SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A California man was ordered Monday to stand trial on murder charges in the killing of his business partner, his partner's wife and the couple's two young sons, whose remains were found in shallow desert graves more than three years after they disappeared.
A judge made the ruling in the case against Charles "Chase" Merritt after witnesses testified at a preliminary hearing that Merritt had cashed checks written from a business account of victim Joseph McStay after he and his family vanished in 2010.
Witnesses say those checks were backdated to the last day the family was seen in 2010.
Authorities found the bodies in 2013 in two shallow graves about 100 miles from the family's San Diego County home. The remains, with fractured skulls, were identified by DNA.
Authorities also found a rusty, three-pound sledgehammer they believe was used to kill all four people. Also found were a child's pants and diaper. The body of the man had an electric cord tied around the neck.
Detectives began to suspect Merritt two days after a missing persons report was filed for the family, when Merritt used the past tense to describe McStay, who he called his best friend.
"There were also times when he used present tense but he frequently used past tense," San Diego County sheriff's Detective Troy DuGal testified.
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Detective Daniel Hanke testified that he spoke later with a customer service representative for QuickBooks who remembered receiving a call about McStay's account on Feb. 9, 2010, five days after he and his family vanished.
"He told me the caller identified himself as Joseph McStay," Hanke testified, adding that the call actually was linked to a cellphone connected to Merritt.
The QuickBooks account was used by McStay to write checks to vendors connected to his water fixtures business.
In the days that followed McStay's disappearance, Hanke testified, checks backdated to that day were cashed by Merritt.
Merritt has pleaded not guilty. The defense did not call any witnesses at the hearing.
Merritt's lawyer Jimmy Mettias said during an earlier interview that he questioned the veracity of the prosecution's evidence.
Mettias said nothing on the sledgehammer could be traced to Merritt, and he questioned prosecutors' ability to link his client to the crimes.
"We have serious issues with the state of the evidence," Mettias said. "I could see where they chose, OK, we're going to go with this guy, but nothing that is going to prove his guilt."
The McStay family's disappearance initially puzzled investigators who said there were no signs of forced entry at the home and the couple's credit cards and tens of thousands of dollars in bank accounts were untouched.
The remains of McStay, 40; his wife, Summer, 43; 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. were later found in San Bernardino County, 100 miles from their home in the San Diego County community of Fallbrook.
All were found to have been killed by blunt force trauma to the head, with Gianni suffering at least seven blows, San Bernardino County sheriff's Detective Edward Bachman testified.
None of the victims were wearing shoes. A woven blanket wrapped around the elder McStay's skeletal remains appeared similar to a futon cover that was missing from the home after the family vanished, said Joseph Steers, another detective from San Bernardino County.
At the family's two-story home, there were towel racks but hardly any towels, he said. Investigators also found blue painters' tape on the wall and a paint tray as the McStays had recently been repainting the house, Steers said.
At the desert gravesites, paint was found on the sledgehammer and running sideways along a brassiere belonging to Summer McStay. Steers said that meant she was likely painting while lying on her side, or incapacitated as a drip fell.