California man declared guilty of killing family of 4 found in desert

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In this Jan. 7, 2019, file photo, murder defendant Charles Ray Merritt sits in San Bernardino County Court prior to opening statements in San Bernardino, California. (Will Lester/The Orange County Register via AP, Pool, File)
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In this Nov. 20, 2013, file photo, residents of Victorville, California, and surrounding communities place crosses near the graves where the McStay family was found in. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via AP, File)
Updated 11 June 2019

California man declared guilty of killing family of 4 found in desert

  • Prosecutors said the accused killed the family with a sledgehammer after being fired from his work
  • In 2013, the victims' bodies were found accidentally in shallow graves in the desert by an off-road motorcyclist

SAN BERNARDINO, California: A Southern California man was convicted Monday of bludgeoning a couple and their two little boys to death, then burying their bodies in a remote desert area where the crime remained hidden until an off-roader stumbled across skeletal remains.
After a trial that spanned more than four months and depended largely on circumstantial evidence, jurors in San Bernardino found 62-year-old Charles “Chase” Merritt guilty of the first-degree murders of business associate Joseph McStay, McStay’s wife, Summer, and the couple’s 3- and 4-year-old sons.
Merritt closed his eyes and looked down when the court clerk said the word “guilty” the first of four times. Sobs came from the packed courtroom. Someone called out, “Yes!“
Prosecutors said Merritt killed the family with a sledgehammer at a time when he owed McStay money and was being cut out of the victim’s business making and selling custom water fountains.
The jury also found the special circumstance of multiple murders.
The judge scheduled the penalty phase to begin Tuesday. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict, and families on both sides left without speaking to reporters.
The McStay family vanished in 2010.
Authorities found bowls of uneaten popcorn at their San Diego County home, which had no signs of forced entry, and their car parked at a strip mall near the Mexico border.
For years, officials couldn’t determine what happened to the McStays. At one point, investigators said they believed the family had gone to Mexico voluntarily, though they couldn’t say why.
In 2013, their bodies were found in shallow graves in the desert after an off-road motorcyclist discovered skeletal remains in the area. Authorities also unearthed a rusty sledgehammer that they said was used to kill the family.
“It was blow, after blow, after blow to a child’s skull,” prosecutor Britt Imes said during closing arguments.
Merritt, who worked with McStay in his water features business, was arrested in 2014.
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.
Merritt referred to McStay in the past tense in an interview with investigators after the family vanished, and while the evidence linking him to the killings is largely circumstantial, it is “overwhelmingly convincing,” Imes said.
Merritt’s attorneys said the two men were best friends and investigators overlooked another possible suspect in the killings. Instead, they said, authorities zeroed in on an innocent man, but the evidence didn’t add up, noting there were no signs of an attack inside the family’s home.
“They tried his character and not the facts of this case,” defense attorney James McGee told jurors.
Many questions still remain about the family’s disappearance. Prosecutors acknowledge details of the killings aren’t entirely clear but say the evidence from the family’s car, cellphone towers and financial accounts link Merritt to the killings.
Authorities said McStay was cutting Merritt out of the business in early February and the two met on Feb. 4 in Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt lived at the time.
Prosecutors say financial records show Merritt tried to loot the business bank accounts just before and after the family disappeared and backdated checks to Feb. 4, knowing it was the last day anyone had contact with McStay.
Phone records show McStay called Merritt seven times after the Feb. 4 meeting, with defense lawyers arguing that McStay wouldn’t likely do that if he had just fired Merritt.


Leading Hong Kong activists charged for Tiananmen vigil gathering

Updated 35 min ago

Leading Hong Kong activists charged for Tiananmen vigil gathering

  • Hong Kongers defied a ban on rallies to mark the June 4 anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown
  • China’s leaders have rejected calls to give Hong Kongers universal suffrage

HONG KONG: Thirteen prominent Hong Kong democracy activists appeared in court on Monday charged with holding an unauthorized gathering to mark the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the latest in a string of prosecutions against protest leaders in the restless financial hub.
Last month tens of thousands of Hong Kongers defied a ban on rallies to mark the June 4 anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown against students pushing for democracy.
The annual vigil has been held in Hong Kong for the last three decades and usually attracts huge crowds. It has taken on particular significance in recent years as the semi-autonomous city chafes under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
This year’s vigil was banned for the first time with authorities citing coronavirus measures. At the time local transmission had largely been halted.
But thousands turned out to hold candles in their neighborhoods and in Victoria Park, the traditional site of the vigil.
Police later arrested 13 leading activists who appeared at the Victoria Park vigil.
All appeared in court on Monday to be formally charged with “inciting” an unlawful assembly, which carries up to five years in jail.
Among them are Jimmy Lai, the millionaire owner of the openly pro-democracy Apple newspaper, veteran democracy activists such as Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho as well as young campaigner Figo Chan.
When asked if he understood the charge, Lee invoked the hundreds who were killed by Chinese tanks and soldiers at Tiananmen.
“This is political persecution,” he said. “The real incitement is the massacre conducted by the Chinese Communist Party 31 years ago.”
Some of those charged on Monday — and many other leading democracy figures — face separate prosecutions related to last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.
China’s leaders have rejected calls to give Hong Kongers universal suffrage and portrayed the protests as a plot by foreigners to destabilize the motherland.
Earlier this month Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law aimed at stamping out the protests once and for all.
The law targets subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion, with sentences including life in prison.
But its broad phrasing — such as a ban on encouraging hatred toward China’s government — has sent fear rippling through a city used to being able to speak its mind.
Police have arrested people for possessing pro-independence or autonomy material, libraries and schools have pulled books, political parties have disbanded and one prominent opposition politician has fled.
The law bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature and its contents were kept secret until the moment it was enacted.
It empowered China’s security apparatus to set up shop openly in Hong Kong for the first time, while Beijing has also claimed jurisdiction for some serious national security cases — ending the legal firewall between the mainland the city’s independent judiciary.
China has also announced global jurisdiction to pursue national security crimes committed by anyone outside of Hong Kong and China, including foreigners.