The former business partner of a man whose remains were found with his wife's and two children's in the high desert north of Los Angeles pleaded not guilty to murder charges Wednesday afternoon, more than four years after the slayings.
Charles Chase Merritt, arrested one week ago in the San Fernando Valley, was in handcuffs when he appeared in court for Wednesday's arraignment. The 57-year-old Merritt's arrest marked a stunning development in an investigation that began after Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, and their two young children, ages 4 and 3, mysteriously vanished from their Fallbrook home in February 2010.
"I've been given 900 pages today in a disc that I have to read," Merritt's attorney Robert Ponce said outside the courthouse. "My background on this case is limited to having this in my hand, reading some of the things that I read in the newspapers, and online."
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Few leads developed until the discovery of the family member's remains three years later about 100 miles from their San Diego County home. The skeletal remains were found in and around shallow graves in the high desert near Victorville in southwestern San Bernardino County.
Merritt, who was working on a project for Joseph McStay's custom water fountain business, was charged last week with four counts of murder. During a Friday news conference to announce the arrest, investigators provided few details about what led them to Merritt.
When asked whether the was a break in the case that cast suspicion on Merritt, investigators said there was "no smoking gun." Investigators said they reviewed evidence provided by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department that pointed to Merritt's involvement.
Authorities have not discussed a motive for the slayings, which authorities said occurred inside the McStay family's home. All were victims of blunt-force-trauma, sheriff's officials said at Friday's news conference.
Since his arrest was announced, Merritt's friends and family members have portrayed him as a "good guy" who would not hurt anyone. One friend described him as a "real pleasant cowboy type."