By Jeff Pack

Judge allows state's request to admit evidence from Merritt's phone


Last updated 2/21/2019 at 3:56pm

Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith ruled Thursday, Feb. 14, that the prosecution could admit into evidence items found on Charles “Chase” Ray Merritt’s phone.

Chase Merritt, 61, of Homeland, is accused of murdering Joseph and Summer McStay as well as the couple’s two young sons in Fallbrook in 2010 and burying their bodies in a San Bernardino desert.

The McStay family, who lived in the Lake Rancho Viejo housing development east of Interstate 15, was last seen alive Feb. 4, 2010. Relatives reported them missing a few days later.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and FBI handled the investigation into the family’s disappearance in the early years with no resolution.

In November 2013, the skeletal remains of the four family members were discovered in shallow graves by a motorcyclist in the Mojave desert. Records show that all four were beaten to death, most likely with a sledgehammer.

At that point, the investigation was taken over by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Investigators contend that Merritt, who designed and built custom fountains for McStay’s business, Earth Inspired Products, was in debt to the tune of $30,000 to Joseph McStay at the time of the murders.

Prosecutors maintain that greed was the basis for Merritt committing the murders.

The jury of eight women, four men and six alternates are hearing the case that is expected to last three to four months and began Jan. 7, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case.

Smith ruled Feb. 14, that the prosecution could include items such as close-up photos of tire tracks they said are from the burial site, internet screenshots about articles regarding the U.S. border with Mexico, references to changing identity and screenshots of Joseph McStay’s contacts and cellphone records.

The ruling was made despite arguments from Merritt’s defense team which had hoped to enter into evidence statements from Dan Kavanaugh that the defense has said points the finger at him, instead of Merritt.

“There are threats that Kavanaugh made against other people that are consistent to what happened to the McStays under the same circumstances,” Merritt’s defense team argued.

“I’ve already ruled that under the circumstances that it’s not relevant,” Smith said. “And I explained the reason for that is that the statements were allegedly made a short time after the bodies were actually discovered in the desert. So, anyone who knew the McStays and knew they had disappeared and knew that three-and-a-half years later where their skeletal remains were found in the desert could say, ‘I know how to make people disappear, you bury them in the desert and they’d never be found or only their bones would be found.”

Also that day, the state called San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department detective Sgt. Dan Hanke.

Hanke testified about trying to obtain surveillance footage from a nearby business and his contact with Ryan Baker of Quickbooks.

No testimony was heard Feb. 15 or Feb. 18 due to the Presidents Day holiday.

When court resumed Tuesday, Feb. 19, the state called Donald Jones, a retired criminalist for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to testify about DNA. His testimony came after press deadline.

The Village News is following the trial in a livestream feed of the court proceedings on the Law & Crime Network at Videos of past testimony and proceedings can be found on Law & Crime Network’s YouTube channel.

Jeff Pack can be reached at


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