VISTA — A Solana Beach interior designer murdered her former stepfather by drugging, strangling and suffocating him with a plastic bag after she discovered nude photos of herself on his computer, prosecutors argued this week.
Opening statements were delivered Wednesday in the trial of Jade Sasha Janks, 39, who is charged with the murder of her former stepfather Thomas Merriman, 64, co-founder and president of Butterfly Farms in Encinitas, on New Year’s Eve of 2020. Janks has pleaded not guilty.
Defense attorneys for Janks have argued that drug use and declining health were the factors in Merriman’s death and that Janks loved him and acted as his caretaker. While her mother was no longer married to Merriman, Janks remained close to her former stepfather.
“Jade Janks loved her stepfather,” said defense attorney Marc Carlos. “Tom Merriman loved Jade Janks. Unfortunately, Tom Merriman was a troubled individual, and he loved her in different ways.”
Deputy District Attorney Jorge Del Portillo told jurors in the Vista courtroom that while Merriman was hospitalized for a fall in December, Janks was cleaning his bedroom and accidentally found illicit photographs of herself on his computer, which left her “distraught” and “disturbed to the core.”
As a result, prosecutors told the jury, Janks hatched a plan to kill her stepfather and later admitted to two different people that she had killed him.
Janks’ longtime friend Adam Siplyak testified on Thursday that Janks admitted to him at her home on New Year’s Eve of 2020 that she had killed her stepfather and that the body was in her car. Siplyak said she then asked him to move the body out of the car and into her stepfather’s apartment on the same property, which he refused.
Siplyak said the conversation was calm but that on the inside, he was panicking, believing he was standing at a murder scene.
“She said, ‘I killed him, and he’s in the back of my (Toyota) 4Runner,’” Siplyak recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t help you … no way, I’m out of here. I have a son to raise.’”
Siplyak testified that he left Janks’ residence and purposefully did not look inside the SUV in the driveway out of fear of becoming further involved. Siplyak contacted the police the following morning, New Year’s Day 2021, and told them what Janks had confided in him.
Deputies located Merriman’s body under a pile of trash in his driveway on Jan. 2.
Defense attorneys noted during opening statements that the medical examiner had identified Merriman’s cause of death as being acute intoxication by Ambien.
Following Siplyak’s testimony on Thursday, jurors heard from Justin Hoffman, a friend of Siplyak’s, who confirmed that Siplyak came to his home on the night of Dec. 31 after he visited with Janks and relayed what she had told him in vague detail.
New details also emerged regarding Merriman’s condition before his death. Sarah Jacob, a close friend of Jank’s at the time, and her fiance Justin Nuckolls both testified that Janks asked them to come over on the afternoon of Dec. 31 after her stepfather fell in the driveway.
Nuckolls and Jacob said they helped Merriman, who appeared to be in great pain, into his stepdaughter’s car and that she then took him to the hospital.
On New Year’s Day 2021 — the day after Janks allegedly admitted the murder — Jacob said Janks texted her again to ask for help regarding something with her dad, but they decided to stay home.
Jacob also said that Janks had previously told her about the photos on Merriman’s computer but that Janks had never expressed a desire to hurt her stepfather in any way or indicated that she was going to do anything about it.
At one point, Jacob said she was with Janks at her stepfather’s house and saw the screensaver on his computer — a photo of Janks “scantily clad.”
The trial is expected to continue each weekday for approximately two weeks.
The Coast News wire service contributed to this report.
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