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.
I love the show People Magazine Investigates on the Investigation Discovery channel, and the case that aired this week is a difficult one because a 2-year-old child was involved. There are so many unanswered questions about the case and finger pointing that it makes coming up with theories difficult, especially because you want to be sensitive to the parents who are still looking for answers. On the other hand, there are far too many cases like Susan Smith and Casey Anthony (even though she was acquitted of charges) that prove a parent can indeed know something happened to their child and then lie to investigators about it.
Here is what we know. On July 10, 2015, Jessica Mitchell and Vernal DeOrr Kunz took their 2-year-old son DeOrr on a camping trip with Mitchell’s grandfather Robert Walton and a friend of the grandfather, Isaac Reinwand. Then the story gets a little murky. The parents (who were high school sweethearts who had married other people and then divorced and reconnected to have baby DeOrr) said they walked up a trail only a few feet from the campsite. They left DeOrr in the care of the grandfather when they did this. Then Vernal said he saw some minnows in a stream that he thought his son would like to see, and he and Jessica returned to the campsite to get him. The grandfather (who is in poor health and tethered to an oxygen tank) claimed he thought the toddler was with them. From one report I read, the parents were probably gone 20 minutes or so. But that’s more than “a few feet away from the campsite.” There are also discrepancies on how long they waited before they called 911. I think on the episode Jessica said he had been missing for an hour but I can’t be positive on that.
There was a reservoir nearby that was searched but the dive team didn’t find anything. Jessica told police they had been at a nearby gas station that morning and she noticed a man looking at DeOrr in a way that made her uncomfortable. Investigators tracked down the man and determined he had nothing to do with the disappearance. The four people at the campsite couldn’t seem to get their stories straight, either, they all had different recollections of who had cooked breakfast that morning, how long DeOrr had been missing before they called for help, etc. The parents both ended up failing polygraph tests which didn’t help their case. The friend that was with the grandfather had a criminal background (theft, I believe).
I think at first their local community rallied around them, but now that investigators have said none of the four people on the trip can be cleared in the case that support has wavered. Jessica and Vernal are no longer together, and have taken to saying they don’t know if the other had anything to do with DeOrr’s disappearance. Jessica stated that she feels DeOrr was kidnapped by someone that was in the area on that day. It also came out on the “People Magazine Investigates” episode that Jessica had two other children from a previous marriage but had given up custody of them before she had DeOrr. And the fact remains that no trace of him has ever been found and only four people truly know what happened that day.
It is heartbreaking to see the photos of this adorable little boy and know that something tragic likely happened to him, whether it was an accident or not. If it was an accident, I hope that whoever is responsible does the right thing and comes forward so that the extended family can finally get some answers.