Image: McStay home
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
The home of businessman Joseph McStay, his wife, Donna, and their two sons in Fallbrook, Calif. remains empty Feb. 2,  one year after the family disappeared. The family's vehicle was found at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in San Ysidro and they were last heard from on Feb. 4 of last year.
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updated 2/6/2011 2:05:57 PM ET 2011-02-06T19:05:57

Detective Troy DuGal has fielded hundreds of leads since entering the home of Joseph and Summer McStay a year ago to find rotten eggs on the kitchen counter and two cereal bowls full of popcorn on the living room futon. He believes the McStays went to Mexico with their two young boys, but the evidence that fills four large binders in his office cubicle yields no answers.

"I absolutely know their financials and their friends better than I know my own financials and my wife's friends," says DuGal, 49, a homicide investigator for the last three of his 15 years with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Friday marked one year since the McStays disappeared from their home in Fallbrook — a small town north of San Diego known for its avocado orchards — and DuGal says he is no closer to cracking the case than he was the day that Joseph's brother called to report the family was missing.

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Four days after the family vanished, their white Isuzu Trooper was parked at a San Diego shopping mall, just steps from Tijuana, Mexico. A dark surveillance video shows four people walking across the border that night, possibly the McStays.

What troubles the detective most is that he has no account of the four days before they crossed the border. Were they staying with friends? Were they at a hotel?

"I think it's likely that something bad has happened," says DuGal, who is on a second career after serving in the Navy.

Joseph, who was 40 when he disappeared, was a mild-mannered surfer who made friends easily. He ran a business from home designing and installing water fountains. He kept promises and paid bills on time.

In his spare time, he played soccer and hung out with buddies. He was close to a teenage son from a previous marriage who lives in the San Diego area.

Summer, who was 43 when she vanished, was more reserved. An avid shopper, she frequented Ross Dress for Less and had a penchant for fur and Ugg footwear.

She was a devoted stay-at-home mom to Gianni, who was 4, and Joseph Mateo, 3. She gave birth at home and wanted them home-schooled.

Born Lisa Virginia Aranda, Summer has taken several names during her life, which DuGal chalks up to an eccentric personality. Her sister, Tracy Russell, told him that Summer once suggested she change her name to Autumn.

Summer admired Italians, which may explain why she once took the surname Martelli. DuGal hasn't found anyone in her life with that name.

"Summer did not care for her Hispanic heritage," DuGal said. "Therefore, she assumed identities in the things she liked."

The couple dated a while and married in 2007. They left a small duplex in San Clemente, south of Los Angeles, after their boys were born and bought a home in Fallbrook. They moved in over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009 and were unpacked when they vanished barely two months later.

DuGal found no signs of forced entry when he arrived at their home Feb. 15, the day that Michael McStay called to report his brother missing. A computer search piqued the detective's interest.

Summer e-mailed a seller on Craigslist about Rosetta Stone software to learn Spanish and asked that it be delivered to Joseph at a soccer game. Joseph's friends remember seeing him shake hands with two men at a game Jan. 29, the day of the arranged sale.

Internet searches on Jan. 27 included queries on passport requirements for travel to Mexico and whether there was an age requirement for entering the country.

On Feb. 4, the day of the disappearance, Summer made her last cell phone call at 2:11 p.m. to a homeopathic medicine company, and an employee remembered it well. It came minutes after an Internet search for the word "Anger" on the company website.

"Summer was adamant that she wanted to purchase a medication called Anger," DuGal said. "They said, 'Ma'am, it doesn't exist.'"

A neighbor's surveillance tape shows the bottom of what looked like the McStay's Isuzu Trooper passing at 7:47 p.m.

Joseph's last cell phone call came at 8:28 p.m. to an employee, Charles Merritt, to follow up on a meeting earlier that day. Merritt told the detective that Joseph spoke calmly and strictly about business.

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DuGal thinks the family left the home alone.

"I believe something occurred within those four walls between the four family members that made them leave in a hurry," he said. "It may have been good. It may have been bad. I don't know."

DuGal opened the back of the Isuzu at a towing yard and found a Pottery Barn Kids refrigerator and sink for a playhouse, with children's videos like "Franklin Goes to School" that were purchased at Ross Dress for Less.

The SUV was towed from a lot with a two-hour parking limit. Employees remembered keeping tabs on it.

DuGal says the border crossing surveillance tape appears to show the McStays. The woman is wearing fur and Ugg boots. The two children and man wear hats, as Joseph and his sons often did.

The FBI assures DuGal that the McStays are not living under witness protection. Neither Joseph nor Summer had criminal records or signs of financial problems.

DuGal believes the family would have sent word home by now if they were safe.

"We're a year into this," he said. "I want to find the family."

____

Online:

www.mcstayfamily.com

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: McStay family on surveillance?

  1. Closed captioning of: McStay family on surveillance?

    >>> better tomorrow? lexus.

    >>> it's been more than a month since a california family of four mysteriously disappeared. police are reviewing a individual -- oh surveillance of a family crossing the u.s.-mexico border. not releasing the video yet. officials say why can't they be sure it is indeed the missing mcstay family on the tape. they know it was taken the same day the family's abandoned vehicle was found near the border, within walking distance of this area on surveillance. alex has been a friend of joseph mcstay for 20 years joins us from san diego . i know friends of the mcstays are concerned about not hearing from this family in more than a month. have you been able to see the video?

    >> i have.

    >> what did you think? could you see a resemblance between your friends and the family on this tape?

    >> you know, i would say at best a resemblance, but for me, nothing definitive, especially the joey or the male figure in the video. it doesn't give me any confidence.

    >> i understand that investigators are trying to enhance this so that they can have a clearer shot at identifying or ruling out whether this was indeed the mcstays. but to your knowledge, do the mcstays have any reason to go voluntarily to mexico?

    >> not to my knowledge. you know, especially with the two kids. if that is the case, my answer would be no. as long as i've known joey -- go ahead.

    >> they haven't been heard from in more than a month. here you have a 40-year-old dad, his 43-year-old wife and a 3 and 4-year-old kid, a daughter and a son there. when you're among yourselves talking about what might have happened, can you come up with any theories about how all of the sudden they just vanished?

    >> yes, but again, it's just like a lot of people, we're kind of just grasping into air. it's just a lot of speculation. we have our own theories, but nothing to really to justify or nothing to solidify the things that we're thinking. we're just guessing. there's not a whole lot there to suggest where, what or why. our faith is pretty much in law enforcement . we're just guessing, still guessing.

    >> alex , i know loved ones have put up this website devoted to searching for the family. are you getting much help from that website?

    >> you know, we're getting a lot of support. a lot of that is emotional. we're just keeping my hope and i think hope of joey 's friends to keep the case elevated, its status in the media just so you know, law enforcement and the authorities stick with it and don't give up. i know it doesn't grab headlines because of the lack of a murder weapon or blood or drugs, and some of the things that -- it's just a family of four missing, and i say just with no pun intended. just poof.

    >> we're going to stay on top of this story, too. as soon as we learn from investigators whether they can enhance this enough to clearly say yes, indeed, this is the mcstays, we'll follow up on that. alex , appreciate your time. thanks.

    >> my pleasure, thank you.

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