argument is going to be: You had the wrong guy,’ McGee said.
Britt Imes, supervising deputy district attorney for San Bernardino County, said he could not comment on ongoing cases.
Authorities have said the McStays were believed to have been killed by blunt force trauma to the head inside their home in Fallbrook on February 4, 2010.
Their remains were found in San Bernardino County in 2013 along with a rusty 3-pound sledgehammer, a child’s pants and diaper, and a bra.
Investigators have said they spoke with Joseph’s business partner, Merritt, shortly after the family went missing and noticed he referred to them in the past tense.
They also have said a customer service representative told them he received a call about McStay’s QuickBooks account, which he used to pay vendors connected to his water features business, after he vanished.
The call, according to authorities, was placed from Merritt’s cellphone.
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.
McStay’s other business partner, Daniel Kavanaugh, told investigators that Joseph planned to fire Merritt.
Merritt, who has a prior criminal record, denied any wrongdoing, calling Joseph McStay his ‘best friend.’ His job was designing water fountains for McStay’s company
Telling his side: Chase Merritt’s words to DailyMail.com in 2013 revisited
In this November 7, 2014, file photo, Charles Merritt, appears for an arraignment hearing at the courthouse in Victorville, California
Chase Merritt, who is accused of killing the McStay family, spoke at length to DailyMail.com in 2013 about the family of four, and also described a lie detector test he took.
He said at the time ‘I was the last person Joseph saw. He came to Rancho Cucamonga on February 4 to talk to me about a huge business deal we had going on in Saudi Arabia.
‘We met for an hour-and-a-half for lunch. He was so excited. We had the Saudi Arabian project and a few other things going on. The business had never been so good and we were looking forward to the future. He did nothing to suggest there was anything wrong or untoward.
‘We both left and went home and I spoke to him on the phone about two or three times on his drive back to Fallbrook, all standard business stuff. The last time I spoke to him was around 6 o’clock.
‘It has been reported that I spoke to him in the evening, but that isn’t true. He did call me at 8.28pm, but I was watching a movie with my girlfriend, looked at the phone and decided not to answer.
‘When you talk to Joseph it takes about half an hour, so I thought I’d catch up with him in the morning.
‘I didn’t answer that call and I regret it to this day.’
Merritt also said of the lie detector test: ‘Very soon after the disappearance, Lt. Brugos who was leading the case, called me and asked if I would take a lie detector test, because he was convinced I knew where Joseph was.
‘I declined at first and got some advice from an attorney, who told me not to do it, because if anything at all shows up they will harass you.
‘But I spoke to my girlfriend about it extensively and decided, you know what, I’m just going to do the damn test, so they can forget about me and focus on something that might actually help find him.
‘About three of them came out to my attorney’s office in Palm Valley. They asked me whether I knew anything about the disappearance, and if I did know anything, would I tell them.
‘After I’d finished, Brugos’s partner said to me, “well there are a couple of inconsistencies” but that was just them trying to trick me into saying something. I didn’t hear any more about it after that.
‘Was I a suspect? Well, I don’t know if I’m the only one they asked to do a lie detector test, but I am the only one who actually agreed. They were certainly on my case.’
Merritt said: ‘I don’t want to upset anyone, I just want people to know the truth. The McStay’s were not perfect like some people would have you believe, but they weren’t criminals or drug runners like others have said, they were just a normal family. Well, a normal family other than Joseph, who was the nicest man I have ever known.’
‘All I want is for them to find the a*******s who did this,’ he also said in the 2013 interview.