A California man was convicted Tuesday of murdering his millionaire male lover, PEOPLE confirms.
After a week of deliberation, a federal jury found David Meza, 26, guilty of domestic violence resulting in murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice in the slaying of 51-year-old Texas retiree Jake Merendino. Merendino was found stabbed 24 times and his throat was slit in a ravine near Rosarito, Mexico, on May 2, 2015.
Meza didn’t outwardly react to the verdict. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 7.
Authorities argued that Meza killed his millionaire lover so he could inherit Merendino’s $3 million estate and his $273,000 oceanfront condo.
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At the time of the murder, authorities said Meza was living a double life: He was a male escort and gay porn actor who simultaneously lived with his pregnant girlfriend in San Diego. Meza, they said, enlisted his girlfriend, whom he later married, to cover up his crime.
“For the defendant to get that money, Jake had to die,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra Foster argued during opening statements in Meza’s trial.
In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, Acting U.S. Attorney Alana W. Robinson said, “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.”
Merendino’s cousin Sheila Stevens previously told PEOPLE, “I was totally shocked,” adding her cousin “was one of the nicest and most giving people you would hope to meet. To be murdered, it was horrible, but to be murdered the way he was murdered, I don’t have an adjective for that. It was absolutely horrendous.”
Meza’s attorneys couldn’t immediately be reached for comment and it is not clear whether he plans to appeal.
However, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports Meza’s attorneys said there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence linking Meza to the crime. They alleged that Merendino was killed and robbed by a stranger who came upon him at the side of the highway.
The defense also questioned how a much smaller Meza could inflict so many stab wounds on the 6 foot 4 inch, 310 lb. Merendino and then drag him 20 feet and push his body down the ravine.
A Burgeoning Romance — with Suspicious Motives
Merendino, who was adopted and grew up in Beaumont, Texas, inherited his fortune from his parents who both worked for ExxonMobil. He enjoyed his wealth and was generous to a fault, say friends.
He was smitten by his much younger lover, who appeared on various gay adult websites including sketchysex.com.
Gary Blumenthal, the website’s proprietor, tells PEOPLE Meza “was kind of quiet, kind of reserved but very friendly — he seemed to get along with everyone.” He adds Meza “was super nice and everyone agreed how chill and nice and easy going and quiet he was. And if we had to pick someone he would be the last person we would ever think would do something like this.”
Blumenthal says Meza went by the porn name “Mario Romo.” On the personal information sheet he provided to the website, Meza wrote he was into “sports, adrenaline. Really adventurous. Love meeting new people.”
Prosecutors say that Merendino and Meza met after Merendino procured his prostitution services online while he was on vacation in San Diego in the summer of 2013. Their relationship appeared to escalate quickly: Over the course of a few months, Merendino bought Meza a Volkswagen GTI, a Nissan Nismo 370Z sports car and a red motorcycle. He also paid for elaborate trips, dental appointments and procedures and tuition so Meza could enroll in college classes for a nursing degree — and he made Meza a joint account holder on his bank account.
“He loved David so much,” says Bo Bendana, Merendino’s friend. “He talked about how gorgeous he is and that he found heaven with David in his life.”
But friends were suspicious of Meza’s motives. “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 Bendana. “It was clear to me that David did not want to meet me or any of Jake’s friends and he always found ways to not be seen in public with Jake.”
Warning Signs of Murder Plot?
While he was with Merendino, Meza was also in a long-term romantic relationship with Taylor Langston, then a 20-year-old, who was pregnant with his child at the time of Merendino’s death. Langston knew nothing about the romantic relationship between the two men and instead believed Meza was working as Merendino’s bookkeeper.
Authorities say there were early signs of Meza’s murderous plan. In early 2015, Meza started complaining to Langston about Merendino and about his job, but promised that it “would all be over very soon.” At about that time, Meza also informed friends and family that Merendino was dying, either of cancer or heart troubles. Meza told people that upon Merendino’s death, he stood to inherit his oceanfront condo, Merendino’s car and money.
On the day of his death, authorities say that Merendino drove his Range Rover to Rosarito and got a room at Bobby’s by the Sea, a local hotel. Meza followed on his motorcycle. Authorities say Meza left Bobby’s at 10:30 p.m. and returned to his San Diego apartment he shared with Langston. Two hours later, at 12:35 p.m., he called Merendino and headed back to Rosarito. Langston followed in a SUV.
In the early hours of May 2, a hotel security guard saw Merendino leave the hotel in his Range Rover. Merendino told the security guard that he was going to help a friend stranded on the road. Two hours later, Merendino’s Range Rover was spotted by Mexican police, who then found his body at the bottom of the ravine.
Authorities said Meza lured him to the side of the road to kill him.
Meza himself later told investigators he didn’t kill Merendino but admitted to luring him to the ravine to get the key to the condo and steal the older man’s expensive stereo equipment.
He claimed that after he got the key, he left Merendino alive on the side of the road and drove back to San Diego.
However, authorities say Meza’s cell phone was pinging a few feet from the crime scene from approximately 2:14 am to 2:29 a.m. on the morning of May 2. Meza crossed the U.S. Mexican border at 3:57 am. Langston crossed into the U.S. about 25 minutes later.
Later that day, Meza and Langston allegedly went back to the hotel and retrieved items from the room he shared with Merendino. They returned to San Diego the following day.
A Separate Guilty Plea
Langston pleaded guilty in February, in San Diego federal court, to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice for helping to cover up the crime.
She told authorities that around the time Merendino died, she and Meza crossed into Mexico to visit Meza’s friend “Joe,” spending four hours there before they returned home. Meza was also charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly contacting “Joe” and asking him to provide a fake alibi for him and Langston.
Prior to his December 2015 arrest, Meza was also showing signs of guilt, federal authorities say.
“Ever since I did that, I feel like my life is going to hell,” he said on a two-minute voice message he left on Langston’s phone, according to court documents.
“Every day of my life I wake up feeling guilty, I wake up hating myself for doing that. I had to, I had no choice … no, I had a choice, but I did it because I wanted to, for my family. But the price is high, more than I thought.”