The murder trial of Charles "Chase" Ray Merritt, accused of killing the McStay family, Joseph, Summer and their two young boys who lived in the Lake Rancho Viejo housing development east of Interstate 15 in Fallbrook kicked back into gear Wednesday, April 3, in San Bernardino Superior Court.
Recalled to the stand by the defense was Joseph McStay's brother, Michael McStay, who testified at the beginning of the trial in January at the request of the prosecution.
In January, Michael McStay said that he and Merritt went to his brother's home in the days after the family went missing in 2010 and testified that Merritt didn't want to go into the home because of his criminal record.
Michael McStay could not recall whether Merritt went inside or not.
Another line of questioning centered around when the family's Isuzu Trooper was found in a parking lot in San Ysidro and investigators theorized that the McStays had walked into Mexico.
But during his January testimony, Michael McStay said Summer McStay wouldn't do that with her boys, indicating that she thought it was too dangerous.
"Summer would never take the boys to Mexico," Michael McStay said.
When called to the stand Thursday, April 4, Merritt's defense team asked Michael McStay about a computer he took out of the McStay household after the family went missing and whether that was before or after he was interviewed by San Diego County detectives.
"I took the computer out on the 15th," Michael McStay said. "It would be a Monday, the day of, Dugall (investigator) was there because I asked him would I be in trouble for taking anything. I took the SIM card, I took the external hard drive, and I took the Emachines of which I didn't have the power cord and I couldn't power them up."
"Did you ever see the laptop when you were in the house on the 13th?" the defense asked.
"It might have been in his office, but I paid no interest to it," Michael McStay said.
"Did you have a discussion about a missing laptop with detectives from San Bernardino?" the defense followed.
"I don't know," Michael McStay responded.
The defense team asked Michael McStay whether he purchased a power cord in order to boot up the computer and he said he did not because he had other pressing issues at the time.
Michael McStay agreed with the defense in the explanation that he took the computer to get financial data from it to give to investigators.
"There (were) other things pressing, so I did not get into the computer, at all," Michael McStay said.
Michael McStay said at the time he thought it was a missing persons case and wanted to help the detectives.
"So, I was doing whatever I could for my family," he said.
The defense then came back to why Michael McStay hadn't purchased a power cord if he was trying to help investigators.
"Considering an entire family was missing, so I didn't feel it was urgent as other things, like getting all the pictures extracted, getting them on the website that I had made and generating leads for the detectives," Michael McStay said. "So, ya, I was a little busy, and raising my family, this is all in my other testimony."
The defense team then talked about a loan Joseph McStay had made to Michael McStay.
"Did you go to your brother's home in the beginning February 2010 to talk to him about this loan?" the defense team asked.
"This loan wasn't even on the radar," Michael McStay said. "I have no idea why you're even asking this question. I didn't talk to him about this loan or anything for that."
The defense team then asked about the vehicle Michael McStay drove at the time the family went missing.
"I owned a white Chevrolet 2007 3500 HD," Michael said.
"That is the same exact model as Chase's truck ... ." the defense responded.
"No, it's not," Michael McStay said. "His is a single axle, mine is a double axle. And I had a dually."
The defense team then asked if Michael McStay had ever given detectives his cell phone records.
"I'm pretty sure they could get them if they wanted them," Michael McStay said.
The defense asked about Michael McStay's relationship with Summer McStay and a disagreement July 4, 2009, between the two.
"Like I think I testified, every family has squabbles," Michael McStay said. "The Aranda family's been drug through the mud, so I am going to answer this the best I can. There was a strain, like any friction in a family, between Summer and myself.
"She made a comment to my wife about my children at the time, I let it go. And then finally July 4 when we were running late to the party, I confronted her on it.
"But Summer is the mother of my murdered nephews and I would have done anything for her. No matter what," Michael McStay said.
"You did other things that caused friction with Summer?" the defense asked.
"Did I do it?" Michael McStay answered. "Maybe."
"Do you recall telling the detectives Dugall and Smith in February 2010 that Summer divided your whole family?" the defense asked.
"I believe so," Michael McStay said.
Forensic DNA consultant and Laboratory Director Suzanna Ryan was called by the defense to testify Thursday, April 4.
Ryan used an M-Vac System, which collects DNA from porous and rough items for evidence, to test items collected at the alleged crime scenes and contested some of the findings presented by prosecutors.
"Is it safe to say based off of your processing of the items and the results from the analysis done by (inaudible) that the presence of DNA on some of the items is consistent with the detection of a traditional method done by Don Jones, where he also found some DNA leftover on the (inaudible)?" the defense asked.
"So, while Mr. Jones was not able to get a DNA profile as we discussed," Ryan said. "There were a couple of samples where extremely low levels of DNA were detected. He was using a swabbing method and selecting kind of discreet areas, smaller areas. I was using a method that's more sensitive and testing the entire item. So, it could be consistent that the reason we're getting results with the M-Vac is because it's a more sensitive collection method and I was able to test larger areas."
The McStay family was last seen alive Feb. 4, 2010, and relatives reported them missing a few days later. Detectives thought initially that the family had gone on a trip and would return.
Over the course of the next two years, the case gained national attention with tips coming in from all over the United States and the world.
Then, 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 owned by Joseph McStay.
At that point, the investigation was taken over by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Investigators announced the arrest of Merritt Nov. 7, 2014, and charged him with four counts of murder.
Investigators believe that the McStays were killed at their home and transported by Merritt to the San Bernardino desert.
Prosecutors maintain that greed was the basis for Merritt committing the murders and have stated they will be seeking the death penalty in the case.
Defense attorneys have said that investigators zeroed in on Merritt early on in the case and never looked at anyone else. It is expected that the defense will continue to point the finger at another business associate of Joseph McStay, Daniel Kavanaugh, who the defense said was overlooked by investigators.
Jeff Pack can be reached at [email protected].