SAN BERNARDINO (CBSLA/AP) — A San Bernardino County judge has sentenced a 62-year-old man to the death penalty for murdering a Northern San Diego County family of four about a decade ago and burying their bodies in shallow graves near Victorville.

FILE — Charles Merritt was found guilty June 10, 2019, in a San Bernardino courtroom in the murder of the McStay family of four. (CBS2)

San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith Tuesday afternoon upheld a jury’s recommendation that Charles “Chase” Merritt be sentenced to death.

Last June, a jury found Merritt guilty of murdering the McStay couple and their two young sons. Merritt was a business associate of the father, 40-year-old Joseph McStay.

In an emotional statement delivered after his sentencing, Merritt continued to maintain his innocence, lashing out at prosecutors and witnesses he said framed him and the judge he claimed allowed it to happen.

“I loved Joseph,” he said. “He was a big part of my life and my family’s life. I would never have hurt him in any way. I would have never raised my hand for a woman or child. I did not do this thing.”

The family of four vanished suddenly in February 2010 from the Fallbrook home, with bowls of popcorn left uneaten in their house and no sign an attacker forced their way inside.

In November 2013, their bodies were found by an off-road motorcyclist about 100 miles away, in shallow desert graves in a desert area just north of Victorville in San Bernardino County. Along with the bodies was a rusty sledgehammer.

Merritt was arrested in November of 2014.

An undated photo of the McStay family. (credit: mcstayfamily.org)

Authorities say Merritt killed the family with a sledgehammer after Joseph McStay tried to cut him out of a business making and selling custom water fountains.

Prosecutors argued that evidence from the family’s car, financial accounts and cellphone towers linked Merritt to the deaths of Joseph McStay, his wife, 43-year-old Summer McStay, and the couple’s sons, 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr.

The San Bernardino County coroner’s office ruled the causes of death to be blunt force trauma to the head. Officials said Gianni suffered at least seven blows in the incident.

After the McStays disappeared from their home in San Diego County, investigators couldn’t immediately determine what had happened. Their car was found parked at a strip mall near the Mexican border, and at one point, investigators said they believed the family had gone to Mexico.

Merritt’s attorneys said Merritt and Joseph were best friends and investigators overlooked another possible suspect. They said the evidence doesn’t add up, noting there were no signs of an attack inside the family’s house.

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.

Authorities said they traced Merritt’s cellphone to the area of the desert gravesites in the days after the family disappeared and to a call seeking to close McStay’s online bookkeeping account. They also said Merritt referred to McStay in the past tense in an interview with investigators after the family vanished.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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