A Southern California man driven by greed, debt and a gambling problem murdered his business partner's family with a sledgehammer and buried their bodies in the desert, prosecutors have argued this week.
Charles "Chase" Merritt, 61, has pleaded not guilty of murdering Joseph McStay, McStay's wife Summer and their 3- and 4-year-old sons. His trial began Monday.
Sean Daugherty, supervising deputy district attorney for San Bernardino County, told jurors that Merritt (pictured) wrote checks for more than $21,000 on his partner's online bookkeeping account after the family was last seen alive in February 2010, the Sun newspaper of San Bernardino reported.
"Greed, and greed's child, fraud" were the motive, Daugherty argued.
The McStay family disappeared in 2010, a case that perplexed investigators for years. There were no signs of forced entry at their San Diego County home.
Three years later, their bodies were found more than 100 miles away in a remote area of San Bernardino County, along with a 3-pound sledgehammer and a child's pants and diaper.
In court on Monday, Joseph McStay’s mother Susan Blake was the first witness called to the stand. She testified about the moment that she found out her son, his wife and her grandchildren were dead.
“I fell to the ground," Blake said, according to KABC in Los Angeles. "I kept saying it can't be. I asked him about the little guys and they told me that they were also gone."
"Me and my friend went to see the four crosses, and I just dropped to my knees. Because it shouldn't be, it shouldn't be. It's just such a shock to see that. I'll never go back to that spot," said Blake.
Merritt made custom fountains for McStay's online water feature business and prosecutors and sheriff's investigators have said he was in debt and had a gambling problem.
Merritt "desperately tried to cover his tracks after the murders, misled investigators, talked in circles, and played the victim," Daugherty said.
But Rajan Maline, Merritt's attorney, said prosecutors ignored a prime suspect: Another McStay business partner that Maline said stole $7,900 from McStay's account in the days after the family vanished.
"The only reason he did that is because he knew Joseph wasn't coming back," Maline said.
In her testimony this week, Blake said she observed an argument between Merritt McStay's other business partner, Dan Kavanaugh. She claimed Merritt wanted Kavanaugh to give him money.
"They were yelling big time at each other, arguing and Dan was just not going to budge,” she testified, according to KABC. “It was scary, I literally walked out and said, 'If my son loses his business, so be it. I need to find my family.'"
She said she ended up giving Merritt money.
"He asked for funds to keep the business going. At the time, I would do anything to help my son because I'm probably not in my right mind anyways at that time," she testified.
Authorities said that after the family disappeared, Merritt's cellphone was traced to the area near the gravesites and to a call seeking to close out McStay's QuickBooks account for his water features business.
But Maline argued that two other phone calls that placed Merritt away from the burial site weren't considered.
They also say Merritt's DNA was discovered on the steering wheel and gearshift of McStay's SUV, which was impounded near the Mexican border a few days after the family vanished.
Merritt's attorneys say McStay could have transferred the DNA to the vehicle after he met with Merritt shortly before the family vanished. They say none of Merritt's DNA was found at the gravesites but DNA belonging to other unidentified individuals turned up there.
The McStay family disappeared from their home in Fallbrook, which is about 50 miles north of San Diego.
Daugherty said three victims died of blunt-force trauma to the head and there were not enough remains of one of the boys to determine how he was killed, the newspaper reported.
Investigators spoke with Merritt shortly after the family went missing and noticed Merritt referred to them in the past tense, Daugherty said.
If convicted, Merritt could face the death penalty.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[Photo: Associated Press]
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