By Katherine Davis-Young
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (Reuters) - A California judge ruled on Monday that prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence for an ex-convict to face trial in the 2010 sledgehammer killings of a family of four whose remains were found more than two years later buried in the desert.
The decision capped a daylong preliminary hearing in the case against Charles "Chase" Merritt, 58, described by authorities as a former business associate of the slain father, Joseph McStay.
Merritt has pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder in the killings.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael Smith said that evidence outlined by investigators in the proceedings, including cell phone records and DNA analysis, had established probable cause for prosecutors to proceed to trial.
McStay, 40, his wife 43-year-old Summer and their two sons, 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr., were reported missing in 2010 from their home in the San Diego County community of Fallbrook.
Their skeletal remains were unearthed in 2013 from shallow graves near Victorville, northeast of Los Angeles.
Police previously disclosed few details of the killings, except that all four victims were slain inside their home on Feb. 4, 2010, the day they were last heard from, and died of blunt-force trauma.
On Monday, detectives testified that a sledgehammer believed to be the murder weapon and tinged with paint from the family's dwelling was recovered from the burial site.
They also testified that Merritt, who authorities say served two state prison terms for unspecified felony convictions, aroused suspicions in part with statements he made referring to the McStays in the past tense, when the case was still a missing-persons investigation.
FBI agent Kevin Boles, who examined Merritt's cell phone records, found the defendant had placed several calls two days after the killings from a spot close to where the bodies were buried. Boles said those were the only calls Merritt made from that location, except once the year before.
Sheriff's detective Edward Bachman testified that DNA on the steering wheel and gearshift of the family car, which turned up in an impoundment lot near the U.S.-Mexican border, was a match for Merritt, who authorities said denied ever driving the car.
Defense attorney Jimmy Mettias presented no evidence to counter the prosecution's case but said in court that the government had failed to place his client at the scene of the killings, adding "There has been nothing that ties Mr. Merritt to these murders."
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)