‘Two Shallow Graves’: Everything You Need to Know About the McStay Family Murders

Investigation Discovery aired a docuseries focused on the McStay family murders in late May. Two Shallow Graves is a seven-part docu-series that delves into the details of the case. The premiere episode covers the family’s disappearance. The series covered the discovery of their bodies, the investigation, and the arrest of Joseph McStay’s business partner, Charles “Chase” Merrit in subsequent episodes. The series suggests there could be more to the story and looks into alternate theories in its final episodes. True-crime aficionados agree that there could be more to the story. 

Who were the McStay family? 

The McStay family was a typical family of four until they disappeared from their California home in 2010. The bodies of Joseph McStay, Summer McStay, Gianni McStay, and Joseph McStay Jr., were located in a desert near Victorville, California, three years later.

Before their disappearance, the family had purchased a home in Fallbrook, California. They were in the process of renovating the property in 2010. Joseph owned a custom water feature company. Summer worked as a real estate agent. The couple shared two children, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3. Joseph had an older son, Jonah McStay, from a previous marriage. 

The McStay family’s strange disappearance

The McStay family last had contact with anyone on February 4, 2010. Family members called the couple for more than a week before they became alarmed. By February 13, Joseph McStay’s brother, Michael McStay, went to the family’s house but found no one home. They had left their beloved dogs in the backyard. On February 15, he reported the family missing.

Family and friends gather at the site where Victor Valley News Group installed four crosses in the memory of the McStay family
Cross in memory of the McStay Family | Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Police issued a search warrant immediately. Investigators noted that the family appeared to have left their Fallbrook, California home in a hurry. They had left food, including eggs, on the counter. According to investigators, it appeared as though something urgent had pulled them away. There were no signs of a struggle. Further investigation revealed that police had towed the family’s Isuzu Trooper from a parking lot close to the Mexico border days before Michael filed a missing person report.

What made the McStay family’s disappearance so complicated was the time between the disappearance and the missing person report. 11 days elapsed between the last contact with the family and the filing of a report. A neighbor’s security camera captured the last known footage of the family alive on February 4, 2010. Cell phone calls, the car’s location, and other discoveries pulled the attention of investigators in the wrong direction.  

A jury convicted Charles “Chase” Merritt of the murders

Almost exactly one year after police discovered the McStay family’s graves were found, they arrested Chase Merritt, Joseph’s business associate, for the murders. The trial began in 2019. During the proceedings, the prosecution argued that Merritt had a gambling addiction and killed the McStays to gain access to their money. 

The prosecution also pointed to a cell phone ping that placed Merritt near a cell tower that serviced the area where police discovered the bodies. The state pursued the death penalty. A jury found Merritt guilty in June 2019. According to prison records, he is sentenced to death at San Quentin State Prison. 

Chase Merritt wasn’t on the radar of online sleuths initially 

The family’s disappearance grabbed the interest of several sleuthing forums in 2010, with multiple theories being considered. In the years before the family’s remains were located, some online sleuths theorized that the McStay family had left the country willingly. Others wondered if one family member had taken off with the children after killing the other. Very few online sleuths expected that police would find the family buried in the desert.

Investigation Discovery’s docuseries, Two Shallow Graves, has reignited the conversation around the very strange and very complicated disappearance and murder. While Merritt was convicted of the murders, after watching the docuseries, some Reddit users theorize that Merritt, may not be responsible.

Two Shallow Graves aired on Investigation Discovery on May 22, May 23, and May 24. The seven-part series is also available for streaming on Hulu and discovery+. Multiple true-crime podcasts have covered the murders, too. 

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