In a small town in California, a police officer is called to a family home. Mysteriously, the occupants have not been seen or heard from in several days. Inside, bowls of popcorn are left on the couch. Outside, their beloved dogs have been left behind. It’s as if the McStay family just disappeared into thin air – and it’s the start of a mystery that will haunt this community for years to come.
In February 2010 Joseph McStay, 40, and 43-year-old wife Summer were living in the Californian town of Fallbrook with their two boys Gianni, four, and three-year-old Joseph Jr. They had recently purchased a $230,000 home in the area, where Joseph ran his own business making decorative water fountains.
To all intents and purposes, the McStays seemed like a normal and successful family. However, on February 4, all that would change. The day began like any other, with Joseph meeting his business partner Chase Merritt in the town of Rancho Cucamonga, some 70 miles from Fallbrook.
Later that day, Joseph apparently called Merritt to discuss their latest project – a fountain for a client in Saudi Arabia. Then, at around 8:30 p.m., Joseph’s cellphone was used to call Merritt again. According to Merritt, he was watching a film and chose not to answer his partner’s call.
After that, Joseph went silent. Over the coming days, family and friends of the McStays attempted to contact the family, but with no success. Then, on February 9 – five days after Joseph had last been seen – his father received an email from Merritt.
According to a 2011 article on PEOPLE.com, the email expressed concern for the McStays’ wellbeing. “I haven’t heard from Joe,” it read. “He’s not answering the phone; he’s not answering texts. It isn’t like Joe. Can you get back to me?” Finally, the authorities were alerted.
On February 10, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department sent detective Troy DuGal to take a closer look. When he arrived at the McStay’s Fallbrook home, he found little clue of any foul play. In fact, traces of everyday life were all over the house – as if the family had simply left in a hurry.
In the kitchen, paint cans had been left behind from where the McStays had seemingly been redecorating. Similarly, egg cartons were laid out on the kitchen counter, and in the living room, two children’s bowls full of popcorn were left on the couch. “That’s weird,” DuGal recalled thinking. “It was like two kids were sitting there eating popcorn, and then they were just gone.”
For four days, police were baffled over the McStay family’s disappearance. Had they left of their own accord? It did not seem to be likely – Digger and Bear, their much-loved dogs, had been left behind, and around $100,000 of cash in Joseph’s bank account remained untouched.
To add to the confusion, the family’s cellphones and credit cards had not been used since the time of their disappearance. Furthermore, a neighbor’s security camera revealed startling footage of a vehicle on the night that the family disappeared. Although it was determined not to have belonged to the McStays, the driver could not be identified.
Finally, there came a break in the case. Investigators discovered that four days after the McStay family had disappeared, their Isuzu Trooper vehicle had been found in a San Diego parking lot, close to the Mexican border. Had the McStays decided to abandon their life in California for a new start in another country?
This theory seemed to be bolstered when footage was discovered showing a family bearing some resemblance to the McStays crossing the border on the evening of February 8. But those who knew them just could not believe that they would have left behind the happy life they had worked so hard for.
According to relatives, Joseph and Summer had no interest in traveling to Mexico, having previously expressed concerns about safety in the country. Additionally, Summer’s passport was apparently out of date and the family did not touch any of their savings throughout their disappearance.
As the years passed, many theories were put forward to explain what had happened to the McStays. Some believed that the family had somehow got on the wrong side of a drug cartel, while others pointed to Summer’s checkered past as a clue.
Apparently, Summer had changed aspects of her identity a number of times in the past, adopting different names and even changing her age. Shockingly, one author even went so far as to claim that Summer had orchestrated the murders of her husband and son – although no evidence was found to support these accusations.
Eventually, the final piece of the puzzle was found. On November 11, 2013, a biker stumbled across a pair of shallow graves outside Victorville, CA. When investigators from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department arrived, they discovered the decomposed remains of four people buried in the desert.
On November 13, the remains were confirmed to be those of the McStays. According to investigators, the apparent cause of death in each case was thought to be blows to the head with a blunt object – possibly the sledgehammer found with the bodies. Interestingly, paint smears on the murder weapon and on Summer’s body matched the paint being used to renovate the family’s Fallbrook home.
So investigators began to suspect that the McStays had been murdered at home before their bodies were dumped in the desert some 100 miles away. But who could have committed such a crime? Suspicion began to settle on Chase Merritt.
Apparently, Merritt had a criminal record, having been previously convicted for burglary. Furthermore, it appeared that he had been writing checks from Joseph’s business account. In fact, some of these had been written after the family went missing – and were backdated to the day of their disappearance.
Then, after investigating the McStays’ vehicle, police found traces of Merritt’s DNA. On November 5, 2014, he was arrested on suspicion of murder. Slowly, it began to emerge that Merritt had apparently racked up a huge debt with his business partner – and that Joseph was planning on firing him.
However, Merritt has yet to stand trial. Frequent changes to his legal team have continued to push the dates back. Currently, the case is set to go to court at some point in late 2017 – more than seven years after the McStays went missing. Will the truth finally be revealed at the trial? For the McStay’s family and friends, it’s surely an agonizing wait.