WARNING: I try not to be graphic but this topic is nearly impossible to discuss without some graphic details given of the horror of what happened to this family. If this is upsetting to you, please do not read.

The picture above is how the McStay home looked the first time it was entered 11 days after it was thought they disappeared.  

All too often the prosecutor’s narrative is accepted as fact. But when an investigation goes off course, can the narrative derived from it be relied on? Perhaps it is time to explore other narratives. Those that may fit better with the evidence. All things considered, I do think it much more likely that the McStays were abducted during the day on Friday, February 5th, then Thursday night, the 4th. And amazingly, prosecutors agree.

It was, in deed, speculated to at trial that the McStay family did not as previously thought, disappear the night of February 4th, but instead were actually alive, and well, all the way into the morning hours of Friday, February 5th, 2010. This theory was not only suggested by the defense in opening statements, but was suggested also by the prosecution, both during trial and in the prosecution’s closing arguments.

At the 34:10 point in the above video DA Daugherty asks Beasley:


“Well, let me ask you this. Let’s assume that the family was murdered either the night of February 4th or the early hours of February 5th, if a person between 7AM and 10:15 was unaccounted for, that would be three hours and fifteen minutes that they could potentially clean up. Right?”

What if this family was alive until Friday morning?

And not only that, what if their disappearance was not a single continuous act of rage and murder, but instead was a staggered event, comprised of a number of acts that were decided on over time?

What if this crime began with no intention of murder?

For the record, both Joseph and Summer McStay were often off their digital devices. The absence of a digital footprint for the morning of February 5, in no way cancels out the possibility that the McStays were very much alive at that time. Also, the neighbor’s surveillance camera failed to record any events between Friday Feb. 5 all the way to Feb. 15-if it had been on, it might have recorded not only the killers arriving to the home, but other activity by the McStays prior to their lives being so horrifically interrupted.

The public never had access to Summer’s phone records, so her call patterns aren’t known, but we have had access to Joseph’s. It was not that unusual for Joseph to be off his phone until late morning- sometimes as late as 11. This family was also known to go completely off the grid from time to time, communicating with no one–which is the reason why friends and family were not immediately alarmed when after a week went by and no one had heard from them. This also explains why the first persons to report the family missing were Dan Kavanaugh and Chase Merritt, business associates of Joseph’s. Those in business with Joseph knew that he had deadlines that were being missed.

Friday Morning Signs of Life:

The scene at the McStay home when first entered into, 11 days after their vanishing was something of a clean-mess. The entire home was not as tidy as it would be later depicted in photos published in the news. The photographs published early on around this case were taken after surviving McStay family members and friends had cleaned and tidied the home. And if you look at the only shot taken of the kitchen, and read the reports of what was found in the home, the downstairs, open floor, kitchen/living room, was more in keeping with morning activity than evening.

There were plates with remainders of half-eaten food on them, just left out. Coffee and an open carton of eggs was on the counter. The dogs were outside. And the kitchen floor showed all indications of a paint project for the kitchen island and shelves, freshly started for that day. However, there was only one coffee cup on the table. Both McStay parents drank coffee. They owned both a coffee maker and espresso machine. So where was the second cup? Perhaps in the Trooper?

There was a travel mug and a glass bottle of water in the drink holders of the Trooper-only Joseph McStay’s DNA was on those containers. (Which is unusual for the DNA results on this case. Most of the DNA found was a mix, with more than one family member in that mix.) Could the travel mug and glass bottle have been just cleaned, Joseph touching these items after a morning shower and prior to a great deal of physical contact with his sons?

Why would that coffee mug be in the Trooper at night? Phone records show that Joseph entered his home just after arriving back home from his meeting with Chase, the afternoon of the 4th. Computer and phone records also reveal that Joseph worked at his computer all that afternoon and into the evening. If he drank coffee that late in the day, why not bring the mug inside? And with all Joseph’s health issues at that time would he really want to leave a mug that he would likely use the next day, out in his vehicle? It just seems more likely that he would have brought that mug in at the end of the day. So if the mug is in the Trooper, it seems more than likely that it was placed there in the morning. Same with the water bottle, which he appears to have regularly refilled.

And, in addition to the above, though the McStay home was in the kind of disarray one would expect during major renovations, the family was hygienic. Shoes were not worn inside. It would seem unlikely that Joseph would leave his beverage containers overnight in his vehicle to sour. This is another indicator that the family was alive until morning. Joseph would likely have brought his beverage containers inside at the end of the day for cleaning. The placement of the two different coffee containers, one in the home and one in a vehicle, this alone seems to point to the family alive the morning of the 5th, with one parent remaining at home, as the other ran morning errands.

And maybe that is exactly what occurred that Friday morning. Joseph took the toddlers with him to run errands. The toddler car seats had to have been moved from the Dodge to the Trooper after Thursday afternoon. This also seems to indicate life as usual in the McStay residence that Friday morning.

Side note [ The day before, Thursday February 4th, Joseph drove the Trooper to Rancho Cucamonga, leaving Summer alone with the children and the Dodge-the vehicle she is most often captured in, in photos taken at this time. There were reports of Summer shopping that Thursday. It seems unlikely that she would leave the children alone at home while she shopped, or that she would have taken them with her, absent car seats. A quick glance inside the Dodge showed items strewn about. Perhaps these items had come from Trooper to make room for the child seats – items hastily transferred to the backseat of the Dodge from the Trooper that could be dealt with later.]

When found, the Trooper had carseats in the back, as if the children had been in them. Also inside the Trooper was Joseph’s soccer uniform. It was discussed at trial that Friday evenings were Joseph’s soccer games. And though this next, like everything else written here, is conjecture, it seems unlikely that this uniform would have been left unwashed in the Trooper from the week before.

More likely it had been washed and placed in the back seat that Friday in hopes that the rain scheduled for the afternoon would abate by evening and Joseph would be able to make his game. A pair of socks was found beneath Joseph’s body when he was disinterred from the grave. Joseph was rarely photographed with socks on-he usually wore some manner of flip-flop. Could the socks found underneath him have been those he would have used for the shoes he wore when playing soccer?

Rain was expected later in the day that Friday. It would make sense if there were items to be transported that needed protection from the elements, say, toys retrieved from a storage unit, that the Trooper would be preferable to the Dodge which had no cover over the bed of the truck.

And like the socks, there were items both found in the graves and completely missing that would seem in keeping with life-as-usual the morning of the 5th. Items that if the family was abducted alive, might be seen as useful distraction for two anxious toddlers.

The “toys” Joseph and Summer gave their children for road trips seem particularly telling. Found in the graves was “dinosaur excavation” kit that Gianni was known to play with. There are pictures of him playing with this, pursuing his excavation finds even as his parents shopped for a new home.

Missing from the home was a portable child’s computer. (There is a photo-see above- of Joseph Jr. playing with a small child’s computer in the back passenger side carseat of the Dodge truck, taken not long before the murders. There is nothing in any search warrant inventory for a child’s computer.) Also missing were children’s caps with dinosaur logos, perfect for protection from the rain-unlike the knit hats left behind.

It seems very possible these items were with the children when they were abducted. Or at least in the Trooper at that time, and that they end up in the graves seems to indicate that they were kept for the children, up until the end. (Important to note, there is no precise evidence of when the family was buried in the Victorville desert. Photographs recovered by the defense, taken by a plane on February 12, 2010, that the county uses for general surveillance of the area show the graves. But even those photos are not conclusive. All that can be determined by this is that the graves were there by the 12th.)

Another indication that there was morning activity is that found in the Trooper was Joseph’s EIP checkbook.

Would Joseph McStay have left his checkbook in his vehicle all night? There was no need for him to bring this checkbook to his meeting with Chase Merritt, as the checks he gave to Chase were computer checks, not from a checkbook.

There is no indication that the checkbook was used by the killers.

The presence of this checkbook in the Trooper seems more consistent with day activity and with an intention to write a check to someone.

What purpose would the checkbook serve unless Joseph McStay were planning on making a payment away from home? At the time of his murder, Joseph was paying vendors etc, increasingly by way of his computer. Not by hand drafted checks.

Found in the Trooper in the rear cargo area when it was discovered at a San Ysidro border parking lot, was an abundance of new toys, hidden beneath a white cloth. Probably cloaked to keep the toys out of sight of a birthday boy and his older brother. Joseph Jr.s’ 3rd birthday had been the week before, however no party had yet occurred. There’d been plans, but deadlines for work to be done on the house appear to have delayed this event.

Another reason to surmise that the toys were retrieved that Friday morning is that no one at trial recalled seeing those toys in the Trooper earlier that week. And Joseph drove the Trooper to meetings, he also drove it to get paint supplies with a friend who was assisting the family in getting the inside of the house painted.

It seems very possible that the errand that needed to be run that Friday morning was to the storage unit that housed two moving pods. These PODS were storage for all the furniture and possessions moved out of the McStay’s previous residence, a cramped two bedroom apartment in San Clemente, and would soon be moved into the new Avocado Lane residence.

That week of the family’s disappearance also marked the first week of February. Perhaps Joseph, a tad late on a storage payment, planned to write a check for that month’s rent-he might have figured he could make the payment in person, as he’d be there to retrieve toys anyway.

Though no check was presented at trial showing payment made to the Pod storage company on that day, it is possible the check was dated for the first, only not yet sent. There is one check not accounted for from that book when compared to bank statements presented at trial. (On a side note: those pods were never retrieved by the McStay or the Aranda families.)

In his pockets when disinterred, Joseph had two keys that went to padlocks typically used for a storage units. One was on a small key chain, the other was loose in his pocket. It’s not a stretch to assume the padlock key on the chain was for the storage unit Joseph shared with Chase located near Anza. Could the loose key have been for the temporary storage pods that would only be in place until enough work was completed on the new home that the possessions within could be moved into the new home?

We’ll never know. Investigators never checked to see if the keys were for the same padlock or two different padlocks. They could still do this.

The Initial Attack

If Joseph McStay bundled his toddlers into the Trooper to retrieve toys from storage, then Summer would have been home alone that morning. Perhaps this errand was also intended to afford Summer the opportunity to make progress with her indoor home painting.

There is a lot to indicate that Summer was attacked at home, and that she may well have been attacked separately from the other victims. At least at the start of this nightmare. How she was attacked is unknown, but she may very well have opened the door to whoever did this. With all the contractors the family was dealing with, even a stranger at the door may not have seemed like too much of a surprise.

It is interesting that Summer is the only victim with paint on her. And that paint was on her sweats and her bra. The paint on her bra dripped in pudgy fingers from the left side of her bosom to the right in an uninterrupted flow. An FBI expert at trial found that the paint on Summer’s bra was consistent with the paint used for the kitchen cabinets.

In addition to the paint found on Summer’s clothing, her sweat pants have staining, near to the crotch that spreads down between her legs that seems consistent with where urination would accumulate if someone were to urinate while wearing the sweats. And those stains, like the paint bleed on the bra are consistent with the same physical position. It’s as if, at some point that morning Summer was restrained, her hands tied behind her back, and positioned on her right side.

The paint on the bra spread from left to right, as if gravity were pulling it as Summer lay in a right lateral recumbent position. And the spread of what truly seems as if it was urine, also accumulates in places on the sweats consistent with that same right lateral position. The manner in which the paint dried on Summer’s bra could not have happened that way had Summer been prone, supine or sitting up. And it seems unlikely that it would have dripped this way if she was already dead and unrestrained. Maybe she was dead and restrained when this occurred, but there is a lot to indicate that the family left that home alive.

It’s also as if she was restrained for a period of time. Perhaps Summer was restrained in the home while the attackers rummaged the home for…who knows what? But if the McStays had promised workers cash compensation, it is possible that they believed there was cash in the home. It’s also possible that she was restrained because whoever did this did not want neighbors alerted and also wanted to be able to maintain the element of surprise for when Joseph arrived back home.

Front of Sweats
Back of sweats

The Second Attack

Supporting the theory that Joseph McStay entered into the home after Summer was restrained is that there is very little indication in that home of any type of major physical altercation.

The fact that Joseph was found in the grave with keys in his front and back pockets also seems to suggest that he was subdued moments after entering the front door. And there was a small stain at the entry way that prosecutors speculated had been cleaned. We don’t know if the shoes seen in that entry way were moved by family after the disappearance, but if they were found that way, this also seems to indicate that Joseph was attacked almost immediately on returning home.

Joseph, like his wife, was wearing sweat pants. It would be very unusual for a person to settle in at home for any length of time with keys remaining in the back pocket of their sweats. This is more in keeping with Joseph either on his way out to his vehicle or returning from it. We don’t know if those involved expected Joseph to return then, or if his return was part of the plan, but it seems clear that he was taken into control rapidly–little or no sign of an altercation in the home. And what also seems certain is that the family was removed from the home alive.

There were items in the grave that could have served no other purpose but as bindings and gags. And these were items that could have been found in the McStay residence. The ratchet ties found in the graves were of the same type still in the Dodge truck. It’s hard to know if the towels were those of the McStays, but they could well have been. What possible use would torn pieces of towel and small cut portions of ratchet ties have, but to bind and gag? And why would anyone bind and gag deceased people?

And the fact that Gianni’s backpack and dinosaur excavation kit made it into the graves, also suggests that he was alive when abducted and may have been alive for some time after.

The cut towels were likely stuffed into the mouths of the victims. The blue painter’s tape may have been used to hold the towel pieces in place. The ratchet ties made for strong bindings around the wrists and possibly the ankles.

Those who attacked this family must have had their own vehicle, but likely used the Trooper as well, as it would make for easier transport of the children. There may have been a parent in each vehicle-and who knows the configuration of the attackers. One would speculate there were at at least two individuals involved. Though a gun was never used to kill the McStays, we don’t know if there was a gun used to control them.

Whether the plan had always been to kill the entire family, but do so away from the home to make the case more difficult to solve, or if the family was taken so that the attackers could plan their next move, perhaps not wanting to kill anyone, who knows? So many narratives for this case were dismissed without any real investigation. None of the laborers working on renovations were thoroughly investigated. We have no idea who lived in that housing development, or if there were construction workers working nearby who may have had involvement. Alternative suspects, involving other business dealings for both Summer and Joseph were glossed over. Big assumptions as to what had happened to his family were made early on, and so much evidence was lost because of this.

The Murders

This is an interesting case, in that, you have four victims, all seemingly abducted at the same time from the same place, and yet three of them are discovered separate from their clothing in their graves, one, Joseph Sr., is found fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket, laying on top of a pair of socks.

I can only speculate, but it would seem that Joseph Sr. died first and there was a need to contain any blood, etc, also to make transport of his body easier. It really seems as if Summer and her children were alive until they were brought to the graves. Why they are absent clothing is too horrifying to even discuss. But it may say something about those involved in this murder. Summer’s bra was cut in front. Not sure why someone does this.

The location of the burial doesn’t seem as if whoever did this actually cared if the bodies were found. Which also may indicate something about the killers. These people may have only needed to hide the act for long enough to relocate. Or perhaps they’d always just been passing through. The location does not seem consistent with someone who had strong ties to the area. Anyone who knew that area would have known much better places to bury bodies-and would also have known how well traveled that location was–a location also prone to erosion from regular flooding.

Most likely these killers didn’t stick around and fled immediately to another jurisdiction. This case might look very different it the investigation into it had been more thorough.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Staggered

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