Accused murderer of McStays prepped for court

Charles Ray Merritt denies killing family of four

The McStays were found in a shallow grave near Victorville.
  • The McStays were found in a shallow grave near Victorville.

Charles Ray Merritt

Charles Ray Merritt

Charles Ray Merritt, now 58, denies killing Joseph McStay, 40, wife Summer McStay, 43, and their two sons, 4-year-old Giovanni, and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. in 2010.

Defendant Merritt and Joseph McStay were partners in a business; McStay reportedly made sales and got the orders for Merritt, who reportedly crafted artistic indoor waterfalls for customers.

During a two-minute-long hearing in the downtown San Bernardino courthouse today, May 15, the defendant told a judge he was ready to defend himself at a preliminary hearing set for next Tuesday, May 19.

Merritt has been acting as his own attorney since January of this year. The prosecutor is charging him with the special circumstances of multiple murders, which makes the case eligible for the death penalty.

The McStay family was declared missing from their home on Avocado Vista Lane in Fallbrook in February of 2010.

The McStay family's home before they were killed

The McStay family's home before they were killed

The McStay family had reportedly moved into their new residence two months prior. Joseph McStay was reported missing by his brother, Michael, who contacted the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which began an investigation.

On February 8, 2010, four days after the family had last contacted loved ones, their white Isuzu Trooper was found abandoned at a parking lot near the international border with Mexico. For years afterward, there was widespread speculation about dark and grainy surveillance video that was released by investigators; this seemed to show two adults with two small children walking across the border into Mexico.

Three years after the mystery began, in April of 2013, the sheriff’s department declared that the McStay family voluntarily disappeared.

Seven months after that declaration, four bodies were found in a shallow grave in the desert near Victorville, California. Reportedly, an off-road motorcyclist found a skull in the sand, possibly exposed by animal activity, on November 11, 2013.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department took over the investigation, and one year later, on November 5, 2014, they arrested Merritt on suspicion of murder.

David Call

David Call

Merritt was first represented by private counsel, for two court appearances, and then he obtained permission to act as his own attorney. However, judge Michael A. Smith has assigned attorney David Call to act as advisory counsel for the defendant, who also has benefit of a professional investigator.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled in Department S1, on the second floor of the downtown San Bernardino courthouse, at 9 a.m. next Tuesday, May 19.

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As I've followed this story, he wanted to be his own attorney because the real attorney was going to take too much time. It seems, he says, that's he's terminal with congestive heart failure (though no reports of medical opinions back that up.) And his desire to move quickly is to clear his name before he dies prematurely. But then, not too long ago he goes into court and complains that he can't be ready for trial and wants more time. His excuse is that he cannot get proper access to the law library and arrange for his defense. (Let's not forget he turned down a free publicly-provided defense attorney.) Gets hard to follow, doesn't it?

Since the San Bernardino County DA is going to go for the death penalty, if he defends himself, his appellate attorney will first claim that he was represented by an incompetent attorney, himself, and that his conviction and sentence must be overturned. In that, there is a good chance of success. Sooo, my take is that he's hoping to never face the needle by extending these proceedings for so long that he dies of old age. Never mind that the California death penalty is now an empty threat.

Even if he is convicted and sentenced to death it takes 5 years just to get an appellate attorney assigned to the case. Death Row inmates number one cause of death is natural causes due to old age or disease. Merritt has a fool for an attorney and he will be convicted. Either way it is life in prison.

The hearing lasted five minutes today, May 19, 2015.
The prosecutor apparently phoned in sick. Defendant Merritt was mistakenly taken to a doctor’s appointment first, and then brought late into San Bernardino Superior court. The defendant then informed the court that he did not have his case file, and so was not prepared to defend himself.
And then a different defense attorney, Jimmy Mettias, was introduced; he may or may not become counsel for the defendant. Judge Michael Smith, looking remarkably composed, commented, “The bottom line is that nobody is actually ready to go, here today.” The judge set the next court date for Friday, May 22, 2015.

Charles Ray Merritt went from defending himself in what could be a death-penalty case to suddenly having a team of three attorneys today, May 22, 2015. In San Bernardino Superior Court this morning, defense attorneys Jimmy Mettias and James Terrell and Sharon Brunner were introduced to judge Michael A. Smith. Responding to a request by defense, the judge officially ordered that Merritt should be allowed to bring his papers or “his files” into court to assist in his defense. Prosecutor Sean Daugherty asked the prelim to be delayed because two of his investigators were not available. At the end of the brief hearing this morning, which lasted less than ten minutes, the judge set the next court date for Friday, June 12, 2015.

In a three-minute hearing this morning, Friday June 12, 2015, all attorneys confirmed they were ready for a preliminary hearing next week. And then defense attorney James Terrell invited the prosecutor to criticize the defense team for revealing details of evidence to certain newspeople -- for example that prosecution is expected to introduce a sledgehammer as the murder weapon. But District Attorney Supervisor Britt Imes declined to take the bait. Judge Michael A. Smith remained composed as always and ordered everybody back on Monday, June 15 2015.

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