Judge unseals court records on slain California family
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Police investigating a missing persons report found a tall lamp lying on a bedroom floor and open suitcases containing folded clothes in the walk-in closet of a California home, according to court records unsealed Friday in the investigation that eventually led to the discovery of four dead family members in shallow desert graves.
The documents offer the most detailed look yet of the disheveled condition of the family's house in Fallbrook when investigators arrived in February 2010 while searching for Joseph McStay, then 40, his wife Summer, 43, and their two sons, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3.
Police also found two bowls of slightly spilled popcorn on a living room couch and a carton of raw eggs and bowl of microwave popcorn on a kitchen counter.
"In my opinion, a family does not just up and leave under the circumstances described above," San Diego County Sheriff's Detective Troy DuGal wrote while seeking court approval for a more thorough search of the house and phone records.
He said he believed that some or all of the family members had been kidnapped or killed.
Among the dozens of items recovered from the house was an eviction notice from the McStay's previous residence in San Clemente.
The family's disappearance remained a mystery until their remains were found in November 2013 by an off-road vehicle rider near Victorville in the desert northeast of Los Angeles.
Charles "Chase" Merritt, who knew the family through the water-fountain business of Joseph McStay, was arrested last November and pleaded not guilty to murder.
News organizations including The Associated Press asked judges in San Diego and San Bernardino to unseal search warrants in the case.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston Maino unsealed all the warrants obtained by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which oversaw the investigation until turning it over to the FBI in April 2013.
At a brief hearing, the judge dismissed objections of Merritt's attorney, Robert Ponce, who argued that publicity surrounding release of the documents might taint a jury, and that a decision should be delayed until his client could appear personally.
San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith will consider next Friday whether to unseal search warrants obtained by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Those documents, written within a year of Merritt's arrest, are more likely to reveal why investigators decided McStay's former business associate is a suspect.
Sean Daugherty, a San Bernardino County deputy district attorney, didn't object to releasing the San Diego search warrants but has indicated he will oppose unsealing documents from later stages of the investigation in San Bernardino.