Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

Testimony begins in trial for man accused of killing Fallbrook family


Last updated 1/17/2019 at 9:51pm

Law and Crime Network photo

Michael McStay testifies on day two of testimony in the trial of Charles "Chase" Merritt, who is accused of killing McStay's brother, Joseph and his wife and two children in 2010.

The death-penalty case of Charles "Chase" Merritt, who is charged with killing four members of a Fallbrook family in 2010, began Jan. 7 in San Bernardino Superior Court with opening statements from the prosecution and defense.

"How does this family of four, a husband who's running a business, a mom who's raising her two kids, fixing up a house they just bought, recently, how do they just disappear? Just up and gone," San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty said, Jan. 7. "Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence, in this case, will not only show you the how, but the why and especially the who."

Daugherty accused Merritt of Homeland of bludgeoning to death Joseph McStay, 40, his wife, Summer, 43, and their two children, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, in February 2010 and burying their bodies in a San Bernardino desert.

Merritt pleaded "not guilty" to four murder counts, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case that could last between three and four months.

Daugherty told the jury of eight women, four men and six alternates hearing the case that Merritt was driven by greed in the killing.

"We can't answer all the questions. We can answer the who," Daugherty said. "He was ripping off his best friend and got caught. We can tell you the evidence has shown the only person in this case ... that man right there."

Defense attorney James McGee said the prosecution's case is based in confirmation bias.

"That's when you look for the facts you want and look for the facts that support it," McGee told the jury. "And that's what this whole investigation is. 'We want Chase Merritt, so let's just twist our necks, do gymnastics with logic and figure how do we build a case against him.'"

He asked the jury to keep an open mind.

"Don't believe everything you hear from a witness until we get to cross, because the picture looks a lot different when you actually get to have a little light shined on what they're trying to sell you,"

Defense attorney Rajan Maline presented another theory in the case, pointing to another person, Daniel Kavanaugh, as a prime suspect who they said was ignored by investigators.

Maline said Kavanaugh designed and provided search engine optimization services for the Earth Inspired Products website but was bitter after McStay and Merritt cut him out of the business.

Day two of the trial saw the testimony of Joseph McStay's mother, Susan Blake, who talked about that day in November 2013, when her son, Mike, told her that the remains of her son and his family had been discovered in two shallow graves located north of Victorville.

"The hardest thing my son had to do was tell me they found them in the desert," Blake said. "And he met with a sheriff or someone and that they were dead, and, I didn't believe it or didn't want to believe it."

She said though she couldn't go right away to the spot where her son's family was discovered, she visited the site six months after she was first notified of the location.

"Me and my friend went to see the four crosses, and it just dropped me to my knees," she said in tears. "Because it just shouldn't be. It just shouldn't be. It's just such a shock to see that. I will never go back to that spot."

Joseph's brother, Michael McStay took the stand next and told the jury that his brother gave him $2,000 to start a business.

"When I showed up to O.C. Tavern for lunch, there was an envelope sitting on the counter and he said, 'you're going to be my best investment ever,'" Michael said.

When asked if he always looked up to his older brother, Michael broke down.

"Yes sir," he said.

When asked why, he said, "Because, he was worth it."

Michael testified over the course of two days. He said that he went to the family's home with Merritt in the days after the family went missing but could not recall if Merritt entered the residence or not. He said that Merritt told him that he was hesitant to go inside the house because he had a criminal record.

A former neighbor of the family on Avocado Vista Lane, Jennifer Mitchley, testified Wednesday, Jan. 9. She told the jury that San Diego County investigators asked her to review a hard drive, but she said a problem with the system kept it from recording any videos from Feb. 5 to Feb. 14.

Prosecutors showed a rough video from Feb. 4 pulled from Mitchley's available recordings and told jurors that it was Merritt's truck in the video. The defense team insisted that the vehicle's headlights in the video don't match the make and model of Merritt's truck.

Private security officers Bruce Carter and David Jackson, San Diego County Department of Animal Services officer Kathleen Conwell and San Diego County Sheriff's Department's patrol Sgt. Michael Tingley also testified over the next two days.

Testimony was expected resume this week, after press deadline.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at [email protected]


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