A California man has been convicted of killing a family of four with a sledgehammer and burying their bodies in the desert, in a case that puzzled investigators for years after the family suddenly vanished from their home.
After a trial that spanned more than four months and depended largely on circumstantial evidence, jurors in San Bernardino found 62-year-old Charles “Chase” Merritt guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in the bludgeoning deaths of his business associate Joseph McStay, Mr McStay’s wife Summer, and the couple’s sons, aged three and four.
Merritt closed his eyes and looked down when the court clerk said the word “guilty” the first of four times to first-degree murder. Sobs came from the packed courtroom, and someone called out: “Yes!”
The jury also found the special circumstance of multiple murders. Prosecutors have said they would seek the death penalty if Merritt was convicted. The penalty phase of the trial is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
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 shops near the Mexican border.
For years, officials could not work out what had happened to the McStays. At one point, investigators said they believed the family had gone to Mexico voluntarily, although they could not say why.
In 2013, their bodies were found in shallow graves in the desert after an off-road motorcyclist discovered skeletal remains in the area. Authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer they said was used to kill the family.
“It was blow after blow after blow to a child’s skull,” the Los Angeles Times reported prosecutor Britt Imes said during closing arguments.
Merritt, who worked with Mr McStay in his water features business, was arrested in 2014.
Prosecutors argued that Merritt killed Mr McStay out of greed at a time when he owed him money and was being cut out of the business making and selling custom water fountains.
Authorities said they traced Merritt’s mobile phone to the area of the desert grave sites in the days after the family disappeared, and to a call seeking to close Mr McStay’s online bookkeeping account.
Merritt referred to Mr McStay in the past tense in an interview with investigators after the family vanished, and while the evidence linking him to the killings is largely circumstantial, it is “overwhelmingly convincing”, the prosecutor said.
Merritt’s lawyers said the two men were best friends and investigators overlooked another possible suspect in the killings. They said authorities zeroed in on an innocent man but the evidence did not add up, noting there were no signs of an attack at the family’s home.
“They tried his character and not the facts of this case,” lawyer James McGee told jurors.
Many questions remain about the family’s disappearance. Prosecutors acknowledge details of the killings are not entirely clear but say the evidence from the family’s car, mobile phone towers and financial accounts link Merritt to the killings.
Authorities said Mr McStay was cutting Merritt out of the business in early February and the two met on February 4 in Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt lived.
Prosecutors said financial records show Merritt tried to loot the business bank accounts just before and after the family disappeared, and backdated checks to February 4, knowing it was the last day anyone had contact with Mr McStay.
Phone records show Mr McStay called Merritt seven times after the February 4 meeting, with defence lawyers arguing that Mr McStay would not have been likely do that if he had just fired Merritt.