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McStay murder mystery: Who is Chase Merritt?

Probation report obtained by CBS News 8 details McStay business partner's criminal background.
McStay murder mystery: Who is Chase Merritt?

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- When skeletal remains of the McStays were discovered last month near Victorville, detectives started taking a closer look at people associated with the Fallbrook family of four.

One of those individuals is Charles Ray Merritt, also known as Chase Merritt, a metal worker and former business partner of Joseph McStay.

Merritt, 56, is a hard man to find. CBS News 8 affiliates checked four different addresses and came up empty. We also left telephone messages and emails with Merritt and his associates, but received no response.

Merritt worked for Joseph McStay's fountain design and manufacturing company in February 2010, when Joseph, his wife Summer, and their two young sons mysteriously went missing from their Fallbrook home.

Days after the McStay bodies were discovered on November 11 by an off-road motorcycle rider in the desert near Victorville, Merritt was interviewed by the online tabloid, Daily Mail, which quoted Merritt as saying:

"I was the last person Joseph saw. He came to Rancho Cucamonga on February 4 to talk to me about a huge business deal we had going on in Saudi Arabia.

We met for an hour-and-a-half for lunch. He was so excited. We had the Saudi Arabian project and a few other things going on. The business had never been so good and we were looking forward to the future. He did nothing to suggest there was anything wrong or untoward.

We both left and went home and I spoke to him on the phone about two or three times on his drive back to Fallbrook, all standard business stuff. The last time I spoke to him was around 6 o'clock."

The last call from Joseph McStay's cell phone reportedly was placed to Chase Merritt's cell phone; a call Merritt claimed he did not answer.

For the past three decades, Merritt has lived in and around Los Angeles and Victorville.

According to public records, Merritt once lived in Apple Valley, Calif., about 12 miles away from the site where the McStay family was found buried in shallow graves.

Merritt also used a mailing address in Oro Grande, Calif., according to a pair of 2011 traffic citations obtained by CBS News 8. The address listed on the traffic tickets is six miles away from the McStay grave sites.

And 35 years ago, Merritt was convicted of burglarizing a house located at 15854 Kewanee in Apple Valley, Calif., just five miles away from the McStay grave sites.

Despite the Victorville connection, Joseph McStay's father, Patrick McStay, told CBS News 8 that he has a hard time believing Merritt had anything to do with the murders.

"What does Chase have to gain with Joey gone? Chase isn't going to get the company," said Patrick McStay. "If you recall, Chase took a lie detector test and he passed."

Merritt claimed in his interview with Daily Mail that he agreed to a polygraph examination at the request of San Diego County Sheriff's Department detectives. He said he had passed the test in the early stages of the 2010 investigation, despite "a couple of inconsistencies."

"Was I a suspect? Well, I don't know if I'm the only one they asked to do a lie detector test, but I am the only one who actually agreed. They were certainly on my case," Merritt said to Daily Mail.

Court records show Merritt is a two-time ex-con with a criminal history that includes burglary, grand theft, petty theft, receiving stolen property, criminal trespass, and several arrest warrants.

The following list of Merritt's criminal cases was contained in a 2001 probation report as well as other court records, obtained by CBS News 8.  The list does not include traffic infractions.

02-04-77Burglary66 days in jail
07-28-77Petty theft60 days in jail
10-24-78Criminal trespass30 days in jail
11-18-78Burglary2 years in prison
04-16-85Receiving stolen property365 days in jail
02-04-87Receiving stolen property16 months in prison
05-21-88Receiving stolen property14 days in jail
06-17-88Parole violation
Grand theft
180 days in jail

Merritt's most recent felony conviction was in 2001, court records showed, when he admitted to stealing $32,000 worth of welding and drilling equipment from San Gabriel Valley Ornamental Iron Works in Monrovia, Calif.

He pleaded guilty to burglary and grand theft charges and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.

Merritt violated probation several times in subsequent years and failed to appear in court on numerous occasions, resulting in his probation period being extended and at least seven warrants being issued for his arrest between 2001 and 2010, the records showed.

His probation from the 2001 felony case ended on Sept. 14, 2010.

Merritt has also received several citations for driving on a suspended license, and appeared in Victorville traffic court as recently as July 2013.

None of Merritt's past crimes are violent in nature, as he pointed out in his interview with Daily Mail.

"Nine out of ten people on this planet have got some kind of criminal background," Merritt said to the tabloid.

"I am an old man. I got into trouble here and there when I was a kid, but I do not have some long criminal history, which is what people have tried to imply," he said.

Merritt has not been named by law enforcement as a suspect in the McStay murders, and Patrick McStay insisted his son trusted Merritt as a business partner.

"I have to have faith in Chase because I have to have faith in my son. I believe that (Joseph McStay) trusted Chase and believed in Chase," Patrick McStay said. "Do I think Chase is involved? I don't think so and I truly hope not."

(CORRECTION: The original version of this report included a drunk driving charge in the criminal history of Chase Merritt.  In fact, Merritt has no conviction for drunk driving.  CBS News 8 regrets the error.)

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