Saturday, December 17, 2011

Detective: ‘The McStay case will never be a cold case’

Endless man-hours continue in search for missing family

Thursday, January 6th, 2011
Issue 01, Volume 15.
Andrea Verdin
Staff Writer

To say that endless man-hours have been spent looking for the McStays – the family of four who disappeared seemingly without a trace from their Fallbrook home in February 2010 – would merely scratch the surface of the amount of time, energy and resources that has gone into searching for them.

Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, and sons Gianni, 4, and Joseph "Joey," 3, had moved to the Lake Rancho Viejo community on the Fallbrook/Bonsall boundary in November 2009, and were reported missing on February 4, 2010 by Michael McStay, Joseph’s brother, approximately two weeks from when they had last been seen.

On February 8, 2010, detectives examined the Mc Stay family’s 1996 Isuzu Trooper that had been discovered in an impound lot about four hours after they were believed to be seen on a video surveillance tape crossing into Mexico.

According to San Diego County Sheriff’s detective Troy DuGal, who has been heading up the case for the past 10 months, every lead and tip that could possibly point to the discovery of the family’s whereabouts has been carefully investigated.

"This missing persons case is open and active, and will remain mine for as ling as my career exists or until we find the family," said DuGal. "It wouldn’t make sense for this case to become a cold case, and it will remain so until we have found the location of the entire family. All four must be found, and we are still hoping for a good outcome."

Several theories of what may have happened to the young family have played through the minds of investigators.

"From the initial investigation, our biggest fear was that the family had been abducted," said DuGal. "We obtained a search warrant to either substantiate or alleviate that concern with physical evidence. Now, we know that they were not abducted in a vehicle, or physically abducted, but that does not rule out verbal abduction, in which someone told them they needed to be somewhere, fast."

DuGal also stated that the possibility of the family simply choosing to abandon their home has been looked at as well.

"We have looked at financial records, Summer’s bank accounts, Joseph and Summer’s joint account, and Joseph’s business account," said DuGal, who also said email and cell phone accounts have been completely inactive since the family’s disappearance. "All the accounts have been red-flagged and none of them have been touched since February 4. Prior to the family going missing, the account’s activity had been normal. There had been no major withdrawals or [an indication that they were] putting money under a pillow for a vacation."

Because the family’s finances have been red-flagged, the mortgage on the McStay family home has not been paid since March 2010, but it is not formally in the foreclosure process yet.

"When the finances were frozen, the ‘auto-pay’ on the mortgage also stopped," said DuGal. "It is protocol to free the account of missing persons."

According to Michael McStay, who lives in San Clemente, as of Monday, the home had not had a formal foreclosure notice posted on it.

Since the disappearance of his brother and family, Michael has been working hard to not only spread the word of their disappearance, but has shared tips that the public has brought forward with investigators.

"Two days within [Joseph’s] disappearance, my friend was able to help me develop, which was a way to help people know what was going on with the case," said Michael. "With a literal click of a button, people can download missing flier PDFs in English or Spanish, or drop a tip to an email account set up specifically for that reason. I oversee the site, and keep information available to the public and law enforcement."

According to both Michael and DuGal, the website has allowed detectives to investigate tips on an almost immediate level.

In October, the website received a tip about a family that looked like the McStays.

"We got a lead in Ensenada about a family, and within an hour and 15 minutes, the Mexican police had gone and questioned the family, who ended up being from Canada," said Michael. "People got into the field very quickly."

According to DuGal, the tip had reported a family of four on a sailboat in Ensenada that generally resembled the family.

"The police took a flier of the missing family with them to investigate, just in case Joseph and Summer had changed their names, but they were satisfied that the family was not the McStays," he stated. "Still, that tip was very good because it was very specific."

However, not every tip is as useful.

"We get some very vague tips, such as people saying they think they saw a family that resembled the McStays two to ten days ago at a certain location," said DuGal. "To put that tip to rest, I have to hope the business has 24-hour video footage and then review 10 days’ worth of footage. Even then, it’s just impossible to work with that because the family could have been seen 11 or 12 days ago, as opposed to the 10 days ago."

Though no solid information has come in for months, Susan Blake, Joseph’s mother, who lives in Corona, stated that her entire family will continue to hold onto hope that their family members will be found "We will always have hope," said Blake. "Some days are hard, some are not, but you try to get involved and make an effort to help find them. I try to stay busy to help, but at the very beginning, it was absolutely devastating. Still, we are fighting, and not giving up. We are going to find those grandbabies and bring them home, whatever it takes."

Blake has become very involved working with Spanish news outlets to continue to spread the word of her missing family.

"I am currently working with Spanish radio stations on the Baja California peninsula and I place a monthly flier in several newspapers in the peninsula," said Blake. "It has become my full time job. I try to connect with charter boats and fishermen, newspapers, TV shows and now, radio personnel."

Michael and Blake, while working hard to do their part to find their family, wish there was more that they could do to help investigators.

"We would love to have a private investigation firm offer its support to DuGal and his team," said Michael. "We know that as part of San Diego’s homicide division, they have other cases to work on, and if we could afford to hire an investigator, we would."

Other family members, while not as entrenched as Michael and Blake, have actively followed the investigation, waiting to hear each new detail reported.

"My dad and great aunt, who are out of Houston, were devastated," said Michael. "We have a small family, and half of it has been missing. [My father’s] communication has been very good with law enforcement."

"Mr. McStay communicates with me quite a bit," said DuGal. "He doesn’t get to see local reports, so he depends on the family and me to get updates. Summer’s sister is also very involved and is constantly communicating with me. Summer’s mother has been torn up pretty badly by this, and has difficulty communicating with anyone. She just doesn’t want to talk about it, but wants her family back. There is nothing suspicious about her emotions; she just cannot handle it."

For DuGal, the missing McStays have become a top priority.

"Since I started working in homicide two years ago, no other case has taken up more time than this one," said DuGal. "This case has taken more time and man-hours than any other in my career. I also have three direct partners who I have tasked with interviews and investigating other search warrants. They have spent a considerable amount of time investigating the case. Outside of the Sheriff’s office, the FBI and Department of Justice have become invested, as have Immigration and Customs and the Mexican Federal Police. There is no simple way to answer how many man-hours have been spent on this case."

There is also no simple way to explain how the family of four disappeared into thin air.

"That’s the mystery," explained DuGal. "In my whole career, I have never seen anything like this. Usually when something bad happens, there’s a trail left behind. There is a witness or someone who has come forward. If the family had picked up and left Fallbrook, there would also be signs. But the case remains between both extremes, with neither side satisfied.

There is no trail supporting evidence of foul play, DuGal said. Telephone calls within a month of the McStays’ disappearance have all been identified. In summary, calls had been made to family members, business partners, and hair salons. Du Gal said none of the individuals he has interviewed that had been speaking to the McStay’s made him suspicious.

"Now we are just waiting for tips," he said.

Both DuGal and Michael believe that information regarding the family’s whereabouts from Feb. 4 to Feb. 8 would be crucial to helping find the family.

"Those four days are huge," said Michael. "To have no phones, money, anything… I don’t see it. The family in the footage had no suitcases, and just a purse at the border crossing. It was a cold night. If that was my family, they had no ‘do-over’ money or big, black bag."

"If we are going to believe that the family crossed the international border on Feb. 8, we have to think that it is probable that someone saw the McStays before they crossed," said DuGal. "We know for a fact that their vehicle did not cross the border, and that the family did not use their credit cards, cell phone, or accounts. After checking multiple times with various agencies, we are also 100 percent certain that the family is not in protective custody. So, where are they?"

On Monday and Tuesday (January 3 and 4), the family’s disappearance received national attention. Investigation Discovery’s "Disappeared" featured a one-hour program on the disappearance, and all involved in the case are hoping for the best.

"People have been emailing us if they have not seen an update on our website, and are really showing us that America does have a heart," said Michael. "Even in this tough time, we receive emails from families saying they are still wondering, still praying. We’ve gotten a lot of love and support that way, and we feel fortunate that in such a dark moment, we have a great lead detective and friends to keep us strong."

For more information on the McStay family, go to,, or

If anyone has information regarding the McStay family, they are asked to contact Detective Troy Dugal at (858) 974-2405 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (858) 974-2405 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or email him at

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