Lawyers on Monday in the murder trial of a man accused of killing a Fallbrook family provided two very different interpretations of a case that took nearly nine years to get to trial.
San Bernardino County prosecutors told jurors during opening statements they have cellphone records that put defendant Charles “Chase” Merritt near the shallow desert graves of Joseph McStay, wife Summer and their 3- and 4-year-old sons in early February 2010 — around the time when the family went missing.
Over the next few months, jurors will see financial records, prosecutors said, that indicate Merritt was siphoning money from Joseph McStay, who sold water features to corporate clients and often hired Merritt to weld them.
And jurors will hear audio from an interview that Merritt gave to San Diego sheriff’s homicide investigators on Feb. 17, 2010, days after the family disappeared. Merritt, prosecutors noted, sometimes referred to the missing McStays in the past tense — such as saying Joseph “was my best friend” — before the bodies were found.
Defense attorneys will travel that same path as the trial proceeds, challenging the prosecution at every step. They told the jury that the evidence will show there is no proof Merritt was in Fallbrook when the McStay family disappeared and no physical evidence linking him to the bloody beating deaths or the grave sites.
The theories of the case are miles apart. Prosecutors say the family was beaten to death in their Fallbrook home. The defense disagrees, contending that not a drop of blood was found in the home even though an examination of their remains indicated they were likely attacked with a sledgehammer. They died in the desert where they were found, defense attorneys said.
Monday’s opening statements offered little new information from prosecutors, but gave a clear overview of their case: they accuse Merritt of dipping into McStay’s business accounts, killing the whole family after McStay found out, then continuing to siphon funds for a short while after.
Prosecutors say the family members disappeared on Feb. 4, 2010.
Defense attorneys say it must have been the morning of the Feb. 5, pointing to eggs left out on the kitchen counter inside the family home and coffee left in a pot. The defense’s road map for the trial veers in a different direction — and toward a different person, another McStay business associate.
The defense also said it appears that the DNA of four people was found on items in the shallow graves where the family was discovered — but none of the DNA belongs to Merritt or the McStays. They are still awaiting final results.
Joseph McStay, 40, and wife Summer, 43, had moved to Fallbrook less than three months before they and their young sons — Gianni, 4, and Joey Jr., 3 — vanished in February 2010.They left their dogs outside, perishable food on the counter, and no clue as to their whereabouts. San Diego sheriff’s investigators were stumped.
The break came in November 2013, when their remains were found in shallow graves outside Victorville.
San Bernardino sheriff’s investigators arrested Merritt a year later.
The 61-year-old has pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if he is convicted.
Deputy District Attorney Sean Daughtery started his opening statement with a question: “How does a family of four disappear off the face of the earth?”
The evidence, he told the jury, “will show you not only the ‘how’ but the ‘why’ — and especially the ‘who.’”
The motive, he said,”boils down to basic human emotion — greed,” he said, adding that the crimes were fueled by “greed — and greed’s child, fraud.”
“We can’t answer all of the questions,” Daugherty said. “But we can answer the ‘who.’ The ‘who’ is the defendant who was ripping off his best friend and got caught.
The bigger surprises came from the defense.
Merritt’s attorneys are challenging every theory of the prosecution’s case, arguing that authorities had misinterpreted or ignored evidence, cherry-picking only that which supported their theory that Merritt was guilty.
From the start of his opening statement, defense attorney James McGee said the case “is not about murder”
“This is a case that somebody wanted this family to disappear,” he said. “Who wanted them to disappear — and why?”
McGee — a former prosecutor — told the jury that once authorities learned that Merritt’s phone had been in the vicinity of the graves two days after the family disappeared, they settled on Merritt as a suspect and “the investigation turned into confirmation bias.”
“They predetermined ‘he’s the guy,’ and didn’t look at anything else,” McGee said.
When the prosecution rests its case, the defense team plans to present its own witnesses, putting on a robust case of its own. McGee told the jury about veteran investigators working for the defense, experts who he said dug deeper and went further than sheriffs investigators had.
McGee also said the attack on the family had been brutal and bloody, “violent impacts that shatter skulls.” But no blood was found anywhere in the home — not on the carpets, not on fabric chairs, not on clothes piled on the floor.
“Blood could be found on any of this — it if existed,” McGee said.
There was no blood in the McStay’s vehicles, nor in Merritt’s truck.
Merritt’s lawyers are also challenging the cellphone tower evidence that prosecutors say places him at the graves. The defense also expanded on information that has been buried in court motions, including a theory that Summer McStay had been raped. Her bra had been cut off her body from the front, between the cups, and her pants and underwear were found not on her body but near her head.
The defense will also put on evidence to support an alternate theory, pointing at another of McStay’s former business partners, a man they said was broke, angry with McStay and may not have had the solid alibi that authorities had accepted.
Merritt, they said, had McStay’s permission to dip into the bank account. But the other business associate, a man who McStay had just bought out of the business, dipped into the accounts without permission after they disappeared.
Defense attorney Rajan Maline said a witness has come forward to say that the business associate had confessed his involvement in the deaths.
Prosecutors brought her to their attention in October.