What to Know
- The McStay family of Fallbrook was last heard from or seen on Feb. 4, 2010.
- On Feb. 15, the family was reported missing to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.
- Homicide investigators search the family's home on Avocado Vista Lane and found no sign of a struggle.
After frustrating delays in proceedings in a Southern California courtroom last week, an emotional sentencing hearing resumed Tuesday for the man convicted in the mysterious killings of the McStay family, including two boys, ages 3 and 4. He was sentenced to death and life in prison.
Charles "Chase" Merritt, 62, was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of his former business associate, Joseph McStay, 40. He was sentenced to the death penalty for the slayings of Joseph McStay's wife, Summer McStay, 43, and the couple's two sons, Gianni McStay, 4, and Joseph McStay, Jr., 3.
Before the sentencing was handed down, six of the McStay family's loved ones delivered tearful, spine-tingling impact statements in court, staring straight at the face of the killer who took the lives of their family.
This included Susan Blake, Joseph McStay's mother.
“This despicable, evil monster. How could you beat two precious little babies? How scared were they, Chase? Crying for mommy and daddy?" Blake said, speaking to Merritt. "You had a choice. Chase, you are a low-life coward and a baby killer. Just a monster.”
Merritt was supposed to be sentenced last Friday, Jan. 17, but dramatic twists, turns, and delays prevented that from happening as planned.
That 8-hour day in court included lengthy motions arguments from Merritt's attorney, Rajan Maline, and even a moment when Merritt tried to interrupt proceedings and fire Maline. With all the action and breaks, there was no time left for victim impact statements and the actual sentencing of Merritt.
During the last stretch of Friday's marathon day in court, only one person was able to deliver a victim impact statement: Patrick McStay, Joseph McStay's father.
Though brief, his words were powerful.
He called Merritt a "ruthless mass murderer."
"I hope you burn in Hell," he told the man convicted of killing his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.
His words were a precursor to the deep pain the rest of the McStay family's loved ones would share Tuesday in court.
The rest of the victim impact statements were heard before Merritt got a chance to speak at the continued sentencing hearing Tuesday.
Inside the Courtroom
NBC 7 was once again inside the courtroom Tuesday.
The sentencing was supposed to begin at 8:30 a.m. but was delayed by about an hour because Merritt, for unknown reasons, wasn't transported to the courthouse. During the lull, NBC 7 spoke with prosecuting attorney Britt Imes about the continuing delays.
"We don't run this circus. We're just the clowns," Imes said.
In the gallery sat Merritt's daughter and brother.
Patrick McStay was there, too, along with other members of the McStay family, including Joseph McStay's brother, Michael McStay.
As court resumed, the judge said Maline had made yet another motion: to disqualify the judge from ruling on the remaining motion to reduce Merritt's sentence.
Maline spent several hours speaking before the judge.
The attorney argued a motion to reduce Merritt's sentence in the killings of Summer McStay and the children to life in prison without the possibility of parole rather than the death penalty previously recommended by the jury that convicted Merritt.
The motion was denied.
"Death was the appropriate verdict for those three offenses," the judge said.
"The extreme violence and savagery of the nature of the killings -- particularly of two small children -- far outweigh the totality of all of the mitigating evidence," the judge added.
With the motions finally out of the way, the judge moved on to the victim impact statements just before 11:20 a.m. Merritt was also expected to speak after the victims delivered their statements.
'We Are Scarred for Life': Emotional Family Impact Statements
Summer McStay's sister spoke first.
“I don’t know that I can ever explain the impact this man has had on my family,” she said. “We are scarred for life.”
“It’s been almost 10 years and the pain hasn’t subsided,” she added. "Our family has already received a life sentence."
Joseph McStay's mother, Susan Blake, followed.
She talked about how the slayings of her son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons have destroyed her family.
"It's just a nightmare," she said.
She said the day detectives told her they had found her family's bodies, it felt as if she'd been hit by a boulder.
Merritt looked at Blake as she spoke. His face was stoic.
Summer McStay's ex-husband spoke next. He was married to Summer McStay for seven years.
He played a portion of "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum in court, saying he was making good on a promise he made to Summer McStay many years ago. She had once told him she wanted that song played at her funeral.
"I want to psychologically mess you up," he said to Merritt.
“Every time you hear a sound in prison or in a movie similar to the sounds you made that day when you murdered this family, I hope it rings loud in your ears. And that those sounds haunt you, Chase,” he said.
Then, he slammed down loudly on the podium with his hands.
“Come on, Chase! Aren’t you tired, man?” he asked. “Aren’t you tired? Just stop all the appeals, all the shenanigans. Don’t worry, your fate will be way less tragic than of the family you murdered.”
Joseph McStay's brother, Michael McStay, took his turn. He was visibly shaken, fighting back tears.
Michael McStay remembered the day detectives told him and his family that the bodies of his brother, sister-in-law, and nephews had been discovered in the desert.
"It didn't just mark me that day," Michael McStay said. "It marked my kids."
Michael McStay said watching his parents bury his brother was the most "unnatural" thing he could've ever witnessed.
"So unnatural. So unnatural," he said. "Not natural causes; there was intent here."
A deep pause followed as Michael McStay tried to collect himself.
“You cannot get back time. There’s nothing more valuable on this Earth than time and that was stolen from them; that was stolen from us," he said.
“This world was robbed of four beautiful souls. My brother was – I looked up to my brother. I’ll never get another conversation with him. If I want to speak with him, I have to go to a gravesite," Michael McStay added. "No more surfing; no more anything.”
Michael McStay said the court should never forget what this case is really about: "Those four innocent people and the lives they never got to live."
Michael McStay's wife spoke next, talking about the pain her family and husband live with every single day. She also touched on the media attention and pressures her family has coped with for years, including questions from strangers.
"The constant questions when we are out. Our last name is mentioned. 'Are you that family? That family that went missing?' And then, 'The family that was killed by their own friend?'" she said.
"The gruesome and brutal details of the crime that you committed are his (Michael's) family," she said to Merritt. "It's not just a Netflix documentary to us. The details are shocking and nauseating to sit through."
Finally, Joseph McStay's only surviving son from a previous marriage, Jonah McStay, took the podium.
“It is my deepest desire in my own life not to spread pain and suffering,” said a soft-spoken Jonah McStay.
He said healing will be a lifelong thing for his family, but he knows they can do it together.
"Ultimately, I hope to be a father and when I am, I will hold my children close," he continued. "Closer still because I know what it's like to lose people I love."
The court took a brief break. Merritt was due to speak next.
'I Did Not Do This Thing': Chase Merritt Maintains Innocence
Voice shaking, it was Merrit's turn to speak to the courtroom and to the McStay family's loved ones.
He maintained his innocence, saying something has always been "amiss" in this case.
“The thing that is bringing you this solace, is ending my life. Ending my life for a crime that I did not commit," Merritt said. "I loved Joseph. He was a big part of my life and my family’s life. I would never hurt him in any way. I would never raise my hand to a woman or a child."
"I did not do this thing. I know you don’t believe me – and that’s what kills me,” he added.
Merritt said he has the "utmost disdain" for the investigators and prosecutors who "put them all in this courtroom" and for the people who, in his words, "manipulated the evidence."
Merritt said the people responsible for the slayings are still free.
The McStay family disappeared from their Fallbrook home in San Diego's North County in 2010. Immediately, the mysterious case gripped the community. Where were they? Why were they gone?
In the family's home, investigators found bowls of uneaten popcorn, as if the family had just been there, and planned to return. The home had no signs of forced entry. Soon, the family's car was found at a strip mall in south San Diego County near the U.S.-Mexico border.
A grainy video captured at a nearby border crossing deepened the mystery. The clip appeared to show a family of four crossing the border into Mexico -- a family that looked like they could have been the McStays.
Ultimately, officials determined it was not the McStay family in that video. Day by day, month by month, the case grew colder.
Then, came a huge break in the case.
Three years later, the remains of the family were discovered in a shallow grave in a remote desert in Southern California. When their remains were unearthed, investigators also found a rusty sledgehammer that they said was used to kill the family.
In 2014, Merritt was arrested.
Authorities said they traced his cellphone to the gravesite area. They also linked him to a call seeking to close Joseph McStay's online bookkeeping account.
Joseph McStay owned a custom fountain business and worked with Merritt. According to prosecutors, greed was the motive for the killings and Merritt killed the McStays because he had been embezzling thousands of dollars from Joseph McStay's business.
Merritt's attorneys said the two men were best friends and investigators overlooked another possible suspect in the killings. Instead, they said, authorities zeroed in on an innocent man.
Merritt was found guilty on June 10, 2019, on four counts of murder. The bodies of the McStay family were found buried in the Mojave desert in 2013, three years after the family vanished from their home in San Diego County.
A jury recommended the death penalty for Merritt for the murders of Summer McStay and the children, and life without the possibility of parole in the killing of Joseph McStay. California currently has a moratorium on death row executions.
On Tuesday, the judge said the sentencing stands: Merritt gets life in prison for the killing of Joseph McStay, and the death penalty for the slayings of Summer McStay, Gianni McStay, and Joseph McStay Jr.