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 a lengthy, drawn-out day in court, the man who was set to be sentenced for the mysterious killings of a Southern California family didn't learn his fate after all. Instead, he is due back in court next week.
Charles "Chase" Merritt, 62, was supposed to be sentenced Friday in a San Bernardino courtroom for the slayings of his former business associate Joseph McStay, 40, McStay's wife, Summer McStay, 43, and the couple's sons, 4-year-old Gianni McStay and 3-year-old Joseph McStay Jr.
Prior to the sentencing hearing, a judge had planned to rule on two motions: a motion to reduce Merritt’s sentence and a motion for a new trial.
This part of the hearing was expected to last a couple of hours but, as the proceedings unfolded, the motions consumed the day. There was a big surprise, too -- a moment when Merritt tried to fire his attorney, Rajan Maline, in the middle of the hearing. The judge told him he couldn't do that.
Between Maline's arguments, the back-and-forth with the judge and Merritt's attempt to part ways with his attorney, there was no time left for the actual sentencing hearing.
Several of the McStay family's loved ones were supposed to deliver impact statements in court but the only person who was able to speak before the day was over was 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.
After years of legal proceedings, 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.
The judge said Merritt's sentencing hearing would be continued to Tuesday, Jan. 21. Several more victim impact statements are expected to be heard in court that day before Merritt finally learns his fate.
Inside the Courtroom
NBC 7 was inside the courtroom Friday for the lengthy and, at times, frustrating proceedings. Here's a rundown of what happened in there.
9:40 a.m.: Merritt, dressed in a suit and tie, walked into the courtroom and sat down next to his attorney. He put on his reading glasses. He waited quietly for proceedings to begin.
10 a.m.: Merritt turned around to face his sister. She asked if she could hug him. A deputy denied her request.
10:20 a.m.: The motions hearing began.
Maline addressed the judge and the courtroom, focusing on the evidence regarding Merritt’s cellphone records, which prosecutors said put him near the site of the shallow graves in the desert where the bodies of the victims were found.
Maline argued not all parts of his client's cellphone records were presented at trial by one of Merritt's former attorneys. He said that evidence should have been seen by jurors. Maline asked for a new trial.
“I don’t think we need additional testimony,” the judge said.
“I think the testimony part if the crucial part, Your Honor," Merritt's attorney said.
Ultimately, the judge said he would not permit the new testimony. Merritt’s defense team will enter the evidence into the record. This could potentially be examined during a future appeal.
10:35 a.m.: The court took a brief recess.
11:20 a.m.: The proceedings resumed.
Merritt's attorney continued his argument. About 40 minutes in, the judge asked Maline how much longer he would be.
Merritt let out a deep sigh.
Then, just after 12 p.m., this happened: Merritt interrupted his attorney, saying he wanted to speak with him about something.
At first, Merritt tried to speak directly to the judge.
"Your Honor?" Merritt said.
"You can't talk," Maline said, stopping Merritt from speaking out of turn any further.
Another sigh of frustration was heard from the gallery, from the McStay family's loved ones. At this point, the proceedings were stretching into the fourth hour.
12:15 p.m.: The judge called for a lunch recess.
When the court reconvened at around 1 p.m., Maline dropped a bombshell: "He does not want me to continue as his lawyer," he told the judge.
“He informed me during the break that he does not want me to continue as his lawyer. Also, he disclosed some other issues,” Maline said. “I don’t feel in good conscience based on what I’ve been told that I could go forward, and that’s where we’re at.”
The judge cleared the courtroom to further discuss Merritt's reasoning as to why he didn't want Maline to further represent him in the case.
At around 2:15 p.m., the judge announced he had denied Merritt's request to part ways with his attorney. The proceedings continued, with the judge moving on to the motions for a new trial.
For another hour, the judge spoke, reviewing the details of the case.
Victim impact statements were expected, but with the courtroom set to close at 5 p.m. it only left time for Patrick McStay to speak.
The judge said the sentencing hearing would resume Tuesday.
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.