LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — A California man charged with murdering a family of four is expected to appear in court on Friday for a pretrial hearing.
According to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Charles “Chase” Merritt has pleaded not guilty to murder charges involving Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, Gianni McStay, 4, and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. McStay.
Members of the McStay family were reported missing in February 2010, authorities in San Diego County reported.
Four days after their disappearance, the family’s vehicle was found abandoned near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Officials initially treated their disappearance as a missing person investigation as there were no signs of forced entry or evidence of a struggle within the family’s home.
In 2013, their remains were found in shallow desert graves near Victorville in San Bernardino County, about 100 miles from their home in Fallbrook.
Authorities said the bodies had been buried with a rusty 3-pound sledgehammer, and a child’s pants and diaper.
The Coroner’s office ruled the cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head. Officials said Gianni suffered at least seven blows in the incident.
Officials executed more than 30 search warrants for taps on personal and business phones along with surveillance and searches of Merritt’s home, his ex-girlfriend’s home and a truck he once used.
Merritt was arrested in connection with the murders in 2014.
According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a preliminary investigation revealed Joseph had lent Merritt money to cover a gambling debt prior to the family’s disappearance.
Merritt reportedly owed over $30,000 to McStay along with more than $20,000 in back taxes.
The district attorney’s office plans to seek the death penalty against Merritt.
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