SAN DIEGO (CN) – Jurors in San Diego’s federal court heard intimate details Thursday about the personal lives of a wealthy Texas man and the 20-something male escort-turned-boyfriend accused of murdering him in Mexico two years ago.
“We’re so deeply into the nature of the relationship between these two people,” U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller said in explanation of his decision to allow intimate emails about the men as evidence. Witness questioning had already taken a turn for the personal.
David Enrique Meza was wedged between his defense attorneys Reuben Cahn and Richard Deke Falls as a handful of witnesses close to Meza’s murdered boyfriend, Jake Clyde Merendino, testified. Merendino apparently “lived large” after inheriting millions from his parents, who worked for Mobil Oil.
Merendino and Meza met online in 2013 when the 52-year-old Texan replied to a personal ad Meza had posted offering male escort services for gay men.
Meza has been accused of stabbing Merendino to death and dumping his body on the side of the road just south of the U.S.-Mexico border on May 2, 2015, the day after Merendino closed escrow on a luxury beachfront condo in the Mexican beach town of Rosarito.
In a surprise announcement Thursday, attorneys presented a handwritten will on hotel stationery that Meza produced after Merendino’s death, claiming a forensic handwriting expert had found Merendino had likely written it. But the date on the will was apparently changed, the attorneys said.
The stationery came from a hotel Meza and Merendino stayed at just before Merendino was killed. Testimony on Thursday revealed that Meza had talked to a friend about the will after Merendino’s death, saying he planned to invest the money and save as much as possible because he “had to pay the attorneys” representing him.
Attorneys questioned many of Merendino’s close friends about the on-and-off relationship between the two men, which apparently got more serious right before Merendino’s death. He had just decided to move to Rosarito to be closer to Meza, who lived in San Diego.
While Merendino’s friends testified he was dating Meza exclusively, Meza apparently wanted to continue working as a male escort.
Witnesses said Meza was also dating a woman, Taylor Marie Langston, who was pregnant with his child. Merendino’s friends believed he knew nothing about Meza’s other relationship.
Langston pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to obstruct justice related to Merendino’s murder and is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
Jennifer Sojka, Merendino’s cousin, said Merendino had a big heart and was “very, very generous.”
She smiled when prosecutor Alexandra Foster played a voicemail Merendino had left on Sojka’s phone about moving to Rosarito in which he gushed about his new luxury condo being “fabulous, fabulous, fabulous.”
Like the other witnesses who testified Thursday, Sojka said Merendino had texted her naked photos of Meza that appeared to be taken by a professional photographer.
The mood changed when defense attorney Falls warned Sojka he was going to ask her difficult personal questions about her cousin. He wondered if she knew Merendino liked to “solicit young, Latino male prostitutes online” and if she knew “how much he drank?”
The defense painted a picture of a man who lived two lives as Sojka admitted she didn’t know those things about her cousin, nor did his other friends who testified Thursday.
Interior designer Barbara Armani from Houston, a friend who worked on furnishing and revamping Merendino’s properties, also took the stand on Thursday.
She said Merendino “spent lavishly” on travel, property and eating out and that she helped him renovate a condo in Houston, which he turned around and sold just months later so he could move to Rosarito.
Armani had visited the Rosarito condo, which she was also helping to furnish and renovate for $75,000. She said Merendino had been contacted by Homes International, which wanted to feature his condo on its television show.
Armani was the only one of Merendino’s friends testifying that day who had met Meza in person.
She said Meza didn’t talk much and she knew he was “dating and seeing Merendino, but not often,” even though her friend bought Meza expensive clothes, a motorcycle and cars.
Armani said her friend “bragged” about Meza, showing her naked pictures of him and one of him on the motorcycle Merendino bought him. “Look how good he looks on the motorcycle, he’s so buff,” he had told her.
“J thought he was gay,” she said, using the nickname many of Merendino’s friends employed. “He was very buff, not tall, but very muscular.”
When pressed about their relationship, she said they did not act like a typical couple.
Meza’s attorney asked Armani if she had told investigators that “Merendino showed Meza off like a possession,” and whether her friend had bragged about Meza’s physique and the size of his “sexual organs.”
“Jake had a fondness for young men he described as boys. He would give his number to waiters at restaurants,” Armani said.
Cahn went on to read email exchanges between Merendino and some of the men he solicited, including one that read, “Older guy here, 50, who is interested and willing to pay money for right guy. A big plus is that you are Mexican, love Latin guys! Interested in your services, do you charge hourly or by the job?”
Armani said she knew Merendino and Meza “hooked up after meeting online,” but she did not know they met through an online escort service.
Another one of Merendino’s friends, Shepard Smith, said he and his friend had a “standing dinner date” once a month that usually lasted for hours. Merendino also showed Smith naked pictures of Meza.
“God, the picture was so good … [Meza would] be winking and smiling like ‘look at me, look at me,’” Smith said.
When asked to identify Meza in the courtroom, Smith said, “I’m really sorry to say this, but I really don’t recognize him with his clothes on. He used to be a bigger, stronger man.”
Smith said Meza and Merendino “weren’t really a couple, but they were together” and that he cautioned his friend about moving to Rosarito to be closer to Meza. Meza could leave and Merendino would be “out there in the middle of nowhere in Mexico,” Smith added.
Merendino assured Smith that, “Daddy’s got the upper hand,” which he understood to mean Meza didn’t want to lose out on the gifts, money and benefits he received from being in a relationship with Merendino.
The trial is expected to continue through the end of April.