Business partner faces death penalty in murder of Fallbrook family of 4

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- A man accused of killing his business partner, his wife and two children in Fallbrook more than eight years ago murdered the family so he could steal their money, prosecutors argued Monday.

Chase Merritt, 61, is charged with four counts of murder. His trial began Monday in San Bernardino Superior Court.

Merritt’s business partner, Joseph McStay disappeared from his home in Fallbrook in 2010 along with his wife and two young sons. Their whereabouts remained a mystery until 2013 when a motor-cross rider came across their remains in shallow graves in the desert in Victor Valley in San Bernardino County.

In opening statements, prosecutors said Merritt killed the family for financial gain, hacking McStays' Quickbooks account and writing three checks totaling around $15,000 for himself. According to search warrants filed in the case, Merritt also owed McStay $30,000, which he had borrowed to pay a gambling debt.

 “He mislead investigators. He talked in circles and he played the victim,” said San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Sean Dougherty. 

Prosecutors allege Merritt beat the four members of the McStay family to death with a sledgehammer and then hid their bodies  in the high desert. They said they will present cell phone evidence during the trial that places Merritt at the location in the desert where the bodies were buried. 

“Between 10:46 and 1:30 p.m., the defendant's cellphone contacted towers in Victor Valley,” said Dougherty 

But Merritt's defense attorneys said that the investigation was botched from the start and that Merritt would never have hurt his business partner, a man he called his best friend.

“{Investigators] treated this as a missing persons case. They didn’t grill anybody. They didn’t execute the search warrants on time and opportunities floated away." Merritt's attorney, Rajan Maline, said. 

If convicted on all counts Merritt is facing the death penalty.