SAN BERNARDINO (CBS/AP) — A California man has been ordered to stand trial for murder in the killing of his business partner, his partner’s wife and their two young sons, whose remains were found in shallow desert graves more than three years after they disappeared.
San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael A Smith ruled Monday there is sufficient evidence for 58-year-old Charles “Chase” Merritt to stand trial.
Merritt has pleaded not guilty.
The ruling came after a preliminary hearing where prosecutors called witnesses who testified that Merritt cashed checks written from Joseph McStay’s business account after McStay and his family vanished in 2010.
Witnesses say those checks were backdated to the last day the family was seen.
Witnesses also detailed how the victims’ fractured skulls were found in 2013 in two shallow desert gravesites about 100 miles from their San Diego County home.
Merritt was flanked by his lawyers as he entered the courtroom Monday for his long-awaited preliminary hearing.
Prosecutors opened their case with graphic detail about the desert gravesites where the McStays’ remains were found.
Sheriff’s investigators said they also found part of a cup, a section of an extension cord, clothing, a child’s blanket and what police believe is the murder weapon — a sledgehammer.
The coroner could not determine a cause of death, but based on the state of the remains it appeared the family was bludgeoned to death.
Detectives said they interviewed Merritt because of his business relationship with Joseph McStay.
During one of the conversations, the detective testified: “Merritt frequently used the past tense … During one of our interviews he said ‘was’ on several occasions when referring to the McStays … ”
As for evidence, the prosecution presented cell phone records that showed Merritt was in the area of the graves around the time of the McStays’ disappearances back in February of 2010.
They also tried to show a suspicious pattern of cell activity, noting that Merritt turned his phone off for long periods around the time the family went missing.
Moments after the hearing, McStay’s mother, Susan Blake, spoke out about the ruling, revealing she was overwhelmed.
“It’s just been a really hard day for me. It’s not happy … It’s just a lot to take in. All the information that we’ve heard but now we’re going for justice. And then we’ll get justice upstairs. But it was just too much to take in,” Blake said.
Merritt’s lawyer, Jimmy Mettias, said he “fully expected” the outcome.
“This wasn’t a surprise to us today in terms of what the result would be. Again, we knew that the burden of proof for the D.A. is still very low. And we still believe that they didn’t even meet that burden … we believe that the evidence wasn’t anywhere near where it needs to be to hold a man to answer for four murders,” Mettias said.
Merritt is scheduled to be arraigned next week.
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