The McStay Mystery: A Family's Tragic End


A carton of eggs was on the new granite kitchen counter, toys were strewn around the floor near a child-size plastic playhouse, and two tiny colored bowls filled with popcorn sat on a futon nearby. The beloved family dogs — Bear, a protective mixed-breed shepherd, and Digger, an energetic, bouncy puppy — ran loose in the backyard. At first glance it looked like a snapshot of a normal, sometimes chaotic family household — but where was the family? When concerned friends, relatives and police checked the suburban San Diego home of Joseph McStay, his wife, Summer, and their two sons, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, after not hearing from them for days, they found the dogs abandoned, the doors locked and the kitchen smelling of rotting food but no sign of the McStays. “It’s just a void,” says their close friend McGyver McCargar, 48, who last saw the family at their house on Feb. 3, 2010. “They were a loving family trying to live their dream, have a house, raise kids. Now the truth is on its way.”

It has been a long time coming. Having disappeared without a trace on Feb. 4, 2010, the McStay family was tragically discovered after an off-road motorcyclist noticed a skull while riding Nov. 11 through the desert near Victorville, Calif., in San Bernardino County. A 30-hour police excavation uncovered two shallow graves, two bodies in each, all four sets of skeletal remains largely intact. Dental records identified the two bodies that had been bound with electric cord as Joseph, 40, and Summer, 43. DNA testing confirmed the other two bodies as their sons. After years of diminishing hope and wild speculation ranging from a belief that the family had moved to Mexico to theories about drug cartels taking the family, the discovery laid to rest at least one piece of the puzzle. “This starts a whole new round of questions,” says Michael McStay, 40, Joseph’s younger brother, who lives in Orange County and runs a fire-sprinkler business. “Investigators are questioning everybody. And they should be. We need to find the killer.”

At the top of a long list of questions: Why would someone kill this entire family? Joe, an avid surfer and soccer player, ran a home-based decorative-fountain business, and Summer, known to friends as a free spirit, was planning to get back into the real estate business while being a stay-at-home mom to their two sons. “Summer was so protective of her family, and Joe was so loving and such a good dad,” says Melissa Geller, a bridesmaid at the couple’s 2007 wedding who is married to Joe’s best friend Alan. “They loved each other very much.”

For nearly the last four years investigators have been wondering what clues did the McStays hold in their lives and inside their five-bedroom home in Fallbrook, Calif., that could lead to the killer? Det. Troy DuGal of the San Diego sheriff’s department, who was part of the authorities’ initial search of the house, was struck by indications that they did not leave voluntarily. For instance, he found suitcases filled with children’s clothes in the master bedroom and asthma and allergy medicines left behind. “In this case, you look at every possible scenario that may have played out,” DuGal told PEOPLE three months into the investigation, “and none of it makes sense.”

After the McStays’ white Isuzu Trooper was found Feb. 8, 2010, in a San Ysidro, Calif., shopping mall with two toddler-size car seats strapped in the backseat — on the same day a grainy surveillance video showed two adults holding hands with two children crossing into Mexico at the nearby border — investigators thought the family might have left on their own, for their own reasons, to start a new life together. That theory was further bolstered by searches found on the McStays’ computer about securing passports for children and learning Spanish. But something never added up: Why would $100,000 in their bank account remain untouched, their credit cards unused and their cell phones dead? Still, the discovery of the two shallow graves in the desert shocked everyone involved in the case. “Holy hell!” says Tim Miller, a Texas-based investigator brought in by the McStay relatives early in the case. “We all missed this one. The police, me, everyone … we missed it.”

And still the killer evades the authorities. “We haven’t identified any suspects,” says Cindy Bachman of the San Bernardino sheriff’s department, which has taken over the investigation from the San Diego sheriff’s office after the McStay bodies were discovered. Autopsy results, she says, will not be released, “to protect the investigation.”

For now, the list of potential suspects is long. Everyone is being looked at: relatives, employees, business associates and, because of the close proximity of the Mexico border, drug cartels and drug dealers. While there has been no speculation about personal drug use — both McStays were known to be averse to so much as an aspirin — their friend Melissa Geller speculates on the possibility of cartel interest in Joseph’s business. “Maybe the drug cartel wanted him to put drugs in his fountains and he didn’t want to do that,” she says. But she notes that the McStays were hardly rolling in drug money. The family had recently moved out of Orange County because they couldn’t afford the housing prices there. “It’s scary for us,” she says. “There was no forced entry, so did someone come at gunpoint? Did someone drive their car to the border and someone else take them to Victorville? There’s no way it was one person.”

The last person confirmed to have seen and spoken to Joseph — his business associate Chase Merritt, 56 — immediately came under a cloud of suspicion when it was revealed that he had a criminal record and had served a stint in prison for burglary and theft years earlier. “I’m not the most perfect person in the world,” Merritt told The Daily Mail on Nov. 19. “But that doesn’t give people the right to trash me, especially after I have lost my best friend.” The last call ever made from Joseph’s cell was to Merritt, at 8:28 p.m. on Feb. 4., and he said he didn’t answer it because he was watching a movie with his girlfriend, a decision he said he wishes he could take back. After not being able to reach his partner for three or four days, he and the family notified authorities. “I desperately regret,” he said, “that we didn’t tell the police sooner.” Merritt took a lie detector test to convince detectives that he had nothing to do with the disappearance.

The McStays themselves also have an imperfect past. Joseph declared bankruptcy after a failed business and a divorce in 2002 (from his first wife, with whom he had a son, Jonah, now 17). And Summer used several different aliases. In No Goodbyes, a new book about the case, author Rick Baker came away from his interviews with dozens of McStay friends and business associates convinced that the couple were at odds over the purchase and renovation of their $300,000, five-bedroom house. “Summer hated it,” he says. “She didn’t want to live there.” Though he was unable to confirm rumors that Summer had been having an affair, he remains skeptical. “Joey didn’t have any skeletons that I could find,” Baker says.

The couple’s closest friends paint a very different picture. Summer, they say, was thrilled by the family’s recent move to the 3,000-sq.-ft. home with mountain views. “It was a starter home, a foreclosed property,” says McCargar, the friend of Joseph’s who played matchmaker to the pair. “Summer, being a Realtor and knowing the business, was excited.” As for marital strife, Summer’s friends insist it just wasn’t there. “Summer loved Joe from the moment she met him until the very last days,” says her close friend Jesi Silveria, who says she spent hours on the phone with Summer in the days before she vanished. “She was settling in for a new life in a new home with her husband and children; she was making a play space in the backyard for the kids. She was thrilled.” Geller agrees, recalling many fun couples’ nights — among them a dinner at a San Clemente restaurant shortly before they vanished. “We had a really good time,” she says. “Joe kept making us laugh.”

For now, the only thing ready to be laid to rest are the remains of the four McStays. All other aspects of the case are still open — even the possibility that those grainy images on the 2010 border film really were Joseph and Summer — as police and the FBI launch a homicide investigation. In an emotional public memorial on Nov. 20, which would have been Joseph McStay’s 44th birthday, family and friends gathered around four white crosses where their bodies were found in the desert. “You guys are cowards,” Michael McStay said, addressing the elusive killer. “And all of America is coming after you. And we’re going to find you. And we’re going to prosecute you.”

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