The apparent body of Joseph McStay found in a shallow grave had an extension cord wrapped around his neck and a blanket around his body, prosecutors said in court Monday.
During a preliminary hearing for the man accused of killing a Fallbrook family of four, prosecutors laid out never-before-seen evidence the McStay family murder case that baffled officials for years, including testimony from detectives and other witnesses about the evidence against the suspect.
Charles Merritt is accused of murdering his former business partner, Joseph McStay, along with Joseph’s wife, Summer McStay, and the couple’s two sons, 4-year-old Gianni McStay and 3-year-old Joseph Mateo McStay in February 2010.
At the preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that there was "probable cause" Merritt was involved in the murder and that he must stand trial.
Merritt sat with his four attorneys in a San Bernadino court Monday as officials laid out evidence in the case. An attorney for Merritt said there was "not one shred of evidence" that directly linked him to the murder.
A detective that testified in court said tire tracks from a "large vehicle" were found near the two graves, not four as originally stated by officials. He said they found 45 bones, at least two from children, in the desert graves, in addition to an entire body and skull of a "small child" and clothing in the shallow graves.
A small, three-pound sledgehammer was also found in one of the two family graves with other items about 16 inches deep, a detective said in court.
DNA testing helped identify Summer McStay, whose body had "multiple bone fractures" to the head before death. A detective testified Monday that Summer died of "blunt force trauma to the head," and ruled her cause of death a homicide. The detective added that Joseph was also beaten and killed.
Gianni, one of the children, also suffered at least seven blunt force wounds to the head that caused his death.
A Medical Examiner ruled that at least three of the four family members were probably killed with a small sledgehammer, the same one that was found with their bodies.
An FBI agent on the stand said they linked Merritt's phone to calls made in the area where bodies were found. Additionally, a detective said evidence ties Merritt's truck tires to tracks found near the shallow graves.
Until several months ago, Merritt had chosen to act as his own attorney because he said he’s suffering from congestive heart failure and only has months to live. He claimed representing himself would allow him to move the case quickly to trial and prove his innocence.
The Fallbrook family was reported missing on Feb. 4, 2010.
The case of their disappearance stumped the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department: a family of four vanished from their California home, leaving eggs to rot in the kitchen, their dogs without food and freshly-made popcorn on the counter.
In November 2013, the skeletal remains of the family were uncovered in shallow graves in a very remote desert location in Victorville, Calif.
One year later, in November 2014, Merritt was arrested in connection with the mysterious murders. In February 2015, Merritt complained to a judge that he wasn’t receiving the documents needed for him to act as his own defense. He asked for prosecution discovery documents and files on a computer that was seized by investigators, according to U-T San Diego reporter Teri Figueroa.
After Merritt’s preliminary trial occurs, a judge will decide if there’s enough evidence to send Merritt to trial.