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Where did the McStays go?

On Feb. 4, 2010, Joseph and Summer McStay and their two young sons got into their Isuzu Trooper and drove away from their Fallbrook home. Then they vanished. Life had been normal up to that point.

May 30, 2011|By Scott Kraft, Los Angeles Times
  • Joseph and Summer McStay and their two sons, Joseph Jr. and Gianni. The Fallbrook family has been missing since Feb. 4, 2010.
Joseph and Summer McStay and their two sons, Joseph Jr. and Gianni. The Fallbrook… (Christina House, For The…)

Reporting from Fallbrook, Calif. — Joseph and Summer McStay's home sat on a quiet cul-de-sac, beneath a mountain thick with avocado trees. The fenced backyard was perfect for Bear, Summer's Akita, and there was plenty of room upstairs for their two toddlers.

Soon after they moved in, in late 2009, Summer had launched a big renovation — paint, tile flooring and granite countertops. She also adopted a puppy.

Six weeks later, on a chilly Thursday evening in February, the family piled into their Isuzu Trooper and drove away. Then they vanished.

Photos: A Fallbrook family vanishes

When Det. Troy Dugal walked into their living room 11 days later, he saw two bowls of popcorn sitting on futons in front of the TV. A half-empty popcorn bag was beneath the microwave. On the counter was a carton of eggs and a banana, which had gone bad.

"It looked like somebody left in a hurry," he recalled. "Not frantically, but in a hurry."

There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry. They couldn't have intended to be gone long.


It is exceedingly rare for a family of four to disappear in America.

Most missing-persons cases involve children. When adults go missing, they get less attention from police departments — absent signs of dementia or foul play. It's not illegal, after all, for adults to take themselves and their children away without telling anyone.

About 1 million people are reported missing every year in the United States, and 95% of those cases are resolved in the first 24 hours. The likelihood of being found shrinks with every day, every week, every month that passes.

The McStay mystery began with a call to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department on Feb. 10, 2010, six days after the family's last contact with friends and relatives.

It was from Dan Kavanaugh, who ran the website for Joseph's business, Earth Inspired Products, which installs water fountains. He hadn't been able to reach Joseph for several days. The McStays occasionally had gone away for a weekend without telling anyone, but it was unusual for him to be out of touch for this long.

Four days later Joseph's brother, Mike McStay, also called the sheriff's office. By then, Joseph's family had been unable to reach him for 10 days. The next morning, sheriff's detectives met Mike at the Fallbrook house. Dugal, 50, a homicide detective and the son of a career policeman, was the lead investigator.

They found paintbrushes and cans in the living room. Most of the furniture, Mike told him, was in storage, and the family appeared to be living out of suitcases.

Dugal didn't see any obvious sign of a struggle.

He went door to door in the neighborhood. No one had seen the McStays in more than a week. Neighbors said they'd grown worried about the dogs and started feeding them.

He interviewed friends and family, all of whom had the same story: "The bottom line," he concluded, "was that life was normal for the McStays up to Feb. 4, and on that day they just vanished."

Dugal ran a check on the family's vehicles. Their green truck was parked in the driveway, but their Isuzu Trooper was missing. Investigators examined a surveillance recording from a neighbor's security camera. It showed an Isuzu Trooper driving away from the McStays' house at 7:47 p.m. on Feb. 4.

Within hours, Dugal found the Trooper. The SUV had been towed on Feb. 8, four days after the family disappeared, from the parking lot of a strip mall in San Ysidro, an hour's drive from the McStay home and a short walk from a pedestrian crossing into Mexico.

Dugal spoke with the two security guards who had been on duty that night. They had first noticed the vehicle in the lot shortly after dark and, because the hood was cold, concluded that it had arrived around 5 p.m. When it was still there at 11 p.m., they called a tow truck.

The SUV yielded few clues. It was found locked, and fingerprints found on it matched the McStays'. Two child-restraint seats were in the back and some new toys, most still in their packaging, were in the rear storage area. Family members said one of the boys had a birthday a week before the disappearance.

Had the McStays parked and walked into Tijuana? Dugal thought it was a possibility.

He got surveillance footage from the border crossing. Volunteers from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children helped him study hours of video, looking for the family among the 100,000 people who walked across the border that Monday. They all agreed that one particular clip, with a time stamp of 7 p.m., was worth closer examination.

It was a rear view of a man holding the hand of a young boy in a beanie cap. Walking behind them was a woman holding the hand of a smaller boy, also in a beanie cap. All four were walking toward the border gate.

The woman had a small handbag draped over her shoulder, and the man carried what appeared to be a small plastic grocery sack in his free hand.

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