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Murder trial opens for Solana Beach woman accused of killing former stepfather

Trial started Wednesday for a Solana Beach interior designer who prosecutors say drugged and strangled her former stepfather after she stumbled across nude images of herself on his computer — including one he kept as the screensaver.

The discovery of the images, Deputy District Attorney Jorge Del Portillo said, left Jade Sasha Janks “beyond freaked out.”

“This was no accident. This was murder by design,” Del Portillo said.

But Janks’ attorney told a Vista Superior Court jury that 64-year-old Thomas Merriman died from a combination of poor health and “his own cocktail” of pills.

“The medical examiner will not tell you it was strangulation. The science does not support strangulation,” attorney Marc Carlos told jurors.

Janks, 39, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Merriman, co-founder of the education and research nonprofit Butterfly Farms, which had a half-acre vivarium in Encinitas.

Deputies found his body Jan. 2, 2021, underneath a pile of trash in a driveway near his home on South Nardo Avenue in Solana Beach.

The prosecutor said the cause of death was acute intoxication from sleeping pills. But, he said, Janks told people she had drugged and tried to suffocate him.

Del Portillo said Merriman died New Year’s Eve 2020, hours after Janks picked him up from a care facility where he had been rehabbing following a fall. Merriman was long divorced from Janks’ mother, but Janks still helped him out.

According to the attorneys, Janks was tidying up Merriman’s apartment in late December 2020 when she bumped his computer, waking it and then seeing her nude photo as the screensaver. She searched the computer and found several more images.

Neither attorney indicated how or where Merriman may have gotten the photos, which the prosecutor said Janks had taken consensually with her boyfriend more than a decade earlier.

Del Portillo said she began to plot his death, deciding to make it look like an overdose when he came home. The prosecutor showed the jury dozens of texts between Janks and people she sought to help her that day after she picked up Merriman from the care facility.

Among the texts the prosecutor said she sent to various people as the day progressed:
“I just dosed the hell out of him.”
“He’s waking up. I really don’t want to be the one to do this.”
“I can’t carry him alone and I can’t keep a kicking body in my trunk.”
“I am about to club him on the head as he is waking up.”
“I’m not strong enough. He is very aware now and I am on my own.”

The prosecutor referred to one of the people she repeatedly asked for help as a “fixer of sorts.”

Another person whom Janks implored for help that day did come by, but grew uneasy and left. He called authorities the next day — New Year’s Day 2021 — to report what he said happened. That prompted deputies start looking for Merriman. A search of Merriman’s home turned up nothing, but he was missing.

As deputies were leaving, they noticed a large pile of trash, boxes and blankets in the driveway. Underneath it, they found Merriman’s body.

Carlos, Janks attorney, said Merriman was an alcoholic and abused pills, was in chronic pain and in failing health. He said Merriman left the care facility with a large number of prescription pills, including sleeping pills, and suggested he had taken them on his own.

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