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Jury recommends death for man convicted in McStay family murders

Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- A jury Monday recommended death for a man convicted of killing Joseph and Summer McStay and their two children before burying their bodies in the Mojave Desert.

Jurors deliberated for several hours over three days before reaching a verdict in the penalty phase of the five-month trial of Charles "Chase" Merritt.

The same panel earlier this month found Merritt, 62, guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of the McStays, and their two young boys Joey Jr., 3, and Gianni, 4. The jury found Merritt responsible for multiple murders, making him eligible for the death penalty.

The jury recommended Merritt face death on three of the four counts and life in prison without parole on the other.

The recommendation marked a victory for prosecutors who built their case almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. After more than nine years, it was an emotional end to a mystery turned tragedy, in a case that drew national attention, serving as the subject of documentaries and a book. Merritt's trial was streamed live by the website Law & Crime.

Prosecutors said Merritt, of Rancho Cucamonga, was motivated by greed and self-interest. Days before the disappearance, Joseph McStay accused Merritt -- a welder who helped build custom water fountains for McStay's company -- of owing him thousands of dollars.


The McStays disappeared from the Fallbrook home in February 2010, leaving behind uneaten food on counters and other signs of a swift departure, which baffled police and family members.

But in the fall of 2013, an off-road motorcyclist discovered parts of a skull in the desert off Interstate 15 in Victorville, about an hour north of the family's home. The remains of McStay, 40, were found buried with Joey Jr. A second grave contained the remains of Summer McStay, 43, and Gianni along with a rusty sledgehammer.

Joseph McStay's mother, Susan Blake, testified during the trial and the penalty phase of the case, telling jurors she had held on to hope the family were alive until their remains were found.

She said she was in her office in Valencia and collapsed to the ground when her other son, Michael McStay, called to give her the news.


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