Joseph and Summer McStay moved with their two young children, Gianni and Joseph Jr., from San Clemente, CA to Fallbrook, CA in November 2009. Just a few months later, on February 4, 2010, they were visited at their home by Joseph McStay's business partner, Charles "Chase" Merritt. Charles Merritt had a serious gambling problem and was in a dire financial situation, and it's believed that he saw an opportunity to use the funds from the business that him and Joseph McStays were partners in, but that he would have to get rid of Joseph McStay in order to have access to those funds.
Once inside the McStay home, Charles Merritt murdered all four of the McStays with a sledgehammer, then placed their bodies in a vehicle (unknown if it was his own or if he used the McStay's car). Merritt then drove the bodies and the murder weapon out to the desert near Victorville, CA and buried them in shallow graves. He also took the family's vehicle and left it in a parking lot near the Mexican border, likely in an attempt to make investigators think the McStays crossed into Mexico. The car was towed from this location on February 8th.
Over the following days, other members of the McStay family attempted to contact the missing family members, but were unable to make contact. Merritt wrote several checks to himself from the business account totaling more than $20,000, which he then used at various casinos. By February 15th, the family was officially reported missing by Joseph's brother. On February 19th the police were able to secure a search warrant for the McStay home and found no evidence of foul play inside. It appeared that the family had left willingly, with two small bowls of popcorn still sitting on a couch and a carton of eggs left on a kitchen counter.
During the investigation a surveillance video was discovered that seemed to show a family of 4 walking across the border into Mexico, though the video was from far away and only the figures of the individuals could be seen. Although many were hopeful that the family had just ran away and were safe in another country, those hopes would be quashed on November 11, 2013 when the remains of the McStays were discovered in their shallow graves in the desert.
Charles Merritt was arrested on November 4, 2014, almost a year after the discovery of the bodies. The trial was delayed several times, mainly due to Merritt firing multiple lawyers and attempting to represent himself in the case. The trial finally began on January 7, 2019 and Charles Merritt maintained his innocence throughout. On June 10, 2019 Charles Merritt was found guilty of murdering all four members of the McStay family and sentenced to death.
A memorial was created for the McStay family in the desert where their bodies were found. It consists of four white crosses.