SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A business associate of a Southern California man who vanished with his wife and two young sons in 2010 was charged with four counts of murder, and authorities said Friday they believe the family was bludgeoned to death before their bodies were buried in the desert.
Charles "Chase" Merritt, 57, of Homeland made a brief court appearance on four counts of murder in the deaths of Joseph McStay, 40, his wife, Summer, 43, and their sons, 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph.
Merritt, who has served prison time for burglary and receiving stolen property, did not enter a plea and was due back in court next week.
His attorney, Robert Ponce, did not immediately return a call or email.
Investigators believe the family members were killed in their home in the San Diego County community of Fallbrook on Feb. 4, 2010, and were victims of blunt-force trauma, said San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon.
Authorities refused to discuss a motive or any further details of how the family was killed, or evidence found at the home or at the site of the shallow graves.
Tearful family members said the arrest brought them some peace but left many questions.
"Joseph was a great brother, a great father," Joseph McStay's brother, Michael McStay, said as he choked back tears. "He would've done anything to protect those boys and Summer and he tried to help Chase and provide work for this guy and this is how he was repaid. ... He'll get what he's got coming to him."
There was no "smoking gun" that helped solve the case after so many years, San Bernardino County sheriff's Sgt. Chris Fisher said.
Rather, the agency re-examined 4,500 pages of evidence handed over by authorities in San Diego County, where the probe began, served 60 search warrants and did 200 interviews. Evidence found at the gravesite also helped, Fisher said, declining to elaborate.
"Our job is to look at everyone and eliminate who we could and see where this was going to take us — and it led us to him," he said of Merritt.
Bennett Merritt, Merritt's brother, said in a brief phone interview that his sibling was "absolutely not guilty."
Joseph McStay designed and installed home water features. Investigators said he had asked Merritt, who owned a waterfall company, to design some special waterfalls, and the two met at a restaurant on the day the family is believed to have been killed.
Merritt's name had surfaced previously in the investigation. In 2011, Merritt told investigators that Joseph McStay's last cellphone conversation was to him. Fisher said investigators had interviewed Merritt several times but declined to say what information he provided.
The long, convoluted investigation began when the family vanished from their home without a trace. At the time, San Diego County sheriff's detectives said it appeared they had fled at a moment's notice.
Investigators found their dogs outside with no food or water, eggs rotting on a counter, and bowls full of popcorn in the house.
Four days after the family vanished, their white Isuzu Trooper was found at a San Diego shopping mall just steps from Tijuana, Mexico. A dark surveillance video shows four people walking across the border.
Authorities initially thought they might have been the McStays but later discounted that theory.
Investigators said there were no signs of forced entry at the family home or in their SUV. Nothing was missing from the home, and the couple's credit cards and tens of thousands of dollars in bank accounts were untouched.
The family's skeletal remains were found late last year by someone riding an off-road vehicle in the desert outside Victorville. The site is not far from heavily traveled Interstate 15, which connects San Diego and Las Vegas.
Investigators served new search warrants on the house after the bodies were found, Fisher said, but declined to say what they revealed.
Merritt was arrested Wednesday in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles.
He was sentenced to a total of more than two years in prison in the 1970s and 1980s for convictions on burglary, receiving stolen property and violating parole, said Bill Sessa, a prison spokesman.
Court records in Los Angeles County show he also was sentenced for grand theft and burglary in 2001.