Tuesday marked exactly four years since San Diego’s McStay family vanished without a trace, leaving few clues behind in a case that has baffled San Diego law enforcement and captured international attention.
Over the next few years there were few breaks in the mysterious case, that is, until a grim discovery last fall.
On Nov. 11, 2013, the skeletal remains of the McStay family were found in and around shallow graves in the high desert outside of Victorville, Calif. The remains were positively identified as the family by San Bernardino County officials during a press conference.
At that time, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said investigators had not yet determined the cause or motive behind the deaths of the McStays, including if the family may have fallen prey to Mexican cartels.
Since that disheartening discovery, law enforcement investigators – including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and FBI – have shifted their focus from finding the missing family to figuring out exactly what happened to them.
However, four years to the date of the family’s disappearance, their case remains unsolved.
Over the years, the mystery of the McStays has been filled with twists, turns and dead ends.
On Feb. 8, 2010, just days after the family vanished, a group of four people resembling the McStays was captured on grainy surveillance video crossing into Mexico at the San Ysidro border crossing.
This was the same day a white Isuzu Trooper belonging to the family was found illegally parked at a nearby strip mall. At the time, detectives felt it was “a very high probability” that the footage was of the missing family.
When officials showed the video to relatives of the McStay family, some recognized the white jacket the woman in the video was wearing. However, other relatives said they weren’t sure it was the McStays due to the poor quality of the video.
Since the family’s sudden disappearance, the McStays hadn't used their bank accounts, credit cards or cell phones, investigators have repeatedly said.
In April 2013, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department announced they were transferring the case of the McStay family to the FBI.
The sheriff’s department said they had “conducted an exhaustive missing person investigation in an attempt to locate the family” and hundreds of tips had been investigated without success. At that point, the sheriff’s department said they had reached a consensus that the family went to Mexico of their free will.
After the remains of the family were discovered in November 2013, Joseph McStay’s brother, Michael McStay, vowed to get to the bottom of what happened to his loved ones.
“We’re going to find this individual, or individuals. I know the sheriff’s department, the FBI, everybody wants to bring this to justice. And, if it’s the last thing I do – I just want to know when it’s over,” said Michael, between tears, at that emotionally-charged press conference.
Over the years, Michael has managed and updated a website documenting the case and search for his relatives.
To date, he continues to sporadically post messages on the website, including an announcement about a public memorial service and beach paddle-out held for the family at the San Clemente Pier in Southern California last month.
At that paddle-out, surfers made their way into the water holding hands in remembrance of the McStay family as a large crowd of family and friends looked on from the sand and cheered. Orchids were released into the water and candles were lit in loving tribute of the family whose story has touched so many.