A guilty verdict was handed down Monday in the trial of a Southern California man charged with killing a family of four and burying their bodies in the desert.
In a case that puzzled investigators for years after the family members disappeared in 2010, Charles "Chase" Merritt was found guilty on four counts of murder. When the verdict reached Friday was read Monday, Merritt closed his eyes and looked down when the court clerk said the word "guilty" the first of four times to first-degree murder.
Sobs came from the packed courtroom. Someone called out, "Yes!"
Merritt's business associate Joseph McStay, McStay's wife Summer and the couple's 3- and 4-year-old sons vanished from their San Diego County home in 2010. Three years later, their bodies were found in shallow graves more than 100 miles away in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
Merritt was arrested in 2014. Authorities said they traced his cellphone to the gravesite area and to a call seeking to close McStay's online bookkeeping account.
After the hearing outside court before Merritt's family drove off, his sister said twice, "He didn't mean it."
Defense attorneys say the case isn't over yet.
"Our client is innocent," said defense attorney Rajan Maline. "We will fight and continue to fight as long as we have to."
Prosecutors, who said they will seek the death penalty, declined to comment after the verdict, escorting the McStays' relatives from the courthouse.
Merritt allegedly killed the McStays because he was embezzling thousands of dollars from Joseph McStay's custom fountain business, prosecutors said.
The trial included emotional testimony from the mother of Joseph McStay. Susan Blake told jurors about the moment she learned from another son that her family members had been killed.
"Obviously, the hardest thing, my son had to tell me that they found them in the desert," Blake said in court.
Blake also said that Merritt was the first to tell her that no one could contact Joseph McStay following the family's disappearance. She said during the months following the disappearance, Merritt often tried to get money from Joseph McStay's business account to complete jobs.
After the McStay family disappeared, authorities found bowls of uneaten popcorn at their San Diego County home, which had no signs of forced entry, and their car parked at a strip mall near the Mexican border. For years, officials couldn't determine what happened to the McStays. At one point, investigators said they believed the family had gone to Mexico voluntarily, though they couldn't say why.
When their bodies were found in 2013, authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer that they said was used to kill the family.
Authorities said they traced Merritt's cellphone to the area of the desert gravesites in the days after the family disappeared and to a call seeking to close McStay's online bookkeeping account.
Merritt's attorneys said the two men were best friends and investigators overlooked another possible suspect in the killings. Instead, they said, authorities zeroed in on an innocent man, but the evidence didn't add up, noting there were no signs of an attack inside the family's home.
"They tried his character and not the facts of this case," defense attorney James McGee told jurors.
Many questions still remain about the family's disappearance. Prosecutors acknowledge details of the killings aren't entirely clear but say the evidence from the family's car, cellphone towers and financial accounts link Merritt to the killings.
Authorities said McStay was cutting Merritt out of the business in early February and the two met on Feb. 4 in Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt lived at the time.
Prosecutors said financial records show Merritt tried to loot the business bank accounts just before and after the family disappeared and backdated checks to Feb. 4, knowing it was the last day anyone had contact with McStay. Phone records show McStay called Merritt seven times after the Feb. 4 meeting, with defense lawyers arguing that McStay wouldn't likely do that if he had just fired Merritt.