Search warrants in the mysterious McStay family murders case were unsealed Wednesday and, among new revelations, the documents said the DNA of the accused was found in the family’s vehicle abandoned near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Charles Merritt – who is facing the death penalty at his trial slated for Aug. 10 – is suspected of killing business partner Joseph McStay, as well as McStay’s wife, Summer, and the couple’s children, 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. in February 2010.
The family vanished from their home in Fallbrook, California, north of San Diego County, on Feb. 4, 2010. Four days later, the McStay family’s 1996 Isuzu Trooper was found in a parking lot near the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro.
The newly-unsealed search warrants in the quadruple-murder case say detectives analyzed the family’s vehicle and collected DNA swabs. When detectives looked at this DNA evidence again in February 2014, criminalists matched the DNA collected from the Trooper to Merritt.
Merritt’s DNA was found on the steering wheel, the shifter and the radio and A/C control panel.
The warrants say Merritt’s DNA had been collected in February 2010 while the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) was investigating the disappearance of the McStay family as a missing persons case.
Merritt was interviewed by SDSO investigators during this time and on Feb. 17, 2010, he told investigators he had last been in the Trooper with Joseph McStay six weeks before the family vanished. Merritt claimed he sat in the front seat and had never driven the Trooper.
The warrants say Merritt “had a fresh injury to his hand” during this interview, which he said was from cutting his hand on sheet metal.
“Merritt made several statements about Joseph in the past tense, including “Joseph was,” leading investigators to believe Merritt knew Joseph and the family were deceased,” the warrants state.
In later interviews, Merritt told detectives he did not like Summer McStay. He also told investigators he did not like another business partner he and Joseph had been working with and said, “If I were ever going to commit murder, it would be with him,” referring to harming the other business partner.
When detectives spoke with this other business partner, he told detectives Joseph had lent Merritt $30,000 to pay a gambling debt and that Joseph planned to fire Merritt.
The men were partners in Joseph’s business, Earth Inspired Products (EIP), a water fountain design and distribution company. Merritt was hired as a designer and builder of the custom fountains sold by EIP.
On Nov. 11, 2013 – nearly four years after the family’s disappearance – the skeletal remains of the McStay family were uncovered in shallow graves in a very remote desert location in Victorville, Calif., near Stoddard Wells and Quarry roads.
The partial skull of one of the children was bleached white due to exposure to the elements, as the remains had been there for an undetermined amount of time. A sledgehammer was found in one of the graves.
Merritt was arrested in connection with the murders in November 2014. He has pleaded not guilty in the slayings.
The search warrants reveal investigators also spoke with a personal friend of both Joseph and Summer who had been hired to paint the inside of the family’s Fallbrook home.
This friend had been in the home days prior to the McStay family’s disappearance and was scheduled to finish painting, but could not get a hold of the couple after Feb. 4, 2010.
The friend told investigators he went to the McStay’s home again on Feb. 17, 2010, with Joseph’s mother, Susan Blake, at her request, because she didn’t want to be alone. This was after the family was reported missing but before the SDSO obtained a search warrant for the residence, according to the documents.
He noticed Blake was cleaning the house, which “struck [him] as odd because he felt it could destroy evidence,” the search warrants say.
As he walked through the house the Blake, the friend spotted “three things that struck him as being odd or out of place.”
This included a missing cover for a futon in the family room area that he specifically remembered had a cover. The second was some dried up paint in one of the paint trays.
According to the search warrants, the painter had taught Summer how to properly line a paint tray with foil to make clean-up easier because she had complained about cleaning the trays and brushes.
Finally, the friend noticed clothes strewn all over the floor in the upstairs bedroom. The friend felt this was out of character because Joseph was not a messy person. He knew this because he had been roommates with Joseph in the past, he told investigators, and Joseph would not have left behind that type of mess.
As revealed during Merritt’s preliminary hearing last month, the search warrants note that the cause of death for the McStay family was blunt force trauma and one of the murder weapons was likely the sledgehammer found at the gravesite in the Southern California desert.
A detective states in the warrants that murder by blunt force trauma usually generates a large about of blood and leaves blood stains at the crime scene.
Still, detectives had not been able to locate a crime scene that showed where the family had been killed. SDSO investigators had been treating the case as a missing persons case and “did not process the residence for latent evidence such as blood stains,” the search warrants state.
SDSO investigators did not believe there were signs of a struggle inside the home.
However, based on the odd things the family friend reported to investigators, a detective with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department states in the warrants that there is probable cause to believe the McStay family was murdered inside their Fallbrook home.
The detective states one of the clues is that the cover missing from the futon was used to wrap Joseph’s body and was found at the desert gravesite. A possible paint stain was found on Summer’s bra at the gravesite, too, that may have dripped onto her as she lay on her side at the crime scene.
“Based on my training and experience, criminals who commit murder will typically attempt to clean the crime scene,” the detective says in the search warrants.
“Murder committed by blunt force trauma typically creates a large amount of blood stain splatter and cast off that could be on the ceiling of a room. One of the attempted ways to clean a scene is to paint over the blood stains, though a correct forensic processing of the crime scene would still show the blood stain, the blood stain would not be visible to the naked eye. The blood stain could also be detected by forensic experts years after it was painted over,” the detective adds.
The McStay home was sold months after the family went missing.
The warrants say DNA swabs and a piece of tan-colored carpet was taken from the McStay home by San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department investigators in 2014.
In the unsealed documents, investigators also say Merritt was the last person to see and talk to Joseph alive. Merritt met with Joseph at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on Feb. 4, 2010.
Merritt told investigators they met to discuss business dealings. After the meeting, cellphone records show Joseph drove back to his home in Fallbrook.
Just before 8:30 p.m., Joseph called Merritt and they spoke about a fountain being fabricated for a company overseas. Investigators say phone records show this was the last activity on Joseph’s cellphone.
Merritt told detectives he had tried to call Joseph several times after the family vanished, but couldn’t reach him. He also said he visited the McStay home in an attempt to find the family on Feb. 9 or Feb. 10, 2010.
Detectives obtained phone records for Merritt to analyze where he was during the time of the family’s disappearance.
The warrants said “Merritt was in a position to access the cellular telephone tower northeast of the McStay family gravesite on Feb. 6, 2010 – two days after the family was last seen alive. Merritt made six phone calls in the area between 10:46 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. that day.
The warrants also say it’s “probable” that there was more than one suspect involved in the murders “since an entire family of four was murdered and transported to the desert."
NBC 7 reached out to Merritt's attorney, Jimmy Mettias, Wednesday for comment on the search warrants. Mettias is traveling out of the country and has not yet responded to NBC 7's request.