SAN BERNARDINO (AP) — Days after the disappearance of Joseph McStay and his family in 2010, his business partner called McStay one of his best friends — but oddly spoke of him in the past tense, California investigators testified Monday.

It would take more than three years for authorities to find two shallow desert graves containing fractured skulls, a child’s pants and diaper, a rusty, three pound sledgehammer and the remains of a man with an electric cord tied around his neck.

The remains were identified as those of McStay, his wife and two young sons.

The details emerged during a preliminary hearing in San Bernardino County to determine if 58-year-old Charles “Chase” Merritt must stand trial on murder charges after being arrested last year and pleading not guilty to killing all four family members,

Prosecutors have not explained how or why they suspect Merritt carried out the killings.

Instead prosecutors called a law enforcement witness who said Merritt’s DNA was a contributor to samples taken from the steering wheel and gear shift of one of the family’s cars after it was impounded near the U.S. border with Mexico.

During an interview two days after a missing person report was filed for the family, Merritt caught investigators’ attention when he used past tense to describe McStay, San Diego County sheriff’s Detective Troy DuGal testified.

“There were also times when he used present tense but he frequently used past tense,” DuGal said, adding that his partner challenged Merritt about his word choice and Merritt disregarded it.

In an earlier interview, Merritt’s lawyer, Jimmy Mettias, said he expected prosecutors would allege his client used a sledgehammer to kill the McStays after a business dispute and covered up his tracks by painting the family’s house and burying his victims and the weapon in the desert.

The McStay family vanished in February 2010, puzzling investigators who said there were no signs of forced entry at the home and the couple’s credit cards and tens of thousands of dollars in bank accounts were untouched.

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In 2013, the remains of McStay, 40; his wife, Summer, 43; 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. were found in San Bernardino County 100 miles from their home in the San Diego County community of Fallbrook.

All were found to have been killed by blunt force trauma to the head, with Gianni suffering at least seven blows, San Bernardino County sheriff’s Detective Edward Bachman testified.

None of the victims were wearing shoes. A woven blanket wrapped around the elder McStay’s skeletal remains appeared similar to a futon cover that was missing from the home after the family vanished, said Joseph Steers, another detective from San Bernardino County.

At the family’s two-story home, there were towel racks but hardly any towels, he said. Investigators also found blue painters’ tape on the wall and a paint tray as the McStays had recently been repainting the house, Steers said.

At the gravesites, paint was found on the sledgehammer and running sideways along a brassiere belonging to Summer McStay. Steers said that meant she was likely painting while lying on her side, or incapacitated as a drip fell.

Mettias said earlier that nothing on the sledgehammer could be traced to Merritt, and questioned prosecutors’ ability to link his client to the crimes. He said he expected prosecutors would say Merritt took money from McStay’s business that builds indoor water features, leading to a confrontation between the men.

“We have serious issues with the state of the evidence,” Mettias said. “I could see where they chose, OK, we’re going to go with this guy, but nothing that is going to prove his guilt.”

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