Calif. Man Allegedly Murders Wealthy Male Lover — and Then Covers It Up with His Pregnant Girlfriend

A California man is on trial this week for allegedly murdering his wealthy male lover in a plot to gain millions, prosecutors say

A California man is on trial this week for allegedly murdering his wealthy male lover in Mexico two years ago in a plot to gain millions — all while also dating the woman who was carrying his child, prosecutors say.

David Enrique Meza, 25, is accused of fatally stabbing his 52-year-old boyfriend, Jake Clyde Merendino, in the early morning hours of May 2, 2015. Meza faces charges of interstate or foreign domestic violence resulting in murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Merendino was found dead in a ravine next to a highway between Rosarito and Ensenada, Mexico, in an area known as Los Arenales, authorities say. He was stabbed more than 20 times, and his throat was slit.

Federal prosecutors allege Meza killed Merendino because the younger man stood to receive millions of dollars from the wealthy Texas retiree’s estate, as well as a luxury oceanfront condo he’d recently purchased in Baja California, Mexico.

“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, which began Tuesday, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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A few months before his death, Merendino made Meza the sole heir to his multi-million dollar estate, authorities claim.

Meza’s defense attorney, Reuben Cahn, said in court that there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence linking his client to the crime, the Union-Tribune reports. (PEOPLE could not reach Cahn for comment.)

One of Merendino’s relatives, however, is sure of Meza’s guilt. Cousin Sheila Stevens says, “There is just too much coincidence for it not to be him.”

“I was totally shocked,” Stevens tells PEOPLE. “[Merendino] was one of the nicest and most giving people [you] would hope to meet.”

A former coworker, Kristen Quigley Edwards, seconds Stevens’ description, saying Merendino was “just an all-around nice guy.” He was chatty in the break room and a fan of going out with a group for karaoke outside work, she says.

“To be murdered — it was horrible,” Stevens says. “But to be murdered the way he was murdered, I don’t have an adjective for that.”

Sheila Stevens

A Double Life?

Meza and Merendino met online in June 2013, while Merendino was vacationing in San Diego, according to court documents filed by prosecutors, which were obtained by PEOPLE. Meza was an online escort who used various other names, including Enrique.

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, court records show. 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.

Stevens, Merendino’s cousin, says she saw him about a month before his death, at his apartment in Houston. “He was talking about spending time in Mexico, but he never mentioned anyone specifically,” she recalls. “He was very happy.”

A naturally outgoing person and an only child, Merendino “loved people” and previously owned a jewelry store in Texas, in his 20s, Stevens says. He inherited his wealth from his parents, both of whom worked for ExxonMobil.

“I have always known him to be a very giving person,” Stevens says. He “was an excellent pianist,” she says. “He played almost anything you asked him.”

But Merendino was not Meza’s only romantic attachment, according to federal authorities: They claim that 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 and Meza maintained a romantic relationship throughout the time that Meza was dating Merendino,” court records allege. “During the entirety of Meza’s relationship with Merendino, Meza was exchanging loving messages and texts with Langston, promising to marry her and raise a family together.”

Meza and Langston got engaged in September 2013, only a few months after he met Merendino online, and she announced she was pregnant in October 2014, according to the documents.

In January 2016, prosecutors and the defense apparently began describing Langston as Meza’s wife, though it was unclear when they married, the Union-Tribune reports.

Langston told federal authorities that she had no idea there was a relationship between the two men. Instead, she said, she thought that Meza was working as Merendino’s bookkeeper.

Meza apparently fed this confusion, court records allege: “In early 2015, Meza started complaining to Langston about Merendino and about his job, but promised that it ‘would all be over very soon,’ ” the documents state.

About this time, Meza was also allegedly telling friends and family that Merendino was deathly ill, according to the court records.

“Meza told people that upon Merendino’s death, he stood to inherit Merendino’s Rosarito condominium, Merendino’s car and a significant sum of money pursuant to Merendino’s will,” the documents allege.

U.S Attorney’s Office

A Call for Help

Federal authorities say Merendino was lured to his death in May 2015 after Meza told him his motorcycle had broken down on the side of the road.

According to officials, Meza and Merendino checked into Bobby’s by the Sea hotel in Baja California on May 1, 2015, the day before Merendino died.

Later that night, Meza returned to his apartment in San Diego but then drove his motorcycle back to Rosarito just after 12:30 a.m. the next morning, authorities allege. Langston followed in a SUV.

Meza then tricked Merendino into leaving his hotel room around 1 a.m., authorities claim. Merendino told a security guard that he was leaving to help a friend stranded on the road, according to court documents.

Two hours later, Merendino’s silver Range Rover was spotted by Mexican police, who then found his body at the bottom of a ravine, a few miles from his hotel.

Meza crossed back into the U.S. on his motorcycle just before 4 a.m. that day, according to authorities. Langston crossed into the U.S. about 25 minutes later, in a black SUV with no license plates.

“It was a vicious killing,” Stevens says of her cousin’s death, “and if this guy [Meza] did it, I want him never to see the light of day again.”

A friend of Merendino’s in Rosarito describes some suspicions about Meza’s intentions, but not that he might be dangerous.

“I know that David was much younger and very handsome, so part of me was worried that he was a gold-digger,” restaurant owner Bo Bendana tells PEOPLE. “But [I] never thought that it [would] turn violent.”

Merendino was “very funny and very generous,” Bendana says. And “he loved David so much.” However, Bendana says he never met Meza, despite Merendino’s plans to the contrary, as Meza was always unavailable.

On the night Merendino died, Bendana says he’d asked him to reserve his restaurant’s “most romantic table,” with the “most expensive bottle of champagne” — to celebrate his Baja California condo closing with Meza.

“David was a con, and he knew what he was doing from day one,” Bendana says.

Chuck Hart, an acquaintance of Merendino who met him and Meza in Mexico a few months before the killing, tells PEOPLE something similar: “He was very much smitten by David. [But] I didn’t think it was a mutual relationship. I thought David was along for the ride.”

They all had drinks together once, Hart says. Meza “didn’t say a word the entire time. He just stared at everybody. I didn’t see any enthusiasm … at all.”

“[It’s] heart-breaking,” Bendana says, “because Jake worked hard his whole life and [had] been waiting for the moment where he [could] retire and spend the rest of his life with the man he loved in a town he loved.”

A Contested Will

Just over two weeks after Merendino’s death, an attorney in Texas — who had drawn up his will in 1998 — filed probate paperwork, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. But Meza contested it and presented a handwritten will on hotel letterhead, dated Dec. 21, 2014, stating that he was the sole beneficiary to Merendino’s estate.

Meza later told investigators he didn’t kill Merendino but did lure 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.

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 had 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.

“Meza asked Joe to lie to the police and tell them that Meza and Langston were at Joe’s house the night Merendino was killed,” court documents claim.

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.”

His murder trial is expected to last approximately two weeks.

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