McStay family murder

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Missing persons flier of the McStay family

The McStay family is an American family found murdered in the desert outside of Victorville, California on November 13, 2013. The family disappeared from their Fallbrook, California home on February 4, 2010.[1][2] The disappearance of the family was widely reported on national news stations as well as featured on America's Most Wanted, Disappeared, and Nancy Grace.[2] The investigation into their deaths is ongoing.


Forty year old Joseph McStay and his wife, Summer, 43, lived in Fallbrook, California with their two sons: Gianni, 4, and Joseph, 3.[3] Joseph ran a company building decorative fountains, while Summer was a stay-at-home-mom.[4]


On February 4, 2010, a neighbor's surveillance system captured the McStay family driving away from their home at 7:47pm. The occupants of the vehicle cannot be seen.[5] At approximately 8:30pm, a call was placed from Joseph McStay's cell phone to the phone of his business partner, Chase Merritt. The phone call went to voicemail and Merritt told police he ignored the call because he was watching a movie. Joseph's cellphone pings off of a tower in Fallbrook.[6]

For the next few days, family and friends unsuccessfully attempted to contact the family. On February 13, Joseph's brother, Mike McStay, climbed into an open window at the McStay residence. He did not find his brother's family, but the family's two dogs were abandoned in the back yard. Police are called on February 15 to report their disappearance. A search conducted in the family's home found no evidence of a struggle or foul play, but some indications of a hasty departure, including a carton of raw eggs on the counter and two full bowls of popcorn on the sofa.[2][7]

During their investigation, police discover that on February 8, the family's 1996 Isuzu Trooper was towed from a strip mall parking lot in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, near the Mexican border. It is believed that the vehicle was parked there between 5:30pm and 7pm that evening. At 11pm, security guards assumed the vehicle to be abandoned. It is unknown where the vehicle was between the 4th and 8th.[8][9]

Reaction to the disappearance[edit]

The mysterious circumstances of their disappearance and the lack of clues spurred wild speculations about the McStay family and inspired many to turn to amateur sleuthing to solve the case. Radio host Rick Baker published a book about the case entitled No Goodbyes: The Mysterious Disappearance of the McStay Family[10] Baker began following the case in 2011 following an interview on his program with Joseph's brother Michael. He subsequently conducted dozens of interviews on the case and traveled to Belize, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and several other countries following leads and reported sightings of the family. Baker was very critical of Summer in his book and speculates that Summer may have murdered her husband. Michael McStay criticized Baker and the accuracy of his book, saying: "I don't know how he sleeps at night. I suspect he's looking for money. He's a good manipulator and knows how to twist things. He's just trying to sell books."[11]

After the family's bodies were found, Baker stated that he does not believe drug cartels were responsible for the deaths, citing the placement of the McStay's vehicle following their disappearance. "Why would they stage their car at the border, cartels don’t do that." The involvement of the McStay's with Mexican drug cartels was one of the many theories raised following their disappearance. No evidence has been found to support the theory.[11]

Following the disappearance, there was widespread speculation that the family left voluntarily. Investigators found searches for the phrase "What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?" and searches for Spanish language lessons.[12] Because of the proximity of the parking lot in which their vehicle was found to the Mexican border, police reviewed surveillance footage of the pedestrian gate into Mexico. Video taken on the evening of February 8 showed a family of four, possibly resembling the McStay family, crossing the border into Mexico; the video footage was released on March 5. On February 19, 2010, California police notified Interpol to be on the lookout for the family.[2] In April 2013, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced that they believed the family traveled to Mexico voluntarily.[13] A number of unconfirmed sightings of the family were reported in Mexico and other countries, keeping hope alive that the family was safe and left on their own volition.[11] Relatives of the McStays disagreed that they would travel to Mexico, noting that Joseph and Summer had stayed away because of the safety threat from recent drug wars.[12] Critics of the theory noted that the McStays had over $100,000 in their bank accounts with no sign of withdrawing any funds in preparation for a trip. Their accounts went untouched following their disappearance. Summer's sister also pointed out that Summer's passport was expired.[14] Entry into Mexico without a passport is possible, but a passport is required for returning to the United States.[11]

The mystery deepened when rumors spread that despite having a substantial amount of money in their bank accounts, the McStays had been having financial difficulties in the months before the disappearance. A former neighbor told The Daily Mail UK that the family was on the verge of eviction just prior to purchasing their current $230,000 home in Fallbrook. Investigators and family members deny that there is any evidence of financial problems.[15]

It was also uncovered that Summer had gone by a variety of names before Summer McStay. She was born Virginia Lisa Aranda, but at other times went by Summer Martelli, Summer Aranda-Martelli, Lisa Aranda, Lisa Martelli and Lisa Aranda-Martelli. Summer's mother confirmed that Martelli was a surname that Summer invented herself. She also shaved 10 years off her age, claiming to be much younger than she was. The name changes were widely discussed as a piece of evidence that could possibly be relevant in the case, but family members insist that it was simply a part of McStay's eccentric personality.[16][17]

Investigators and the public often focused their suspicion on McStay's business partner, Chase Merritt. Merritt was the last known person to have any contact with Joseph McStay and was the first to notice his disappearance. Merritt has felony convictions for burglary and receiving stolen property, according to state records. His most recent felony conviction was in 2001, when he was convicted of stealing $32,000 worth of welding and drilling equipment from San Gabriel Valley Ornamental Iron Works in Monrovia, California. An acquaintance of Merritt's told a San Diego reporter, "I think police should look at him and anyone associated with him."[17][18]

Merritt denies any involvement and insists that he has taken a polygraph. When asked if he believes Merritt has any involvement, Joseph McStay's father Patrick said: "I have to have faith in Chase because I have to have faith in my son. I believe that (Joseph McStay) trusted Chase and believed in Chase. Do I think Chase is involved? I don't think so and I truly hope not."[18]

In January 2014, Merritt announced that he had penned a book about the family in which he alleges Summer had anger issues and that Joseph had been sick for some time with a mysterious illness and feared Summer was poisoning him. Merritt states that he doesn't believe Summer was responsible for their deaths.[19]

Joseph McStay's family confirmed that Joseph did suffer from some type of unexplained illness, and Summer was possessive of her husband, but they assert the accusations are completely unfounded. Joseph's father, Patrick stated: "I truly believe she loved my son."[20]

In a 2013 local news report, the McStay family named Vick W. Johansen, Summer's ex-boyfriend, as a person police should investigate. They believe email records show a pattern of obsession with Summer McStay by Johansen in the years after their relationship ended. The McStays also point to the ex-boyfriend's criminal history of making violent threats, felony vandalism, disturbing the peace, interfering with a business, and resisting a peace officer. According to the family, his pattern of movement around the time of the disappearance is suspicious. San Diego Police Department have no comment on Vick W. Johansen in the news report and defend their work in the case.[21]

Discovery of the remains[edit]

On November 11, 2013, a biker found human remains of four people in the desert of northern Victorville, California. The four bodies had been buried in two separate shallow graves. On November 13, the remains were positively identified as those of the entire McStay family.[2][4] The deaths have been ruled a homicide but the cause of death has not been released because the investigation is ongoing.[22]

In the days after the discovery of the bodies, the father of Joseph McStay said the police investigation had been faulty, and that he had made formal complaints about the investigation in 2011.[23]


  1. ^ "How the McStay case unfolded". U-T San Diego. November 15, 2013. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Timeline: McStay Family Mystery". NBC 7 San Diego. November 16, 2013. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  3. ^ Ramsey, Debbie (February 25, 2010). "Authorities distribute "endangered missing" flier pertaining to missing McStay family". Fallbrook Bonsall Village News. 
  4. ^ a b Rojas, Rick (November 15, 2013). "Buried bodies identified as members of missing McStay family". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 
  5. ^ Figueroa, Teri (November 15, 2013). "How the McStay case unfolded". San Diego Union Tribune. 
  6. ^ Linthicum, Kate (November 20, 2013). "Man last phoned by McStay father says he took polygraph test". Los Angeles times. 
  7. ^ Falcon, Gabriel (January 26, 2013). "Three years later, no sign of missing". Cnn. 
  8. ^ Kraft, Scott (May 30, 2011). "Where did the McStays go?". Los Angeles Times. 
  9. ^ Stickney, R. (November 16, 2013). "Timeline: McStay Family MysteryWhere did the McStays go?". NBC San Diego. 
  10. ^ Baker, Rick (February 4, 2013). No Goodbyes: The Mysterious Disappearance of the McStay Family. Tate Publishing. ISBN 1625104219. 
  11. ^ a b c d Boyle, Louise (November 16, 2013). "Drug cartel assassins did NOT murder the McStays, claims author who spent years on case of family after they vanished with two young sons in 2010". Daily Mail UK. 
  12. ^ a b Rojas, Rick (November 15, 2013). "After discovery, mystery of McStay family's disappearance deepens". Los Angeles Times. 
  13. ^ Spagat, Elliot (April 9, 2013). "Investigators say Missing McStay family left voluntarily". Huffington Post. 
  14. ^ Martinez, Edecio (April 2, 2010). "McStay Family Update: FBI Joins Search for Missing Family". CBS News. 
  15. ^ Payne, Will (November 13, 2013). "Mystery of the McStay family money: Missing couple found dead in a shallow grave with their children could 'barely afford' cheap rent months before vanishing with $100k in the bank". The Daily Mail UK. 
  16. ^ Ramsey, Debbie (March 25, 2010). "Mothers of McStays determined to find family". The Valley News. 
  17. ^ a b "Search for Missing Fallbrook family continues". CBS8. February 22, 2010. 
  18. ^ a b Gotfredson, David (December 17, 2013). "McStay family Mystery: Who is Chase Merritt". CBS8. 
  19. ^ Payne, Will (January 4, 2014). "McStay family husband feared his wife was POISONING him before they disappeared and were found dead in desert, claims explosive new book". Daily Mail UK. 
  20. ^ Allyn, Richard (January 7, 2014). "Backlash over book's new theory on McStay murders". CBS8. 
  21. ^ "McStay murder mystery: Who is Vick Johansen?". CBS 8 San Diego. December 19, 2013. 
  22. ^ Rojas, Rick (November 15, 2013). "McStay family slayings: Bodies found, questions remain". Los Angeles Times. 
  23. ^ "Father of Joseph McStay calls California investigation of missing family 'botched’ and ‘inept’". Daily News. New York. Retrieved December 1, 2013. 

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