McStay murder case moves to trial

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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – The man accused of killing the McStay family from Fallbrook will face a judge for trial. On Monday, a judge ruled there is enough evidence in the case to move it forward.

“There is probable cause to believe four people were murdered,” said Judge Michael Smith of San Bernardino County Court. “There is probable cause to believe Mr. Merritt was a participant in the crimes or murder.”

Charles Merritt stands accused in the McStay family slayings. Joseph and Summer McStay and their two sons, Gianni and Joey Jr., disappeared from Fallbrook in February of 2010. Three years later, their remains were found buried in shallow desert graves near Victorville.

“I fought for so long and it’s really kind of an answer to my prayers,” said Mike McStay, brother of victim Joseph McStay.

“We’re going for justice and we’ll get justice. It’s just too much to take in,” said Susan Blake, mother of McStay.

That was the response from the McStay family after Monday’s preliminary hearing.

“You know they got the right guy and they have what they need to put him where he deserves to go,” said McStay.

In Monday’s hearing, half a dozen San Bernardino County homicide detectives presented evidence from the investigation.

They told Judge Smith two gravesites were discovered in November of 2013 north of Victorville. The discovery was made by dirt bikers when they came across what was a child’s skull.

Detectives said Joseph McStay was buried with the youngest son Joey Jr. Summer and Gianni McStay were found in another grave. All died of blunt force trauma to head. Forensic pathologists determined Gianni suffered at least seven blows to the head.

Joseph had a broken leg and rib. He was tied with an extension cord and wrapped in a futon cover taken from the Fallbrook house, a detective testified.

Summer McStay wore no top when her body was unearthed and her bra was spattered with paint. The paint color matched the paint found in the home, according to testimony.

Prosecutors also said Merritt was among the first to raise the alert about the missing McStays. He told their family he couldn't reach McStay and helped a brother search the house.

Investigators also testified when questioned about the family, Merritt would occasionally refer to Joseph or Summer in the past tense.

Although Merritt denied he'd ever driven the family's Isuzu Trooper, his DNA was found on the steering wheel and gearshift. The truck was found abandoned near the Mexican border soon after the family disappeared.

Prosecutors also used pings from cell phone towers to establish Merritt’s whereabouts.

An FBI agent who analyzed phone records testified he found 27 calls between Merritt and Joseph McStay on February 4, 2010, the last day the family was seen alive.

Merritt called McStay five times the next day, but none the day after that. On the morning of February 6, Merritt's phone pinged off cell towers in the Victorville area, where the graves were unearthed three years later.

Prosecutors also began to outline the possible motive of money.

A detective testified about $30,000 in checks written to Merritt on McStay's business accounting software. They were written after the family disappeared but were backdated to February 4, 2010. The checks were printed but deleted from the software. Of those checks, about $20,000 were deposited to an account Merritt set up on February 3.

In his ruling, Judge Smith found the backdated checks and DNA in the Isuzu to be compelling evidence to hold Merritt for trial. He also noted that in interviews with police after the McStays' disappearance, Merritt referred to the McStays in the past tense. The judge also said cell phone pings near the gravesites on February 6 and tire tracks consistent with Merritt's Chevy pickup also support inference of his involvement in the crime.

During the hearing, the Mettias defense team remained quiet, except to enter a plea for dismissal.

Mettias spoke with media following the court hearing and said the judge’s decision was no surprise.

“We didn’t mount a defense today because we believe that we’re able to rebut all this at trial and that’s what will happen.”