Prosecution, defense both say slain McStay family were targets of greed, but clash on ‘who’ – San Bernardino Sun

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Jurors in the death penalty trial of Charles “Chase” Merritt, charged with the 2010 bludgeoning deaths of the McStay family were told Monday they were to decide “How did this family of four disappear off the face of the Earth?”

San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty started opening statements for the long-awaited trial of Merritt, 61, saying the “why” of the case was “greed, and greed’s child, fraud.” “And the ‘who’ is sitting here in court today,” Daugherty told the jury of eight women and four men, who are hearing the case along with six alternates.

Merritt, 61, who lived in Rancho Cucamonga at the time of his arrest, has pleaded not guilty to the 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 on Feb. 4, 2010, then buried their bodies in two shallow graves in the Mojave Desert, north of Victorville. The family had been beaten to death with a three-pound sledgehammer found in one of the graves.

The family had moved to Fallbrook, 45 miles north of San Diego, in November 2009 from San Clemente. They were in the process of remodeling their four-bedroom, three-bathroom home when they went missing.

Sheriff’s investigators believe Summer McStay may have been raped before she was killed.

The bodies were found in November 2013 and Merritt was arrested and charged a year later.

While Merritt’s defense attorneys also said the McStay family died because of someone else’s greed, they attacked the prosecution’s case from almost all angles and pointed to another person, Daniel Kavanaugh, as a prime suspect who they say got overlooked by investigators who focused only on Merritt.

Merritt and Kavanaugh both did business with Joseph McStay’s online business,  Earth Inspired Products, which offered outdoor water fountains to customers.

Prosecutors and sheriff’s investigators say Merritt, who crafted custom water fountains for Earth Inspired Products, was heavily in debt and had a gambling problem. He killed the McStay family for financial gain, they said.

Kavanaugh designed EIP’s website and did search engine optimization, but was broke in early 2010 and angry over being cut out of a new custom-fountain venture worth potentially millions of future dollars by McStay and Merritt, defense attorney Rajan Maline said.

“Dan was out, Chase was in,” he told jurors. McStay agreed to pay Kavanaugh a $30,000 cut. Meanwhile, Merritt and McStay were “literally on a rocket to the moon,” with water-feature projects that included clients in Saudi Arabia.

During the day, defense and prosecution attorneys told jurors they would hear very different evidence, on DNA testing, cell phone triangulation, who was actually looting the McStay business account, and even the timeline for Kavanaugh’s claimed alibi of a trip to Hawaii.

Even the last day in Feburary 2010 that the McStay family could be confirmed alive was disputed — Feb. 4, the prosecution said, Feb. 5, according to the defense.

“There’s plenty more we are going to be knocking down,” defense attorney James McGee told jurors as he concluded his opening statement.

Investigators have said  Merritt  wrote multiple checks totaling more than $21,000 on Joseph McStay’s QuickBooks account in the weeks after the McStay family was last alive, then deleted the electronic version of the checks after printing them to try to cover his tracks.

He went on a gambling spree at casinos in San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, Daugherty said.

Daugherty told jurors Monday that evidence would show the alleged looting started even earlier; that three days before a Feb. 4 meeting Merritt had with McStay in Rancho Cucamonga to go over payments and bring checks, as Merritt claimed,  “The defendant was already writing and printing checks on the business, from Joseph’s QuickBooks.”

“The ‘who,’ while claiming to be Joseph’s best friend, was forging checks from Joseph’s business, putting his hands in the cookie jar,” Daugherty said of Merritt.

He said Merritt “desperately tried to cover his tracks after the murders … misled investigators, talked in circles, and played the victim,” and even, after the slayings, took $5,000 from Joseph McStay’s mother “under the guise of completing a project, and never paid her back.”

Daugherty reviewed for jurors a cascade of checks and phone calls to QuickBooks. He said the former were forgeries by Merritt to get money from McStay’s business, and the latter where phone calls by Merritt, claiming he was McStay, and attempting to manipulate the QuickBooks account.

Defense attorneys offered cellphone calls and other evidence to suggest Merritt and McStay were working together to change the QuickBook accounting system from online to desktop, out of concern that Kavanaugh might try to hack it, saying their nickname for him was “Hacker Dan.”

Kavanaugh, Maline said, stole a total of $7,900 from McStay’s account between Feb. 5 and Feb. 12, 2010. “The only reason he did that is because he knew Joseph wasn’t coming back,” Maline said.

Jurors saw on court projectors pictures of the McStay family in life, and also of the remote gravesite, discovered by a dirt-bike rider who reported to authorities he had spotted what he believed was a human skull.

The family’s skeletal remains showed the three had died from blunt force trauma to the head, from a three-pound sledge hammer also buried at the gravesite. There were not enough remains of Joseph Jr. to ascertain how he died, Daugherty said.



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