Sean Munger's official site. Not your typical Boring Author Website®™.
Update: This article was originally posted on August 29, 2013. The McStays have since been found. On November 15, authorities confirmed that human remains have been found which have been identified as the McStay family. My more recent blog post about that discovery is here.
Millions of people across America and the world have heard of the McStay family–so many, in fact, that I scarcely need to recap the facts here. On February 4, 2010, parents Joseph McStay (age 40), his wife Summer (43), and their sons Joseph Jr. (age 3) and Gianni (4) vanished from their Fallbrook, California home for no apparent reason. It is extremely rare for an entire family to go missing in the way the McStays did. The case has attracted so much publicity that I believe, if it is not conclusively solved, which it may never be, the McStays will probably turn out to be the most famous missing persons of the 21st century, rivaling Joseph Crater and Jimmy Hoffa in the last century. Books are already being written about them, and more doubtless will be. If a movie about the McStays isn’t already in the works, I’m quite sure one will come along eventually.
What Do We Know Happened?
What we do know about the McStays is this. This family of four, functional and happy by all outward appearances, lived in a middle-class home in Fallbrook, California. Joseph owned a business custom-designing water fountains, and Summer worked as a real estate broker. Their marriage was their second for each of them and Joseph had a teenage son who didn’t live with him. On February 4, 2010, a neighbor’s security camera saw the McStays’ vehicle leave the driveway of their house at 7:47 PM, presumably with them inside. Joseph made a cell phone call to a business associate at 8:28 PM. That was the last confirmed contact with any of them.
When authorities came to their house after they were reported missing (a week later), they found the house in a curious state. It looked like the family had stepped out for just a few minutes. Food was left out on the counter, including eggs. Two cups of popcorn, evidently prepared for the children, were found on the couch where the kids usually watched TV. The place was a mess, but the family hadn’t been in the house long and Joseph was still remodeling.
On February 8, the car, a white Isuzu Trooper, was found in the parking lot of a strip mall in San Ysidro, California, 80 miles away. Police found in the car the toddlers’ car seats and some recent purchases, still wrapped up, including a large “play kitchen” set, the kind of stand-up toy you see in children’s play rooms. There was no sign of the family themselves.
The strip mall is only a few blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. Authorities examined video from the border crossing station for that night, and found a tape that shows some people who may be the McStays–but no one is sure. The tape has since become infamous. Here it is. The people thought to be the McStays appear at 30 seconds in–the two adults walking by (man first, woman in a white jacket), each holding the hand of a young child.
After February 8, 2010, there have been several reported sightings of one or all of the McStays, including at restaurants in Baja California, Mexico and Southport, North Carolina. These sightings have not been confirmed, but few such sightings ever are, particularly in the wake of such a high-profile case.
In searching the family’s home computer, law enforcement discovered that in late January someone at the house did an Internet search for information on what documents would be needed to bring young children into Mexico.
The Leading Theories
With as famous as this case is, everybody seems to have a theory. These are the theories I can recall having heard, read or seen discussed more than once on the Internet. Without offering editorial comment on them, here they are:
Joseph McStay loved the outdoors, surfing and his dogs–which were inexplicably left behind, without food, at the family’s house.
Rick Baker’s No Goodbyes: The Mysterious Disappearance of the McStay Family
I recently read Rick Baker’s book No Goodbyes, which was released on February 4, 2013, the third anniversary of the family’s disappearance. Rick Baker is a free-lance writer and radio show host who became fascinated by the McStay case and who wound up dealing extensively with certain members of the extended family, but before the book came out the family ceased cooperating with him and have since denounced the book.
The chief investigative asset that Rick Baker presents appears to have been access to email correspondence of certain members of the McStay family, especially Summer, the wife. Much of the book is based on this correspondence, and Baker presents many emails verbatim and unedited. On the basis of her emails which he presents in the book, he casts Summer in a relentlessly negative light, and stretches to reach his judgments regarding her. It would take a blog post much longer than this one is going to be to analyze the numerous logical errors, out-of-context cherry picking and unwarranted conclusions presented in the book. I expected an informative study with a very even-handed, journalistic tone, carefully vetted facts and logical arguments. I didn’t get that. The book is very opinionated, with a generally unorganized narrative, and the arguments are illogical and lack internal consistency. In comparison to other books written about missing persons cases–I’m thinking specifically of Richard J. Tofel’s Vanishing Point, about the disappearance of Judge Crater–No Goodbyes simply doesn’t measure up.
Summer McStay, whose email correspondence was analyzed–inaccurately and unfairly, I believe–in Rick Baker’s book “No Goodbyes.”
I was puzzled that Mr. Baker’s assertions and conjectures, especially the negative ones about Summer McStay, never make it into a coherent narrative or even a theory about what happened to the McStays. However, in mid-January, Mr. Baker gave at least one media interview, to a San Diego ABC News affiliate, in which he stated his theory on the case:
“I personally believe that Summer probably killed Joseph and we should be looking for Summer and the two kids, rather than a family of four that decided to just flee on their own,” said author Rick Baker.
It’s noteworthy that this theory does not appear in the finished version of No Goodbyes.
In my opinion, this theory is absolutely ludicrous. There’s not a single shred of evidence to support it. It’s entirely inconsistent with what we do know about the McStay case, what we know about Summer and Joseph McStay and their marriage, and the psychological profiles of persons who are capable of committing murder–much less the murder of a loved one. Furthermore, for reasons I’ll explain below, I believe that whatever happened to the McStay family happened as a unit; meaning, each member of the family shared their fate. After reading No Goodbyes, I don’t believe this book moves us any closer to a solution.
Did They Leave Voluntarily?
Logically speaking, the key fact in the McStay case could be what law enforcement found on the family’s computer: that someone at the house had searched for information on the Internet regarding bringing young children into Mexico. Assuming this fact has been reported accurately, it’s hard to square it with anything other than a voluntary desire to flee. It’s not likely that anyone other than Joseph or Summer McStay searched for that information on their computer in their house. The fact, if true, proves that someone in the house was thinking about Mexico, and about bringing Gianni and Joseph Jr. there.
But why? Tijuana–which is the city in Mexico just across the border from San Diego, where the San Ysidro border crossing is located–is a pretty rough and wild place. There must be a compelling reason to expose young children to the risk of going there. Furthermore, the more money you have to navigate a place like that, the safer you’ll be. Joseph had about $100,000 in a bank account at the time of his disappearance. It wasn’t touched after he left. if the family went to Mexico, what did they live on? If they did this, surely they must have had a plan.
Joseph Jr. has a very distinctive birthmark on his forehead. These sorts of things seem trivial, but they’re actually huge assets in missing persons cases.
The flight-to-Mexico theory does have much to commend it. For instance, it would validate both the border crossing video and the subsequent “sightings” of the family in Mexico. But even if true, how come the family hasn’t been seen–or seen more often–in Mexico? It’s not like they blend in very easily. Summer McStay has a very distinctive face, Gianni is the spitting image of his father, and Joseph Jr. has an immediately recognizable birthmark on his head. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think these folks can lay low in some sleepy Mexican village for long. This is 2013 and people have Internet connections and watch the show Disappeared on Investigation Discovery.
Aside from the Summer-murdered-her-husband theory, the theory I buy the least is the “Witness Protection Program” scenario. Clearly the business and personal relations of Joseph and Summer McStay were complicated. But what’s totally missing is any evidence of a link, even an innocent one, to criminal activity that would put the family in danger. In order to qualify for witness protection, a person must be under live threat by a high-value target of a criminal investigation.
The word witness in Witness Protection is important. The nature of the witness protection program is that the person being protected eventually takes the stand to testify against a powerful defendant, like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano did against mob boss John Gotti. Where, and against whom, have Joseph or Summer McStay testified since 2010? Trials must be public, you know–it’s in the Constitution–and after 3 years you’d think they would have testified by now or that evidence that came from them would appear in open court. And why would the FBI and local law enforcement waste time and resources investigating the disappearance of a family who they already knew was safe? The witness protection scenario sounds dramatic and exotic, but it’s not a very likely explanation for what happened to the McStays.
All For One, One For All?
Logically speaking, it appears to me that what happened to one member of the McStay family probably happened to all of them. This is one reason why the Summer-murdered-her-husband theory makes little sense. If she did that, she would not only have to conceal the body of her husband, but also prevent herself and her two children from being seen in public without Joseph, because a sighting of just her, or her plus the children, will tend to increase suspicion about why Joseph is no longer in the picture. Consequently, if something happened to both parents and something different happened to the children, why haven’t one or both of them surfaced without the parents? The fact that none of the four have ever been conclusively sighted again tends to suggest that whatever happened, happened to all of them, not just some of them. Note also that the inconclusive sightings of them (in Mexico, for instance) follow this same pattern; the family is usually said to be together.
Due to his cherubic looks and long hair, Gianni McStay is often mistaken for a girl.
The Missing Four Days and the Toys in the Back of the Car
The part of the McStay case that intrigues me the most is the time gap between February 4, when the family took off in their SUV, and February 8, when the car was found and the border video taken. What happened to them during those four days? Rick Baker argues there were no missing four days; he says the border video does not depict the family and that the SUV was parked in the strip mall parking lot on February 4, not February 8. If that’s true, how come no one paid any attention to the car for four days? What about the toys in the back of the SUV?
This is a detail that does not square with virtually any theory regarding the case. My understanding is that the toys found in the back of the car were purchased from a Ross store, though perhaps not the one where the car was found nearby. Why buy a bunch of very large, awkward toys–I remind you there was a “kitchen set” type of thing–and leave them in the car right before bundling the kids off to the border crossing? As a red herring? Were the toys bought days earlier and just left in the car? Maybe the family left Fallbrook in a hurry, fleeing from some perceived threat that arose very suddenly, and the toys were just along for the ride. Still, it’s very odd.
I have no idea what happened to the McStays. No one does–that’s one reason why this case fascinates people. Every possible solution you can come up with suffers from some logical or evidentiary defect that’s very difficult to overcome. As missing persons cases go, the McStay family is pretty much a perfect storm: the clues all lead in different directions, you can never solve it, but you also can’t leave it alone.
This is why I predict the McStays will be the most famous missing persons in American history for the next 50 years, or maybe 100 years, barring a development that solves their case for good. And writers coming out with conjectural books like No Goodbyes does not count as “solving.” How many times have various writers claimed to have “solved” the Jack the Ripper murder case, for instance? One of the proposed solutions to that famous case may in fact be the right one, but we have no way of knowing which one; until and unless we do, theories, sensationalist books and blog posts like this one will continue to swirl until the end of time. If the McStays did indeed choose their fate, as some believe they did, they seem to have done a fantastic job of it. They’re going to keep everybody guessing what happened to them for years, possibly decades. Few voluntary missing persons have ever been that successful.