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Man arrested in McStay murders was writing book about case

Chase Merritt, the man recently charged with murdering the McStays, a family of four who disappeared in 2010 and whose remains were found last year in the California desert, was writing a book about the crime he's now accused of committing.

The 57-year-old Merritt planned to release a book later this year titled, "Afraid of the Light," in which he claimed Joseph McStay had been concerned his wife may have been poisoning him in the days prior to the McStay family's disappearance.

McStay, 40, vanished along with his wife, Summer, 43, and their two sons, Gianni, 4, and Joey, 3, from their Fallbrook, Calif. home in February 2010, launching what San Diego sheriff's investigators called their most extensive missing-persons search ever.

At one point, investigators said they believed the family left voluntarily for Mexico. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said they were convinced people seen on a dimly lit surveillance video walking into Tijuana, Mexico were the McStays. That theory was shattered when the family's remains were found last November in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles north of where they lived. The case was transferred to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and an arrest was made last week.

Authorities announced Friday that Merritt, of Homeland, Calif., a sub-contractor who did business with Joseph McStay, was arrested and charged with four counts of murder.

Patrick McStay, Joseph's father, told 48 Hours' Crimesider Monday that he had many phone conversations with Merritt over the years regarding his son's disappearance. Patrick McStay says the last time he spoke with Merritt was in January or February of this year when he called Merritt after reading in the media that Merritt was writing a book.

Patrick McStay says it was in that phone conversation that Merritt asked him to review his book.

"He wanted me to read what he was writing. He proceeded to start reading it to me. He said, 'Why don't we collaborate together and write a book?,'" Patrick McStay said.

According to Patrick McStay, the book put Merritt high on his radar. Patrick McStay says he "played along" in hopes of gathering information on what happened to his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Merritt's name has long been associated with the McStay case. He has publicly claimed to be the last person to see Joseph McStay alive, and has said he was first to notice the family was missing.

Merritt has a criminal history. He was sentenced to a total of more than two years in prison in the 1970s and 1980s for convictions on burglary, receiving stolen property and violating parole, a prison spokesman told the Associated Press.

Court records in Los Angeles County show he was also sentenced for grand theft and burglary in 2001.

When speaking to the Daily Mail in January about the book he was writing, Merritt said he was "extremely close" to Joseph McStay.

Joseph McStay owned a fountain manufacturing business, Earth Inspired Products, and hired Merritt as a sub-contractor.

"I was not his best friend, but he was mine and I believe he opened up to me about things he would not tell anyone else," Merritt is quoted by the paper as saying.

Suspect accused of murdering California family arrested

Merritt also spoke to the Daily Mail in November 2013, shortly after authorities found the remains of the McStay family. In that interview, Merritt reportedly said he submitted to a lie detector test not long after the disappearance and that he passed, despite "a couple of inconsistencies."

Authorities said they could not confirm whether or not he did in fact take a polygraph test.

Patrick McStay says he didn't suspect Merritt at first, but a year or so ago, he says the puzzle pieces started falling into place and Merritt began looking like a more and more viable suspect.

Patrick McStay says it's hard to put into words how he felt when he heard of Merritt's arrest last week.

"I don't know how to describe it. It was shock, but not shock," he told Crimesider.

In announcing the arrest, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said authorities believe the McStays were bludgeoned to death in their home on February 4, 2010.

San Bernardino County sheriff's Sgt. Chris Fisher said there was no "smoking gun" that helped solve the case after so many years. He told the Associated Press the agency re-examined 4,500 pages of evidence handed over by authorities in San Diego County, served 60 search warrants and did 200 interviews. Evidence found at the gravesite also helped, Fisher reportedly said.

Patrick McStay says he's thankful that the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department investigated the case, something he says the San Diego County Sheriff's Department failed to do.

"How many more families like ours are going to have to put up with this; waiting for years because these guys don't do their job?," Patrick McStay says. "It's a rogue sheriff's department in San Diego."

"San Bernardino says that they believe that it all happened in the home. You mean to tell me that they can figure that out and San Diego can't?," he added.

Jan Caldwell, a spokesperson for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, told Crimesider Monday "there was no indication of any sort of foul play" when they took on the case back in 2010. For that reason, she says, it was handled by the department as a missing persons case.

At the time of the family's disappearance, San Diego County sheriff's detectives said it appeared the family had fled at a moment's notice.

Investigators found their dogs with no food or water, eggs rotting on a counter, and bowls full of popcorn in the house. Authorities said there were no signs of forced entry and nothing was missing from the home.

Four days after the family vanished, their white Isuzu Trooper was found at a San Diego shopping mall, just steps from Tijuana, Mexico. A dark surveillance video shows four people walking across the border, supporting the initial belief that the family had gone to Mexico voluntarily.

Jodi Miller, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, would not comment specifically on what led to the conclusion the McStays were killed in their home.

There was "no obvious crime scene," Miller noted, adding that "the investigation in its entirety" led to the conclusion that the family was killed at home.

Miller says the investigation into the case is still open, but they do not anticipate any other arrests.

Officials have not commented on a motive, but Patrick McStay speculates that it must have been money. He says there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered.

He wonders if other people were involved and perhaps most importantly, he wonders; why the children?

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