The story of the McStay family intrigued me from the time I first heard about their sudden disappearance from their California home to the discovery of their bodies in the desert in the fall of 2013.
By all accounts, Joseph McStay, age 40, and his wife Summer, age 43, were happy and living the American dream. They had recently moved to a home in the suburbs of Fallbrook with their sons Gianni, age 4 and Joseph Jr., age 3, with plans to renovate it. Joseph ran a successful decorative water fountain business and he and Summer doted on their two young children.
In February 2010 Joseph’s father Patrick received an e-mail from one of Joseph’s business partners who was concerned because he hadn’t heard from Joseph. After Joseph’s brother visited the house and saw no signs of the family, Patrick called the local sheriff’s department and asked for them to do a welfare check. The detective who visited the home noticed two dogs in the backyard with a large bag of dog food, and signs that the family may have left the home abruptly. There was evidence of paint cans where Joseph and Summer had been painting along with food on the counter and bowls of popcorn on the couch. Family members were concerned–as Summer loved her dogs and would have never left them unattended in the backyard for days. The last time anyone had heard from the family had been on Feb. 4.
After several days, the sheriff’s department learned that the family’s Isuzu Trooper had been towed from a strip mall in San Diego, not far from the border of Mexico. Video surveillance on Feb. 8 during that time period showed a shadowy family of four making their way across the border checkpoint, but no one could ever confirm if it was the McStays or not. Authorities believed for the first few years that the McStays had traveled to Mexico during that time period and never returned. But the McStays had more than $100,000 in their bank accounts when they disappeared and it was never touched.
In November of 2013, a motorcyclist in the desert found a set of human remains buried in Victorville, Calif. The bodies were later determined to be those of the McStay family, and it was clear they had died violent deaths, including blunt force trauma. Not long after, police arrested Chase Merritt, Joseph’s business associate in the fountain business who had also been the one to notify Patrick McStay of the missing family. Merritt was also the last person known to be in contact with Joseph–they met for lunch the afternoon of the family’s disappearance. He also had borrowed $30,000 from Joseph to cover a gambling debt. Merritt is still awaiting trial, as he keeps firing his counsel and has attempted to represent himself a few different times. He has a criminal background and apparently wrote thousands of dollars worth of check’s from Joseph’s business accounts in the days after the disappearance.
While this all seems shady, I have to wonder what exactly went down. Had Joseph discovered Merritt was embezzling money and confronted him? Or was he about to make the discovery and Merritt tried to head him off? Why kill the whole family? The police didn’t see any signs of violence when they examined the home, although there were fresh coats of paint on the walls where they assumed Joseph and Summer had been painting. But by the time they arrested Merritt in 2014 another family was living in the house and they couldn’t do the usual testing for blood spatter, etc. Too much time had passed. There also wasn’t any blood in the Isuzu Trooper, which Merritt must have driven to the border checkpoint in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigation. His DNA was found in the car, possibly from a skin or sweat transfer, but that could easily be explained away by a criminal defense attorney. Investigators are looking into the idea that Merritt may have had help in committing the crime.
So where did the murder take place? A sledgehammer, most likely the murder weapon, was found in the shallow graves of the bodies. That would cause cast-off that was never found. The bottom line is–the story is heartbreaking. A loving mother and father and two very young children lost their lives over what–money? I’m just hopeful that if Merritt is the one responsible that he is convicted and given the harshest punishment possible for the senseless deaths of the McStay family.
When most people think of Orlando, Fla., they envision theme park resorts, Mickey Mouse, water parks, and a place where people go to seek thrills and adventure. For 24-year-old Jennifer Kesse, Orlando provided a place for her to start off a career as a financial analyst. That’s where she was headed on Jan. 24, 2006, when she disappeared. When she didn’t show up for work, her employer called her family because it was so unlike her normal behavior. When police and family members searched her condo, they could tell she had showered and gotten ready for work per usual, but there was no sign of her car.
Two days later the car was found in a nearby condominium complex. Video surveillance captured the grainy image of a person exiting her car and walking away on foot shortly after parking (the car was left in the lot on the day Jennifer disappeared). Unfortunately, most of the footage of this person was obscured by a tall, black, wrought-iron fence.
At the time of her disappearance, Jennifer’s condominium complex was undergoing a massive renovation, and from what it sounds like, many of the workers on the project were illegal immigrants who didn’t speak a lot of English when questioned. Some theorize the person captured on the surveillance image could have been a painter or other contractor based on the white, non-descript clothing. Jennifer had told friends and family members that she felt uncomfortable having so many workers in the complex where she lived alone, especially when they made comments as she walked by.
In subsequent interviews, Jennifer’s father Drew shared that he feared she had been kidnapped and kept in one of the unoccupied condo units while community members searched for her. No one interviewed remembered seeing her in the parking lot that morning, leaving her family to think something happened to Jennifer before she even made it out of the breezeway outside her condo.
Elementary-school teacher and Tampa-area resident Shaun Gurd has helped the case receive a resurgence of interest the past year with the podcast, “Unconcluded.” Gurd produces episodes of the podcast along with is friend Scott Jamison. (It seems pretty popular with at least 300,000 downloads so far!) I haven’t listened to any episodes yet but hope to in the next week to see if I can learn any other details.
Have you listened to the “Unconcluded” podcast? If not, what are your theories on what happened to Jennifer Kesse?
This is a case that drives home the fact that you can be vulnerable anywhere, even in the early hours of the morning when you’re doing something as innocent as trying to get to work. This case has always bothered me, because when 27-year-old news anchor Jodi Huisentruit disappeared, she wasn’t out partying or returning home from a late night with friends. She had overslept and was in a rush to get to her job at news station KIMT in Mason City, Iowa, where she hosted the early morning show. Jodi was an ambitious reporter who was focused and working hard on advancing her career. Her friends and co-workers described her as vivacious, friendly, motivated and energetic.
On the morning of June 27, 1995, Jodi didn’t show up for her 4 a.m. call, and a co-worker phoned her from the station to check on her. According to the co-worker, Jodi was awakened by the phone and said she would “be right there.” She only lived a few minutes from that station. But based on the evidence that was found a few hours later by police when Jodi didn’t show up for work, she never made it out of the parking lot. Jodi’s car was still there with they key bent in the lock on the driver’s side door. Tools she needed for work (a blow dryer, jewelry, shoes, etc.) were found scattered the ground. Drag marks near the car suggested a struggle, and that Jodi was most likely ambushed while she tried to get in her car. Neighbors later reported they heard screams in the early hours of the morning but no one called the police at that time. Someone else claimed to have seen a white van in the parking lot with its lights on around that same time.
The “Disappeared” episode on this case provided a lot of interesting information. The really eerie thing? Jodi’s employer, KIMT, had to report on their missing anchor, so it hit her co-workers hard. Watching news footage during that time, you can see how shell-shocked they are. Female anchors were also nervous because they were afraid there was a stalker out there who had known what time Jodi left for work each day and would strike again. There was another person of interest brought up during that episode. Jodi had a friend, an older gentleman who had wanted a relationship with her, but she had gently told him she wasn’t interested. He had lavished her with attention and gifts and even threw her a birthday party. After her disappearance, he went to the police and told them he was “the last person to see Jodi alive,” which was kind of bizarre, because no one knew if Jodi was deceased.
In 2011, a female police officer fired from the Mason City Police Department claimed that three members of the department had been personally involved in Jodi’s disappearance and had covered it up. This officer also filed a sexual harassment suit against the department and claimed to have been discriminated against based on her religion. Because she had a contentious relationship with the department, it’s hard to know if there is any truth to her claims, but you do have to wonder if she was fired for knowing too much.
There has never been any closure in this case, and Jodi was declared legally dead in 2001.
I moved to the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C. in late 2003, and in 2007 I saw the original news stories when local resident, 24-year-old Kyle Fleischmann went missing. He has never been found and it’s a case that bothers me every time I think about it, mostly because it could have happened to anyone. How many times did I meet friends at bars when I was in my early 20s and walk in the dark to my car, alone? When you’re that age, you think you’re invincible. This case shows us our vulnerability. And also to be wary of walking alone, especially at night. It also inspired a flash-fiction short story I wrote several years ago.
Kyle is described by his friends and family as fun-loving, happy, and at a good place in his life. He had a nice job and had just moved into a condo in the trendy part of uptown Charlotte. On the night of Nov. 9, 2007, Kyle’s best friend organized an outing to see a Dane Cook concert (I believe his parents were there, too), and then the friends decided to end the evening with a stop at the Buckhead Saloon. I saw one interview where his friend said he saw Kyle talking to an attractive young woman at the bar, and he asked Kyle whether he was staying or leaving. Kyle opted to stay. Based on some reports I’ve read, surveillance footage caught a discussion between the guy the woman was with and a few of his friends. Kyle then exited the bar alone around 2 a.m. He left his jacket and debit card at the Buckhead Saloon, and went out into the cold night wearing only a t-shirt and jeans.
Here’s where the story gets strange. An employee at nearby Fuel Pizza claimed Kyle came in and ordered a few slices of pizza around 2:30 a.m. A little while later, he made calls to his parents, his best friend who was with him at the concert, his sister, and maybe one other person. He didn’t leave messages on any of those calls. He was never seen or heard from again.
When police investigators started searching for Kyle, they tracked his cell phone records. They could tell that when he made all the early-morning calls, he was walking through uptown and into what’s considered a bad part of the city. At some point after that, his phone went dead. Based on an interview with Kyle’s dad, Dick Fleischmann, that ran in Charlotte Magazine, Dick thinks Kyle is dead, and probably died that same night. He believes Kyle may have been intoxicated and tired and wandered into a bad part of town, where someone attempted to rob him. His theory is that Kyle’s body was left in what was then a construction site in that area. If this is what is happened, it is all the more sad because Kyle likely had nothing of value on him. He had left his debit card at the bar, must have used some cash to buy the pizza, but he probably didn’t have much more than a few dollars on him. Because wouldn’t he have used money or another credit card to call a cab?
To learn more, you can visit the Help Find Kyle Fleischmann Facebook page, where his father often posts.