The murder of the McStay family; A case against Charles “Chase” Merritt

Criminal Justice

The murder of the McStay family; A case against Charles “Chase” Merritt


In 2010, a family, the McStay, was reported to have disappeared from San Bernadino country where they stayed. The case drew global attention due to the mysterious nature of the disappearance. Over time, the discoveries in the case led to arrest of Charles “Chase” Merritt who was later convicted for four counts of murder against the McStay family. This paper aimed to present the details of the case – its historical context and theoretical underpinnings, and to analyse the media’s coverage and involvement as well as possible influence on the outcomes. The theoretical basis for the case is offered under the mass murder theory with self-interest being the motive of Merritt. The theory also links Merritt’s personal traits to the offender characteristics typical in mass murder. On media coverage, the mysterious nature of the case cause the initial coverage to extend globally while new discoveries and the arrest of the suspect were also covered significantly. The popularization of the case by the media therefore could have had an influence on the conviction of Merritt.


This paper aims to offer a perspective on the media coverage and possible effects on the murder case of the McStay family. The paper will also describe the crime and set a theoretical analysis for it. In the modern societal context, the media has continued to play a significant role in public information and influencing opinion regarding criminal cases. The findings of a study on media reporting of crimes against children by Berry et. al., (2012) for example showed that in crimes against children, the media had a tendency to selectively report some key cases and this reporting shaped public opinion. The study also showed the potential misinformation that the reporting had on different stakeholders. Beale (2006) also found that in reporting crime in the U.S., the media, through aspects such as priming and agenda setting, could influence the public, legislators and other parties and eventually the criminal justice processes and policies. The murder of the McStay family has been covered extensively by U.S. media and this paper seeks to assess the effect of the media’s involvement and coverage on case outcomes.

A description of the crime in its historical setting

In 2010, Joseph McStay and his family – two children, Gianna and Joey Jr and the wife Summer McStay – were reported to have disappeared from their home in San Bernardino county. Part of the details as per an article by Stickney (2013) indicate that Joseph McStay, after February 4th, 2010, stopped picking up his cellphone a behavior that alarmed his family. The family is then reported to have alerted the sheriff’s department and an investigation was set up. Preliminary findings by the police, according to Stickney (2013), did not have sufficient evidence to conclude an occurrence of a crime, Rather, it was reported that evidence in the house such as a bowl of unfinished cereal, vegetables left out to rot and a search on the family computer regarding documents required for children to travel to Mexico suggested the family may have left in a hurry (Kraft, 2011). In the period of their disappearance, year 2010, investigators found that family car at the Mexico boarder and upon investigating the footage it was presumed possible that the family left for Mexico (Friedman, 2010).

In 2013, in the month of April as reported by Stickney (2013), investigators ruled that the McStay family left voluntarily however, in the month of November, a motorcycle rider found a skull in Mojave desert and further inquiry eventually showed the skull was part of the shallow grave the McStays had been buried in (Friedman, 2010).

On November 2014, due to evidence found, Charles “Chase” Merritt was arrested in connection to the murder of the McStay family. The apparent reason reported for the arrest was the motive that Merritt had for killing the family which was the shared business he had with Joseph McStay, the presence of his DNA in the McStay family car found in Mexico and fraudulent money transactions from McStay to Merritt days after the family disappeared (McMillan, 2015; Flynn, 2019).

Need a paper like this one? Order here –

The case against Merritt began in later 2014 and was concluded in June 2019 with the ruling that he committed several counts of first-degree murder. The evidence presented by the prosecutors as reported by Gerber (2019) and Flynn (2019) implicated Merritt on account that he had self-interest as he had owed McStay 42,000 dollars from business dealings, he had around the burial graves at the time of their disappearance and the fact that in interviews with a tabloid and CNN he had referred to McStay in part past tense while also having admitted to have been the last person who saw McStay. According to Flynn (2019), this prosecution is about a business relationship that had fallen apart since the prosecution presented email evidence that McStay had written an email to Merritt asking for 42,000 dollars he had owned after failing a business deal they had. Eventually, Merritt killed McStay in self-interest since he was about to be laid off from the company. Additionally, Flynn (2019) reports that McStay’s wife and two children were killed as a cover up by Merritt since they were witnesses to the murder of Joseph McStay.

A theoretical analysis of the crime event

The murder of the McStay family can be analysed using the mass murder theory of crime. Fox and Levin (2003) defines mass murder as an incidence where an individual murders four or more people in the same instance. This definition distinguished mass murder from serial killing or massacres. The motivations for mass murder include “revenge, power, loyalty, terror, and profit” (Fox and Levin, 2003, p.56). In addition to these motivators, Bowers, Holmes and Rhom (2010) also describes mass murder as a being a culmination of different things including frustrations and disappointments.  This means that an individual is likely to commit such murder when the have led a life of being disappointed or frustrated by situations. The situations in context includes social relationships since Mullen (2004) notes a situation where a person could kill as a result of pursuing a social agenda which arises from the specific social situation surrounding the individual.

A typical mass murderer, based on Bowers, Holmes and Rhom’s (2010) review of offer characteristics, is likely to be male, middle-aged and also with a tendency to externalize blame. The dominance of male perpetrators had been based on their likelihood to suffer catastrophic losses such as from unfavorable situations such as divorce or unemployment. The likelihood of the perpetrators to also be middle-aged or in their forth decade as described by Bowers, Holmes and Rhom (2010) is derived from the fact that it could take a long time to accumulate the frustration that leads to mass murder. Lastly, the externalization of blame is described as when such individuals hold other accountable for their  losses hence blaming co-workers, spounses or society in general (Bowers, Holmes and Rhom, 2010).

The murder of the McStay family can be categorised as a mass murder. The offender, Merritt, as reports from new articles by Stickney (2013), Gerber (2019) and Flynn (2019) show acted in self-interest due to the assertions by the prosecutors that he killed the McStay’s due to a business dealing gone wrong. In addition, Charles “Chase” Merritt was convicted while aged 62 which suggests that he committed the murder at age 52. This age fits the profile that Bowers, Holmes and Rhom (2010) gives – middle age – for most mass murders. Also, while Merritt did not confess to the motive of murder, the evidence as reported indicated a form of revenge over a business deal.

A description of media involvement and coverage of the case from investigation to disposition

Berry et. al., (2012) explains that the media can focus on key cases that arouse public interest. In addition, Beale (2006) also noted that the media reports often based on topics that the audience could be interest in. The case of the McStay family was reported extensively as it drew interest in the form of a family that mysteriously disappeared. Some headlines included ‘Did Missing McStay Family Cross into Mexico?’ by Friedman (2010), ‘Where did the McStays go?’ by Kraft (2011), ‘Timeline: McStay Family Mystery’ by Stickney (2013) and ‘‘They just vanished’: A business partner murdered a family of four with a sledgehammer, jury finds’ by Flynn (2019).

Need a paper like this one? Order here –

While most article reported the incidence from year 2010-2011, the story was picked up in year 2014 again due to its high profile and the discovery of the bodies in the desert. This coverage continued throughout the trial  and conviction with reporters such Tchekmedyian (2019) likening the courtroom proceedings to an episode of Law and Order, a popular TV show. The news generated from the case have drawn attention of international media and even resulted in a book about the case and documentaries. The coverage was thus extensive, thorough and some articles such as the one by Stickney (2013) offered a timeline of all activities around the disappearance up to arrest of Merritt.

A perspective concerning the media effect on case outcomes

It is likely that the media influenced the decision to convict Merritt for the murder of the McStay family. One major reason is the media’s coverage of the case which in turn made it a point of focus for different stakeholders globally. As described by Tchekmedyian (2019), the case had drawn attention enough to be made into a book and have documentaries set around it. These effects were in addition to the first coverage in year 2010 and 2011 that had brought attention to case to the extent that global audiences were following the events as the unfolded (Flynn, 2019). For instance, in year 2015, the San Bernardino county sheriff had to defend his investigative style in the case to the media after accusations that he had not done enough to find the family (Ojeda, 2015). This may not have been a publicized attribute of the case had it not been a very high-profile issue.

The emotions and interest created by the case could have influenced the outcomes. The defense lawyer for Merritt is quoted saying to the jurors that “They tried his character, and not the facts of this case. … They want you to focus on hatred and emotion” (Tchekmedyian, 2019, n.p.). This is evidence that the media’s coverage had built emotions around the case for different parties involved.


Beale, S. S. (2006). The news media’s influence on criminal justice policy: How market-driven news promotes punitiveness. Wm. & Mary L. Rev., 48, 397.

Berry, M., Philo, G., Tiripelli, G., Docherty, S., & Macpherson, C. (2012). Media coverage and public understanding of sentencing policy in relation to crimes against children. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 12(5), 567-591.

Bowers, T. G., Holmes, E. S., & Rhom, A. (2010). The nature of mass murder and autogenic massacre. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 25(2), 59-66.

Flynn, M. (2019). ‘They just vanished’: A business partner murdered a family of four with a sledgehammer, jury finds. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (2003). Mass murder: An analysis of extreme violence. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 5(1), 47-64.

Friedman, E. (2010). Did Missing McStay Family Cross Into Mexico?. [online] ABC News. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Gerber, M. (2019). Nine years after the McStay family disappeared, their accused killer heads to trial. [online] Los Angeles Times. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Kraft, S. (2011). Where did the McStays go?. [online] Los Angeles Times. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

McMillan, R. (2015). McStay family murder: 4-year-old was struck 7 times on head. [online] ABC7 Los Angeles. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Mullen, P. E. (2004). The autogenic (self‐generated) massacre. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 22(3), 311-323.

Ojeda, A. (2015). SD County Sheriff Defends Investigators on McStay Case. [online] NBC 7 San Diego. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Stickney, R. (2013). Timeline: McStay Family Mystery. [online] NBC 7 San Diego. Available at:–232068061.html [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Tchekmedyian, A. (2019). McStay murder trial: Man is convicted of killing family and burying their bodies in the Mojave Desert. [online] Los Angeles Times. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Need a paper like this one? Order here –

Leave your thought here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *