Jurors begin deliberating in McStay family murder trial
Jurors began deliberations Thursday, May 30, in the murder trial of Charles Ray Merritt, charged in the 2010 bludgeoning deaths of the McStay family.
The killing, prosecutors said, was motivated by the lure of gaining access to business accounts of patriarch Joseph McStay.
“You don’t get to murder an entire family and get away with it,” San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez told jurors during the prosecution’s rebuttal Thursday morning, before Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith sent the panel to deliberate.
Merritt, 62, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he killed former business associate Joseph McStay, 40, his wife, Summer, 43, and their two children, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, in their Fallbrook home in San Diego County. The family had moved to Fallbrook from San Clemente.
Rodriguez said the two McStay boys died because they knew Merritt and could identify him.
Merritt was arrested and charged in November 2014 – a year after the McStay family’s skeletal remains were discovered in two shallow graves west of the 15 Freeway near Victorville. Merritt is a former Apple Valley resident.
A three-pound sledge hammer investigators said was used to kill the family was buried along with their remains.
McStay and Merritt worked together in the sale, design and building of large-scale custom waterworks for clients in Saudi Arabia and businesses such as Paul Mitchell salons. McStay found customers, and Merritt, whose business was separate from McStay’s, built the pieces.
Prosecutors said Merritt was being cut out of the relationship by McStay for poor performance, and on Feb. 1, 2010, McStay sent an email to Merritt stating Merritt owed him $42,845. The McStay family was last heard from on Feb. 4 of that year. They said Merritt began writing checks to himself from McStay’s business account.
Defense attorneys said the men were best friends and future prospects for their business relationship were too lucrative for Merritt to kill his partner and his family. They said another business associate of McStay’s, web designer Daniel Kavanaugh, had disputes with McStay and was overlooked by investigators.
Kavanaugh has denied having anything to do the the McStay family’s death, and prosecutors backed that up. Thursday, Rodriguez said it was a “red herring” from the defense.
Rodriguez pushed back at several other defense contentions during her rebuttal, reminding jurors of the principle that the simplest explanation is more likely to be right than a complex one. She said the defense counsel in final arguments had offered assumptions unsupported by evidence.
Merritt, she said, backdated checks on McStay’s QuickBooks account that he had forged to himself to Feb. 4, 2010.
She said the defense in trial tried to say the checks were backdated because QuickBooks goes to the last day an account was opened, but two experts testified it did not. In final arguments, Rodriguez said, the defense then claimed Merritt backdated the checks because that was the day he claimed he got them from McStay.
“That doesn’t work either,” Rodriguez said. “Because the fourth, conveniently, happens to be the last day that anybody had heard from Joseph McStay.” And having a date after that would show the checks were forged, she said
“Because if somebody goes in and sees activity on the fifth, and the eighth, and the ninth — they’re gonna know — especially when those checks are made out to him (Merritt),” she said.
“What’s reasonable? The story keeps changing from the defense,” she told the panel.
Testimony began Jan. 7, and the trial was originally forecast to end in April.
One juror, who heard the testimony and all the final arguments, had to be excused and replaced by an alternate just before deliberations started Thursday because of a job commitment scheduled to start in June.
“I didn’t know we were going to be here until June,” the juror told Smith.
“Trust me, no one did,” the judge answered.