A 27-year-old California man was sentenced on Monday to life in prison for murdering his wealthy older boyfriend in 2015 — a crime the judge called “shockingly evil.”
David Meza was convicted in May of domestic violence resulting in murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice in the slaying of 51-year-old Texas retiree Jake Merendino, who was found stabbed 24 times with his throat slit in a ravine near Rosarito, Mexico, on May 2, 2015.
In addition to his life sentence, Meza was ordered to serve an additional 20 years in prison for the conspiracy to obstruct charge.
Meza’s attorneys did not immediately return messages seeking comment on Monday night. He has maintained his innocence and his defense argued there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
In a news release after Meza’s sentencing, federal authorities described what he did to Merendino as a “near-decapitation.”
“The Merriam dictionary defines ‘heinous’ as hatefully or shockingly evil, abominable,” U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller said at the hearing on Monday. “This murder was shockingly evil — excessively so.”
“If we try to visualize what happened, we visualize blow, after blow, after blow, after blow, after slash, after slash, after slash, after blow, and repeat another three times,” Miller said, adding, “One can’t even imagine the torture and torment Mr. Merendino experienced.”
Authorities have argued that Meza killed his millionaire lover so he could inherit Merendino’s $3 million estate and his $273,000 oceanfront condo.
At the time of the murder, authorities said Meza, an online escort and former porn actor, was living a double life that Merendino knew nothing about: Meza had a pregnant girlfriend, Taylor Langston, in San Diego whom he later enlisted to help cover up his crime.
Langston pleaded guilty in February, in San Diego federal court, to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. 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.
Authorities charged Meza with conspiracy to obstruct justice because they believed he contacted “Joe” and asked him to provide a fake alibi for him and Langston.
“For the defendant to get [Merendino’s] money, [he] had to die,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra Foster argued during opening statements in Meza’s trial.
In handing down Meza’s sentence this week, Judge Miller agreed, noting that desperation — along with greed — seemed to fuel the crime: “His double life was collapsing under its own weight. A solution was the savage murder of Mr. Merendino.”
“Jake was a target,” Merendino’s friend Chuck Hart previously told PEOPLE. “This was a cold-blooded killing for profit by a snake in the grass that deserves to rot.”
Merendino, who 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, friends said, and he was smitten by Meza.
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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,” said 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, told PEOPLE Meza had a dark side.
“There was physical emotional and sexual abuse,” Levine said. “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 told PEOPLE he was an easy mark.
“I know that David was much younger and very handsome, so part of me was worried that he was a gold-digger, but [I] never thought that it will turn this violent,” said 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 infatuated.
“He bought him sports cars and motorcycles,” said 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.
On the day of his death, authorities said 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.
According to authorities, 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 while 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 guard he was going to help a friend stranded on the road. Two hours later, his vehicle was spotted by Mexican police, who then found his body at the bottom of the ravine.
“David just couldn’t be moving into a condo when he had a pregnant girlfriend in San Diego,” said Armani Pineda. “He really thought he was going to be able to get away with all of it.”
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Investigators 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, authorities pushed for answers.
Eventually, Meza told law enforcement 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.
Authorities didn’t buy his story and marshaled circumstantial evidence against him. According to court transcripts, he began complaining 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.”
After Monday’s sentence for Meza, prosecutors said it was a fitting punishment.
“Nothing can spare the victim or his family the agony of this unspeakable crime,” said U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman, “but today justice was delivered to a murderer who will suffer his own sort of agony — a lifetime in prison.”