A California man has been convicted of murdering a family of four with a sledgehammer and burying their bodies in the desert, in a case that puzzled investigators for years.
Charles “Chase” Merritt, 62, was found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, nine years after his business associate’s family disappeared without a trace.
Jurors in San Bernardino concluded that Merritt had bludgeoned Joseph McStay to death, along with his wife Summer and the couple’s sons, aged three and four.
“It was blow after blow after blow to a child’s skull,” prosecutor Britt Imes said during closing arguments, the Los Angeles Times has reported.
In 2013, the family’s bodies were found in shallow graves in the desert by an off-road motorcyclist. Authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer they said was used to kill the family.
Merritt closed his eyes as the court clerk announced the four “guilty” verdicts, following a trial that spanned more than four months and depended largely on circumstantial evidence.
Sobs were heard from within the packed courtroom, and a voice cried out: “Yes!”
Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty if Merritt was convicted. The penalty phase of the trial is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
The McStay family vanished from their San Diego County home on February 4, 2010.
Authorities found bowls of uneaten popcorn at their house, which had no signs of forced entry, and found their car parked outside shops near the Mexican border.
For years, officials could not work out what had happened to the McStays.
There were a number of theories, including that the family had gone to Mexico voluntarily – although investigators could not say why.
On November 11, 2013, a motorcyclist found four sets of human remains buried in two shallow graves in the desert near Victorville, California. These were identified as those of the McStays two days later.
Merritt worked with Mr McStay in his water features business, and was the last known person to have had contact with him.
He was arrested in November 2014, after detectives from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department found traces of his DNA in Mr McStay’s car.
Prosecutors argued that Merritt killed Mr McStay out of greed at a time when he was being cut out of the business which sold custom-made water fountains.
Authorities said they traced Merritt’s mobile phone to the area surrounding the desert grave sites in the days following the family’s disappearance, and also to a call seeking to close Mr McStay’s online bookkeeping account.
While evidence linking the 62-year-old to the killings was largely circumstantial, prosecutors said it was also “overwhelmingly convincing”.
However, Merritt’s lawyers argued that the two men had been best friends and that investigators had overlooked another possible suspect in the killings.
They said authorities had zeroed in on an innocent man and stressed that 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 have admitted details of the killings were not entirely clear but stressed evidence from the family’s car, mobile phone towers and financial accounts linked 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 showed Merritt had tried to loot the business bank accounts both before and after the family disappeared, and that he had backdated checks to February 4, knowing it was the last day anyone had contact with Mr McStay.
Phone records also show Mr McStay had called Merritt seven times after the February 4 meeting, with defence lawyers arguing it was unlikely he would have done that if he’d just fired Merritt.