The Lunch Meeting

DDA Britt Imes makes a strange assertion in closing statements, which he repeats when interviewed for the Two Shallow Graves documentary. Imes bizzarely claims that there is no proof that Chase Merritt and Joseph McStay met for lunch on February 4th, 2010.

This suggestion is in contradiction to the state’s own narrative and the state’s interpretation of the cellular phone data.

The proof that Chase and Joseph met for lunch the Thursday prior to the McStay’s disappearance is in the very cellular phone data prosecutors relied on for every other major assertion they made. And in where Chase’s DNA is discovered in the McStay Trooper.

Cellular data that prosecutors assert debunks Chase’s alibi the evening of February 4th, that they are certain places Chase at the graves on February 6 and that they explain shows Chase traveling back from the San Ysidro border on Monday the 8th, somehow becomes unreliable when these same exact phone records either support Chase’s claim of innocence or his claim that he had lunch with Joseph McStay at Chick fil-a in Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday, Feb. 4 2010 .

And, though there are questions as to the reliability of investigator’s interpretation of phone data on this case, prosecutors never questioned the validity of this data before closing statements at trial.

So, why does Imes suddenly question the validity of the phone records in closing statements?

The only reason I can think why Imes would question the occurrence of that Thursday lunch meeting-a meeting never in dispute before (and as mentioned, an intrinsic part of the state’s narrative for years)-is that in doing so, Imes is attempting to negate a very reasonable defense theory, the theory that Chase’s DNA got inside the McStay Trooper by way of transfer.

Transfer DNA is when touch DNA (skin cells) is left on an object not by the person whose DNA is later identified, but by another person who either had direct contact with the person in question or with an object that, the person touched at some point in time–the agent of transfer lifting the skin cells on their hands and then depositing cells that are not their own on a surface. There is, by the way, a great deal of science to support transfer DNA as a regular phenomenon.

Chase’s DNA in the McStay Trooper was found only in trace amounts. And it was found only at a few isolated locations in the McStay Trooper. Locations consistent with DNA being transferred from Joseph McStay after Joseph had contact with Chase.

Very small traces of Chase’s DNA was discovered from a swab of the right side of the steering wheel and a combined swab that was taken from controls and the gear shift. If Chase’s DNA got to these locations indirectly, as in, Joseph transferred them after that lunch meeting, then nothing ties Chase to the moving of the Trooper to the San Ysidro border where it is eventually towed and later retrieved by San Diego investigators. (And it was testified to by DNA expert Suzanna Ryan that anyone driving the Trooper the distance from McStay residence to the San Ysidro border–over an hour, would likely have left a lot more than trace DNA behind. And again, it is important to note that Chase’s DNA was found as a minor and trace contributor. Not a major contributor, as Joseph’s DNA was found to be.)

Someone driving the Trooper that distance would likely have left touch DNA all over the vehicle, and as the last person to drive that vehicle would likely have been a major contributor to the DNA found. Skin cells, which touch DNA is derived from, are often left because of friction with an object. Chase’s DNA in trace amounts was left in locations more suggestive of Joseph having contact with Chase or something Chase touched first, followed by Joseph entering his vehicle and touching the controls and steering wheel–important to note as well, Chase’s DNA was not found on the outside, driver-side door handle of the Trooper. It was as if Jospeh and Chase shook hands at the end of the meeting (right hands), Joseph opened the car door with his left and and touched the steering wheel and controls with his right hand–the same hand that had just come in contact with Chase’s hand. There you go, as Defense Attorney McGee pointed out, this theory that Chase’s DNA was transferred by Joseph to the interior of the Trooper is much more consistent with the evidence, than the theory that Chase drove the Trooper anywhere.

In review:

Chase told investigators about this Feb 4 lunch meeting with Joseph during an interview with Detective Dugal on February 17, 2010–12 days after the McStays went missing–and way before Chase could have known what the cell tower data and DNA testing would reveal. (Cell tower data for Chase and DNA testing was not performed until years later, after the bodies were discovered in the Victorville desert.)

Four years later, after the arrest of Chase in 2014, investigators and prosecutors contended that it was at this lunch meeting that Joseph fired Chase, and this firing is what incites the murders. And though cellular phone records don’t prove what was discussed at the lunch meeting, they do very much support Chase’s claim that a lunch meeting occurred.

On February 4, at around noon, cellular phone records track Joseph McStay departing from Fallbrook and arriving to Rancho Cucamonga near 1 PM. Joseph is on his phone enough during this journey to ping cell towers all the way north on I-15. The connections to cellular towers for both men places them in the vicinity of a the Chick Fila on Foothill Blvd. in Rancho Cucamonga–the fast food joint Chase told investigators in 2010, that he and Joseph had met at for lunch. There is no phone activity that places either man at any other location, at this time.

At around 3 PM, Joseph McStay’s phone connects with towers consistent with him traveling back to Fallbrook, phoning Chase 3 more times in route. And it would appear Joseph arrives home just a little after 4 PM. Computer forensics have Joseph signing onto his computer and opening a program called sketch-up-which is software that can be used to design structures, like large water features or fountains. At this time Joseph calls Chase. This is also in keeping with what Chase told investigators in 2010–that there was a question about a fountain that required an answer from Joseph once he was able to get back onto his computer at home.

Based on the cellular data, where else would Joseph have been between 1 and 3? Where else would Chase have been?

Further to this, this weird debunking of the lunch meeting, places the state’s entire theory of the crime in question: The state has always asserted that it is at this lunch meeting that Joseph fires Chase. If these two men did not meet, then when and where did this firing occur? During which brief phone call that day does Joseph fire Chase? Because all of the phone calls between the two on that day were very brief.

So brief that all Joseph would have had time to do is yell into the phone, “You’re fired” and nothing more.

And Joseph was rarely off of his phone during the day. The obvious explanation for Joseph’s two hour break in phone calls that day, is that Joseph paused his phone calls with clients to have lunch with Chase. Chase has a very similar “dark” period for his phone usage during this time.

Imes also introduces in closing, again for the very first time, the possibility that Joseph instead of meeting Chase for lunch, drove to meet Chase at a storage facility they shared in another city. It’s clear that what Imes is suggesting is that it is at this storage unit where Chase kills Joseph.

But there is no cellular data to support this. No eye witness. Nothing. This suggestion is beyond conjecture, it’s completely made up. This would also not explain the cellular data that shows by way of his phone connecting to towers, Joseph driving back to Fallbrook, while calling Chase (who pings at towers consistent with his being home in Rancho Cuchamonga).

And then there is the issue of the computer activity just at the time Joseph connects with towers consistent with him being home. Who other than Joseph would sign onto his computer, open Sketch-up–a program specific to his work with Chase, and then immediately phone Chase?

The inference Imes clearly is after, is that after Chase killed Joseph at the storage locker he drove Joseph’s vehicle back to Fallbrook, killing Summer and the children at this time, however how could Chase have entered the McStay home, used the computer immediately upon arrival without Summer noticing, not to mention signing into Joseph’s computer and opening a computer program there is no evidence that he had personal familiarity with?

Even more bizarre, Imes suggested in closing (again for the first time ever) that Joseph may have driven the Dodge Ram truck rather than the Isuzu Trooper to that meeting (if there was a meeting).

Wait. What?

Another clear attempt to negate transfer-DNA as a possible explanation for the trace amounts of Chase’s DNA found in the Trooper. But there is no evidence of Joseph driving the Dodge, either. And the state never suggested this before trial. And the neighbor across the street had a surveillance camera-there is surveillance footage that could determine this.

The neighbor’s surveillance camera was still working during the day on Thursday the 4th (this camera would stop working at some time on the 5th and not work again until the 15th) It would not have been difficult to look at the surveillance footage and determine which vehicle of the McStays departed the cul de sac near noon. And yet, Imes never produces surveillance footage to support his new theory.

The fact that the child car seats were later discovered in the Trooper when it was retrieved from the San Ysidro border parking lot, is what Imes points to as support for this brand new theory. A theory never suggested before, but one he is (once again!!) suddenly taken with in closing arguments.

Imes states in closing that Joseph would not have left Summer with a vehicle absent child seats, and because the Trooper is eventually found with these seats in it, this indicates that Joseph must have taken the Dodge, not the Trooper to that lunch meeting (a meeting Imes can’t make up his mind even occurred).

But the carseats could have been transferred from the Dodge to the Trooper after Joseph returns that Thursday afternoon. In fact, this transfer of the car seats might support a theory put forward by both the defense and the prosecution: that the McStays were alive until Friday morning.

Perhaps that Friday morning, in preparation for a day trip, Summer or Joseph transferred the carseats early that morning. Rain was expected and the truck did not have a covered bed, and toys are found in that back cargo area Trooper–it is unknown when those toys were placed in the Trooper.

There is always the possibility that a trip was made to the storage unit where the McStays had the bulk of their things stored, and toys were retrieved the morning of the 5th. Maybe Joseph drove with his boys to give Summer a chance to finish her house painting–her project for that week.

Or the killers could have transferred the carseats. Who knows?

But in suggesting that the Dodge, rather than the Trooper was used by Joseph on the 4th, Imes ignores the DNA evidence discovered in the Trooper. Though no DNA swabs were taken from the Dodge Ram, results from swabs taken from the Trooper showed Summer’s DNA only in trace amounts. Summer was documented shopping Thursday afternoon, the 4th. She had, to have driven to the Ross store she shopped at. If she had been left in Fallbrook with the Trooper, why doesn’t her DNA show up in greater quantities in the Trooper? Photos taken of Summer driving the children around, at this time, also, all depict Summer driving the Dodge.

And further proof that Chase and Joseph met for lunch, and that Joseph drove the Trooper to this meeting, is in the very places Chase’s touch DNA shows up in that Trooper. The DNA shows up on the steering wheel. And it shows up as a profile in a mixed sample from a swab taken from controls for radio and air and the gear shift. But that was a combined swab, so it is impossible to know which area Chase’s DNA was located.

These areas of the Trooper are completely in keeping with Joseph having just shaken Chase’s hand in farewell, because that DNA does not show up on the driver side door-likely opened with Joseph’s left hand–his right hand touching the right side of the steering wheel and perhaps adjusting the air conditioning. But the hand shake is also something Imes, clearly wanted the jury to doubt-because a hand shake doesn’t jibe with the states theory that Joseph fired Chase that day. A hand shake indicates a friendly parting, business as usual. Not a hostile firing following accusations of theft.

And evidence that supports that Chase did not steal any money from Joseph and was not fired that day was in what Joseph never does: Joseph doesn’t change the password to his QuickBooks account. Joseph does phone his bank that morning, but does not place a stop payment on any checks or alert the bank to fraud. If Joseph fired Chase for theft by way of fraudulent check writing, why would he call Chase on his way home and not the bank? Joseph doesn’t phone his father or a friend to share his ordeal of either contemplating firing a trusted employee, or having just done so. Joseph does not phone authorities. He also does not make contact with an alternate welder. (He and Chase had at least three major water features, due for shipment in just a few weeks.) If Chase is off the job, Joseph would have needed someone to finish the work.

Imes also misrepresents another fact established at trial, that was surprising in how blatantly wrong his claim was. Imes claimed during trial and in closing that Chase’s DNA did not appear on the passenger side of the Trooper. But wait a minute! DNA analyst, Suzanna Ryan, testified at trial that she did locate Chase’s DNA, from swabs taken off the passenger side door.

Suzanna testified to this under oath, on the stand. Was Imes asleep? The obvious reason Imes wanted this misconception to sink in, is that it negates Chase’s claim that the last time he’d been in the Trooper, he’d been a passenger.

If changing of story, or claims made that cannot be proven is what investigators look for to establish whether someone is lying, then what are we to infer from the ever changing narratives put forward by DDA Imes? Because it is hard to imagine that the prosecutor sitting first chair, doesn’t know these essential elements of his case, backwards and forwards. And Imes doesn’t just keep changing the narrative at trial, he has altered his version of events on three different broadcasts about this case on national television.

How then do we rely on him?

And once the lunch meeting is negated, then where is the motive?

The state’s contention before was that being fired at that lunch infuriates Chase so much that a few hours after he impulsively turns off his phone, gets into his truck and drives from Rancho to Fallbrook, where he bludgeons four people in record speed.

Then just as speedily departs with the entire brutalized family packaged away in his truck (which had no blood in it anywhere when tested). But inexplicably returns nine minutes later to the McStay residence to write a check, he could easily have drafted form another, safer location. And this is where Imes becomes inventive once again. He claims Chase drove down the street, and parked and walked back to the McStay residence? (Because, of course, there is no video of a vehicle returning to the McStay home nine minutes after the “truck” caught on surveillance departed. There is no footage of a vehicle returning to the McStay home that night, or anyone walking there. And why would they?)

To add even more conjecture to this theory, according to prosecutors and investigators in the documentary, after Chase is supposed to have driven down the street, walked back to the McStay residence he then writes a check he does not print,Chase then uses Joseph’s phone to make a fake phone call to himself.

Even if you speculate that Chase did this to give the impression that the family was still alive, he could have simply made a phone call from his truck as he departed, he doesn’t have to return to the home to do this.

Also ignored in this fantasy of Imes is that the McStays lived in a cul de sac, in a very quiet residential neighborhood. I would suggest that a stranger randomly walking on that block would stand out more than a vehicle passing through.

And this notion that the killer parked and returned to the McStay residence, nine minutes after departing, is nothing more than a fantasy. In actuality it casts major doubt that the vehicle captured on the Mitchley surveillance video has anything to do with this crime. There are mundane, ordinary signs of life in the McStay home well after the departure of that vehicle, pointing to the family being alive and well until at least that time.

And the cherry on top of this fiction spun from nonsense is that, according to prosecutors, after all this whirlwind activity, Chase doesn’t immediately find a location to bury the bodies. He keeps his four victims in the cargo of his truck for two days, until he finally drives to the Victorville area at noon–not midnight, not in the early hours of dawn—but noon!, and there, in view of all the Saturday traffic on I-15, and in a location off road riders frequented, he digs two graves and buries four people–all while on the phone with his partner and daughter.

Are you kidding me?!!!