A California judge sentenced a 62-year-old man to death on Tuesday for massacring a business partner’s family over a financial feud — and burying them in a desert grave a decade ago.
Charles “Chase” Merritt, 62, was convicted of slaying Joseph McStay’s wife Summer, 44, their four-year-old daughter Gianni, and three-year-old son Joseph McStay Jr. in February 2010, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Oxygen.com. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith sentenced him to death on Jan. 21.
Merritt had previously been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for McStay’s murder.
The McStay family vanished from their Fallbrook, California home on Feb. 4, 2010, but authorities were not made aware of the disappearance until nine days later, prosecutors said. The family’s car was later found in a deserted parking lot not far from the U.S.-Mexico border, just north of Tijuana. Mobile phone records indicated the last time the family had been in touch with their family was the evening of Feb. 15, 2010.
Detectives learned that McStay had operated an online business where he hawked custom water fountains. Police interviewed those connected to McStay’s company, including Merritt. However, the case soon went cold, despite assistance the FBI’s assistance.
Nearly four years later, the family’s “extremely decomposed” remains were accidentally discovered by an off-road motorcyclist in a shallow desert grave near Victorville, California. An autopsy confirmed the bodies were those of the McStay family. A medical examiner also ruled the McStay’s had died from blunt force trauma. A sledgehammer was reportedly found next to the McStay’s and their toddlers’ bodies, whose skulls had been smashed to bits, according to the Washington Post. The newspaper also reported that the family had only moved into the California home they disappeared from only days earlier.
Investigators soon narrowed their sights on Merritt as a suspect after learning he had falsified — and attempted to delete — a number of financial records connected to McStay’s company. Merritt stood to profit from the forgery, officials stated. The Post also reported that Merritt had reportedly bungled a job for McStay shortly before his death and that Merritt owed the Fallbrook man $42,000.
DNA evidence and cell phone records later linked him to the crime. The 62-year-old was arrested in 2014. He was convicted last June.
“This case was a great impact on the personal and professional lives of the jurors,” the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office said in a statement this week. “Without the willingness to commit themselves to this duty, our justice system would be paralyzed. The district attorney’s office is appreciative of the service they gave to the criminal justice system and their community.”
Throughout his case, Merritt maintained his innocence, stating he adored McStay.
“I loved Joseph," Merritt said, KTLA reported. “He was a big part of my life and my family’s life. I would never have hurt him in any way. I would have never raised my hand for a woman or child. I did not do this thing."
However, Joseph McStay’s family firmly rejected his claims. In court, McStay’s mother referred to Merritt as a “despicable, evil monster,” KTLA also reported.
“How could you beat two precious little babies?” Susan Blake said, according to the local news outlet. “How scared were they, Chase? Crying for Mommy and Daddy? Chase, you are a low-life baby killer.”
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