by Christine Pelisek @ PEOPLE.com
Fri Sep 22 08:55:36 PDT 2017
No one loved a fancy cocktail party and a chance to show off a little bling more than Jake Merendino.
In early 2015, the 51-year-old Texas millionaire talked about retiring to Mexico with his 23-year-old boyfriend, David Meza. It was to be one of the last happy times Merendino shared with his friends.
Just two months later, on May 2, 2015, Mexican police found Merendino’s blood-soaked Range Rover on a local road near the coastal town of Rosarito. A trail of blood and intestines led police to his body at the bottom of a nearby ravine.
His throat was slit and he’d been stabbed more than 20 times.
The gruesome killing shocked both his family in Texas and his friends in the small ex-pat community in Rosarito, where Merendino had closed escrow two days earlier on a $273,000 oceanfront condo.
“We thought it was maybe over money and someone tried to rob him,” says his cousin Bud Merendino.
The truth was more twisted. Eight months after the killing, authorities arrested their prime suspect: Meza, an online escort and former porn actor who was hiding another life.
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Investigators suspected Meza killed his lover so that he could inherit Merendino’s multi-million-dollar estate as well as the new condo.
Adding to the shock, investigators discovered that Meza had been leading a double life that Merendino knew nothing about: Meza was engaged and living in San Diego with his pregnant girlfriend Taylor Langston, who authorities said lied to them about Meza’s whereabouts on the night of Merendino’s slaying.
In May, a jury found Meza guilty of one count of interstate or foreign domestic violence resulting in murder and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Langston pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to obstruct justice and is serving a 21-month sentence.
“David Meza took the life of a man who cared for him, lavished him with expensive gifts and who wanted to create a life with him,” Acting U.S. Attorney Alana W. Robinson said after the verdict.
‘Jake Was a Target’
Though Meza maintains his innocence and his attorneys argued there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, he is expected to be sentenced on Oct. 23, when he’ll face 20 years to life in prison.
“Jake was a target,” says Merendino’s friend Chuck Hart. “This was a cold-blooded killing for profit by a snake in the grass that deserves to rot.”
That Meza could commit a crime so gruesome stunned some who knew him, as it revealed a violence they didn’t see lurking beneath his sweet demeanor.
“He was super nice, and everyone agreed how chill and nice and easy-going and quiet he was,” says former colleague Gary Blumenthal. “He would be the last person we would ever think would do something like this.”
But Langston’s attorney, Don Levine, says Meza had a dark side. According to authorities, Meza told Langston that he worked as a bookkeeper for Merendino.
“There was physical emotional and sexual abuse,” Levine says. “She thought this was the love of her life, her forever partner. She had no idea he was prostituting himself or starring in gay porn films.”
Those closest to Merendino say the Beaumont, Texas, millionaire was an easy mark. He inherited his parent’s fortune and enjoyed life and loved to lavish gifts on his friends.
“I know that David was much younger and very handsome, so part of me was worried that he was a gold-digger, but never thought that it will turn this violent,” says Merendino’s friend Bo Bendana.
Merendino met Meza when he hired him as an escort through an online ad while vacationing in San Diego in June 2013, and he was instantly smitten.
“He bought him sports cars and motorcycles,” says friend Donna Armani Pineda. “David didn’t want for anything.”
But, it seems, he did: In the months before the murder, Merendino made Meza the beneficiary of his condo and wrote up a will on hotel letterhead in December of 2014 leaving him his fortune.
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Law Enforcement Closes In
“David just couldn’t be moving into a condo when he had a pregnant girlfriend in San Diego,” says Armani Pineda. “He really thought he was going to be able to get away with all of it.”
Authorities zeroed in on Meza after he initially lied about his relationship with Merendino and tried to cash in on the handwritten will after the murder.
As the evidence mounted — including Meza’s cell phone pinging a few feet from the crime scene — investigators pushed for answers.
Eventually, Meza told investigators he lured Merendino to the ravine so he could get the key to the condo and steal his stereo equipment. But, Meza claimed, after he got the key he left Merendino on the side of the road — alive — and drove back to San Diego.
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Investigators didn’t buy his story and marshaled circumstantial evidence against Meza. According to court transcripts, he began complaining to Langston, his girlfriend, in early 2015 about Merendino, but he promised that it “would all be over very soon.”
Investigators also pointed to a two-minute voice message Meza left on Langston’s phone less than a month after the murder.
“Every day of my life I wake up feeling guilty, I wake up hating myself for doing that,” he said. “I had to, I had no choice … no, I had a choice, but I did it because I wanted to, for my family.”
Now with Meza behind bars, Merendino’s friends and family are still trying to make sense of the loss.
“He was one of those people that everyone admired and enjoyed being around,” says former co-worker Kristen Quigley Edwards. “There were a lot of people that were heartbroken.”