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What To Know About The McStay Family Murders Case Before ‘Killer Motive’ Premiere

Nearly four years after a California family vanished, their remains were found buried in the desert. Who would brutally murder the entire McStay family?

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McStay Family Car Found Near Mexican Border
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McStay Family Car Found Near Mexican Border

When police ran a search on the license plate on the McStays' car, it was traced back to a parking lot near the Mexico border.

A happy, successful couple with two young sons couldn't just vanish into thin air — right?

Tragically, that's exactly what happened when Joseph and Summer McStay and their two young sons vanished from their home in northern San Diego in early 2010. The disappearance of the McStays, by all accounts a loving family with no enemies, baffled investigators.

At their home in Fallbrook, California, investigators found no signs of forced entrance or violence. There was no apparent suspicious activity on the couple’s credit card accounts. With no leads, the case went cold until nearly four years later, when the family’s remains were found 100 miles away in the Mojave Desert after an off-road motorcyclist discovered human bones. Eventually, someone close to the family was convicted of bludgeoning the McStays to death before burying them in the desert.

Mcstay Family Km 201

The tragic case will be featured in the Season 2 premiere of “Killer Motive,” hosted by Troy Roberts and airing Saturday at 6/5c on Oxygen. Get up to speed on the investigation with the timeline below.

Winter 2009 — Joseph McStay, 40, an entrepreneur who sold indoor water fountains, and his wife, Summer McStay, 43, and their sons, Gianni and Joseph Jr., move to Fallbrook, California, a community known as “The Friendly Village.” 

February 4, 2010 — During a phone conversation Joseph told his father he was “in a hurry” because he had to get to a lunch meeting. His last known call was with Charles “Chase” Merritt, a business associate. Summer, meanwhile, spoke with her sister, who’d recently had a baby. After 5:47 p.m. Joseph and Summer ended all communications. 

February 8, 2010 — The family’s white 1996 Isuzu Trooper was found near San Ysidro, adjacent to the Mexico border. It was impounded at the time as an abandoned vehicle.

February 13, 2010 — Joseph’s brother, Michael, goes to his sibling’s house and enters it through an open window to search for the family. They’re not there, but their dogs are in the backyard and there’s food rotting in the kitchen. Summer’s prescription sunglasses are in the house as well, according to “Killer Motive.” Relatives are certain the family wouldn’t go away without telling anyone.

February 15, 2010 —  Family members report the McStays missing to the San Diego County sheriff's department.

February 19, 2010 — Detectives search the McStay family home. There was no evidence of forced entry or a struggle. It did appear, however, as though the family left the home quickly. 

February 23, 2010 — Had the family gone off the grid? Were they victims of a crime? It was unclear. Investigators tell Interpol to be on the lookout for the McStay family, who could be in Mexico, they theorize. Around the same date, fliers were distributed to aid in the search. 

March 5, 2010 — A lead in the case emerges when video released by deputies shows images of a group of people who might be the McStays walking together into Mexico through a border gate. The video, NBCSandiego reported in 2010, is dated around 7 p.m. Feb. 8.

April 2, 2010 — The FBI joins the search for the missing family. “The FBI will … lend their resources in Mexico, where San Diego Sheriff's investigators are focusing their search,” reports CBS News at the time. Investigators also say they found emails indicating the family had been interested in obtaining passports to travel to Mexico, according to the outlet.

November 2010 — Patrick McStay, who has been painstakingly combing through his son’s emails for leads, informs detectives of suspicious activity by a business partner, according to “Killer Motive.” The possible lead turns into a dead end. 

November 11, 2013 — A motorcyclist finds human remains in the desert near Victorville, California, 100 miles north of the McStay home. Investigators rush to the scene and locate two graves containing multiple human remains in each. A three-pound sledgehammer is also found at the site. 

November 15, 2013 – The cause of death for all of them is deemed to be blunt force trauma. Dental records confirm that the remains are those of Joseph and Summer McStay and other remains are believed to be those of their children, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department announced at a news conference. “It gives us courage to know that they’re together and they’re in a better place,” said Mike McStay, who attended the conference. “It’s been a tough road.”

Nov. 5, 2014 — Business associate Merritt is arrested for the murders of Joseph, Summer, Gianni, and Joseph Jr. McStay. DNA matching Merritt, who owed Joseph McStay more than $42,000, was found on the steering wheel and gear shift of the McStay vehicle abandoned near the Mexico border. Cell phone records as well as forged checks also linked him to the crime. 

January 7, 2019 — Merritt’s trial begins. Prosecutors contend greed is the motive for the murders.

June 10, 2019 — Merritt is found guilty of  murdering the McStay family. 

January 21, 2020 — Merritt, 62, was sentenced to life in prison for murdering  Joseph McStay, 40. He was given the death penalty for killing Summer, Gianni, and Joseph Jr. Now, Merritt is on San Quentin Death Row.

To learn more about why Merritt committed such a horrible crime and to see exclusive interviews with Joseph's family, watch “Killer Motive” airing Saturday at 6/5c on Oxygen.

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