A San Diego man who led a double life as the boyfriend of a wealthy Texas man and the fiancé of a woman carrying his child went on trial accused of murder Tuesday in San Diego federal court.
David Enrique Meza is charged with traveling to Mexico in May 2015 and killing Jake Clyde Merendino, a Texan with whom he was having a romantic relationship.
He is also charged with covering up the crime with the help of his girlfriend, Taylor Marie Langston. She was pregnant with their child at the time of the slaying.
He has pleaded not guilty.
During opening statements to the jury in U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller's courtroom, Assistant U.S. Atty. Alexandra Foster said Meza planned to kill Merendino for money: Merendino had named him as the sole beneficiary of his estate in a one-page handwritten will written on hotel stationery.
Merendino and Meza had been romantically involved since June 2013, when they connected through an online advertisement Meza had placed. Merendino was living in Houston at the time. Eventually, he bought Meza two cars and a motorcycle, paid for his clothing and trips, and gave Meza access to his bank account.
In October 2014, Merendino bought a condominium at Palacio del Mar, a tony Rosarito high-rise with sweeping ocean views. That December, Merendino dashed off the one-page will that left his entire estate to Meza.
"For the defendant to get that money," Foster said, "Jake had to die."
At the time, Meza was also involved with Langston, though neither she nor Merendino knew Meza was leading a double life. Langston pleaded guilty in February to obstruction of justice for her role in the cover-up.
On May 1, 2015, Merendino and Meza checked into a Rosarito hotel. Foster said that night Meza went back to his apartment in San Diego, then returned to Rosarito just after 12:30 a.m., with Langston following in the couple's SUV.
Cellphone GPS data from Meza's phone and border-crossing records tracked his movements, Foster said. The data showed that just before 2 a.m. his phone pinged off a cell tower in Rosarito.
The government said he lured Merendino from his hotel room about 1 a.m., saying his motorcycle had broken down on a highway outside town.
Merendino's silver Range Rover was found at a turnout off the highway about 3 a.m. by Mexican police, who then spotted his body dumped down a ravine. An autopsy showed he had been stabbed 22 times and had his throat slashed twice.
Eleven days after the killing, Meza mailed the handwritten will to the probate court in Texas. In interviews with FBI agents, Meza and Langston said they were in Mexico visiting a friend the night of the killing — but the friend did not back up the alibi.
Meza's attorney, federal public defender Reuben Cahn, told jurors that the government's case did not add up.
He said it would require Meza to pull off a brutal crime and leave no physical evidence behind.
But he left a trail of other evidence that made him a suspect: He did not disable the GPS on his phone or use a disposable burner phone, and he mailed the will shortly after the killing.
Cahn said no physical evidence — such as fingerprints, blood or DNA matches — nor witnesses tie Meza to the crime. After such a violent attack, he said, there should have been evidence in Merendino's car or on Meza's motorcycle or clothes. None was found.
Foster, the prosecutor, noted that security camera video from the border crossing shows Meza wearing different clothing when he crossed back and forth that night. But Cahn showed an extended portion of the video in which agents carefully examined his clothing and motorcycle but found nothing suspicious.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.
Moran writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.
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