Los Angeles

Jury Recommends Death Penalty for Business Associate Convicted of Killing McStay Family

Charles "Chase" Merritt was found guilty June 10 on four counts of murder

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.

A jury recommended the death penalty Monday for a man found guilty of the murders of a family of four whose bodies he buried in the Mojave desert.

The jury's decision, which was read at 3:45 p.m., comes after Charles "Chase" Merritt was found guilty June 10 on four counts of murder. He was convicted in the killings of his former business associate Joseph McStay, McStay's wife Summer and the couple's 3- and 4-year-old sons.

The jury recommended life without the possibility of parole in Joseph McStay's killing and the death penalty for the murders of Summer and the couple's two children. 

They vanished from their San Diego County home in 2010. Three years later, their bodies were found in shallow graves more than 100 miles away in the high desert north of Los Angeles.

Merritt was arrested in 2014. Authorities said they traced his cellphone to the gravesite area and to a call seeking to close McStay's online bookkeeping account.

Merritt killed the McStays because he was embezzling thousands of dollars from Joseph McStay's custom fountain business, prosecutors said. 

After the McStay family disappeared, authorities found bowls of uneaten popcorn at their San Diego County home, which had no signs of forced entry, and their car parked at a strip mall near the Mexican border.

When their bodies were found in 2013, authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer that they said was used to kill the family.

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.

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