Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

Jailhouse visits with Merritt were recorded, Merritt's sister testifies


Last updated 3/8/2019 at 1:13am

Law and Crime photo

Chase Merritt's sister, Juanita Merritt, takes the stand to discuss an interview she gave to investigators regarding the last time she had visited with her brother.

Day 26 of the murder trial of Charles "Chase" Ray Merritt, Feb. 27, for the deaths of the McStay family of Fallbrook saw discussions regarding conversations recorded during visitations to San Bernardino County Jail between Merritt and his family and friends.

They said Merritt had stopped using the monitored phone in the visitation area, talking instead through the glass, and jail personnel began using a digital recorder to record the visits.

Merritt's defense team tried to have the recordings excluded in a motion, claiming the state violated a rule requiring the state to turn over all statements made by defendants to the defense in addition to providing the statements to the prosecution. The defense called San Bernardino Sheriff's Sgt. Ryan Smith, and San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith asked why.

"By keeping that information from us would be a tactical decision to make sure they can keep eavesdropping on statements of our client without informing the defense that they have such information," Merritt's lawyers argued. "So, I want to get to the extent that they were listening to him and how long they knew and then what decisions were made and why it was not turned over as required for immediate disclosure of those statements."

The judge allowed the defense to call the sergeant who testified that he turned over recordings he felt were relevant to the case over the prosecutors starting in February 2019. The sergeant said he began placing digital recorders in the visitation area starting in January 2019 and generally placed a recorder on at least one side of the glass.

"Once they had information that (Smith) was monitoring the calls and monitoring the visitations, they know now he's pulled them and they are in their possession ... then they are required to disclose that to defense," Merritt's defense team argued. "They did not do that here. The defense's position here is that delay was done for tactical reasons. They were done to let Mr. Merritt continue to discuss matters about the case. Discuss matters of the defense strategy, which were done on these calls. They had a listening device into the thoughts and process of the defense through this trial.

"They had all this information they weren't letting us know they had. That's bad faith," Merritt's defense team said.

The prosecution argued that the majority of the calls didn't include anything of any consequence until they reached the "witness intimidation in February."

The prosecution said that they believe Merritt attempted to influence the upcoming testimony of Cathy Jarvis, who was Merritt's girlfriend at the time of the murders. The defense took exception to the notion that Merritt attempted to tamper with a witness.

The judge denied the motion, and Jarvis will testify for the prosecution and the recordings will be played for the jury at some point.

The jury was not present for these discussions.

The sergeant was recalled to the stand again to talk about certain conversations on the tapes, including a conversation about cellphone web searches found on Merritt's phone about changing his identity.

The jury was also shown excerpts from Oct. 22, 2014, interviews by detectives of Merritt where he denied being in the Victorville area, Feb. 6, 2010.

Detectives pressed Merritt in the interview insisting that cellphone engineers place Merritt and his phone in Fallbrook Feb. 4, and the Victorville area Feb. 6.

"It's impossible," Merritt said. "I don't think I was in Fallbrook, and I know I wasn't at the grave site."

"Were you out there burying their bodies, Chase?" detectives asked.

"Of course not," Merritt said.

"Why does your phone show in that area?" detectives asked, referring to cellphone coordinates.

"I have no clue, but that's wrong," Merritt said. "I wasn't there. There is no way possible. The first time I was ever in that area, in my life, is when I went to see the cross. The very first time I went there."

"Help us understand, Chase," detectives said.

"I can't help you understand something I don't understand myself," Merritt said. "Because that's not possible."

Merritt's sister, Juanita Merritt was called to testify by the prosecution.

The prosecution pressed Juanita Merritt about interviews she gave to investigators indicating she hadn't seen her brother for several years. When on the stand, the sister indicated that because of health issues, she said she told investigators that she couldn't remember certain things because of recent surgeries and medications.

"I wasn't in my right mind," Juanita Merritt said. "I was on every kind of painkiller that you can imagine. They had me drooling out of my mouth when I was talking to him, so, how could I recall?"

Smith was recalled to the stand to dispute Juanita Merritt's account of her state of mind during his interview with her.

"It was fine; she was very talkative," Smith said. "We had a nice conversation."

Merritt, 61, is accused of killing the McStay family, Joseph, Summer and their two young boys who lived in the Lake Rancho Viejo housing development east of Interstate 15 in Fallbrook.

The family was last seen alive Feb. 4, 2010, and relatives reported them missing a few days later.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department and FBI handled the investigation into the family's disappearance in the early years with no resolution.

In November 2013, the skeletal remains of the four family members were discovered in shallow graves by a motorcyclist in the Mojave desert. Records show that all four were beaten to death, most likely with a sledgehammer. At that point, the investigation was taken over by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Prosecutors maintain that greed was the basis for Merritt committing the murders and have stated they will be seeking the death penalty in the case.

Defense attorneys have said that investigators zeroed in on Merritt early on the case and never looked at anything or anyone else.

Testimony continued Feb. 25 and early Feb. 26, with Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Kevin Boles regarding the cell tower connections by Merritt's cellphone in and around the date of the McStay family's disappearance.

The prosecution recalled San Bernardino County Sheriff's detective Edward Bachman who was part of Merritt's arrest and seized property from Merritt's home, including an iPhone.

Law and Crime photo

Chase Merritt is accused of murdering Joseph and Summer McStay and their two young sons and burying them in shallow graves in the high desert near Victorville.

Bachman testified that during an examination of information downloaded from Merritt's discoveries were made regarding search queries regarding the U.S. border and traveling to Alaska through Canada. The user of the phone also searched about what was necessary for a search warrant on the day Merritt was interviewed by police.

Bachman testified that there were search queries that included how to change a person's identity, twice over the course of two days in December 2013.

Smith was recalled to the stand to testify about images found after police downloading regarding screenshots of content from the iPhone.

The prosecution showed a screen capture of GPS coordinates of the gravesite that accompanied a photo of tire track impressions with McStay memorial in the background, along with several other photographs of the site located on the phone that were taken Dec. 20, 2013.

Smith also testified about photos on the phone of Merritt posing next to the cross for Joseph McStay placed at the memorial.

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


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