McStay Family Murders: How Did They Die? Who Killed Them?

Image Credit: CBS News/McStay Family

In February 2010, the McStay family vanished without a trace, propelling the authorities to investigate. While there was little evidence and various theories floated around, nobody really precisely knew what happened to Joseph, his wife, and their two sons until years later. Investigation Discovery’s ‘Two Shallow Graves’ delves into a case that garnered national news headlines, eventually culminating in the killer being brought to justice close to a decade later. So, let’s find out what happened then, shall we?

How Did the McStay Family Die?

Joseph and Summer McStay had two sons — Gianni and Joseph Jr. In late November 2009, the family moved to Fallbrook, California, for a fresh start in a peaceful and friendly neighborhood. At the time, Joseph owned an online company named Earth Inspired Products that sold decorative water fountains. While Summer stayed home to take care of the children, she planned to go to work soon.

Image Credit: Oxygen

The morning of February 4, 2010, started like any other day for the family. While Joseph went to a work meeting, Summer spoke to her sister over the phone and planned to visit later. At around 7:47 pm, part of the family car was captured on a neighbor’s surveillance camera, but there was no sign of the family after that. Joseph was 40-years-old back then, and Summer was 43. Their children, Gianni and Joseph Jr., were 4 and 3, respectively.

On February 10, 2010, Joseph’s business partner, Charles “Chase” Merritt, asked the authorities to check on the family, but an officer felt nothing was amiss. About three days later, Joseph’s brother, Mike, got into the house through an open window and saw that the pet dogs were still at home but no sign of the family. On February 15, the family reported them missing, and the authorities searched the house. While there were no signs of forced entry, it seemed like the McStays left in a hurry. A carton of eggs lay on the counter, and two bowls of popcorn were located in the living room.

It wasn’t until November 2013 that the case moved forward. A motorcyclist found human remains in a desert near Victorville, California. The remains were identified as the McStay family’s and were buried in two shallow graves. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was blunt force trauma, and it appeared they were tortured before they were killed. A 3-pound sledgehammer was found with the bodies, which was believed to be the murder weapon.

Who Killed the McStay Family?

Initial investigation revealed that the family car was found at around 11 pm on February 8, 2010, in a parking lot close to the US-Mexico border in San Ysidro, California. Surveillance footage from the border from a few hours prior seemed to show a family of four crossing the border. The authorities initially believed this was the McStay family because of a few other things that came to light.

Image Credit: CNN/Youtube

In December 2009, Summer inquired about buying software to learn Spanish. In January 2010, just days before the disappearance, the home computer was used to search for passport requirements for kids traveling to Mexico. However, the rest of the family thought it was unusual for them to just leave so abruptly. Furthermore, Joseph’s mother stated that the car had his asthma medication, and he never went anywhere without it. Joseph’s business partner, Chase, claimed to have met him for a lunch meeting on the afternoon of February 4, 2010.

Chase further stated that Joseph called him at around 8:28 pm on that evening. The authorities zeroed in on Chase after the remains were found and arrested him in the first week of November 2014. The investigation revealed that Chase was a gambling addict who owed Joseph about $42,000. About three days before the disappearance, Joseph emailed Chase regarding the money and was close to firing him. Furthermore, Chase wrote several checks on the online business starting February 5; he then went to a few casinos to spend that money.

The authorities also found Chase’s DNA on the steering wheel and the gearshift handle of the McStay family car; he had claimed earlier to have never driven that vehicle. According to cell tower data, on February 4, 2010, his phone was near the McStay family home. Similarly, on February 6, his phone pinged off of towers in Victorville, placing him at the burial site. Given the evidence, Chase was eventually found guilty of murdering the McStay family.

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