Solana Beach woman accused of killing stepfather says she found him dead in her car

Jade Janks listens to defense attorney Marc Carlos. Michelle Camacho is at far left
Jade Janks listens to the opening statement of prosecutor Jorge Del Portillo on the first day of her murder trial at the Vista Courthouse last week. With her is her legal team, lawyers Marc Carlos and Michelle Camacho, at left.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jade Janks testified she never confronted her former stepfather about the hundreds of nude photos of her she’d found on his computer — one was his screen saver — days before Christmas 2020.

He died before she could do that.

Tom Merriman died splayed out in the back of Janks’ SUV, while he was sleeping off a mix of pills and whiskey, she said Friday in a Vista courtroom. He had been alive when she left the vehicle parked in her driveway on New Year’s Eve.

When she checked on New Year’s Day 2021, he was dead, she said. He was 64.

And then she panicked, she testified. She was the one who had picked him up from a care facility New Year’s Eve, where he had been rehabilitating after a fall. She destroyed his computer when he was gone.

“I didn’t want to get blamed for killing him,” Janks told a Vista Superior Court jury.

Janks, 39, of Solana Beach 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.

Prosecutors say Janks drugged and strangled her former stepfather after she stumbled across the cache of images of herself on his computer. Deputy District Attorney Jorge Del Portillo told the jury last week that Janks was “beyond freaked out” by what she found. She planned to kill him but make it look like an overdose, the prosecutor said.

Janks’ attorney Marc Carlos told jurors that Merriman was a substance abuser who died from a combination of poor health and “his own cocktail” of pills, and that there is no evidence of strangulation.

Janks, an interior designer, testified Friday, Dec. 16, that while Merriman was recovering from a fall, she was tidying up his apartment — they lived on neighboring properties on South Nardo Avenue — when she bumped his computer, waking it. She found hundreds of images.

“It was the most violating, awful, gut-punching feeling ever,” she testified. “I felt sick.”

Janks said the photos dated to her late teens and mid-20s. She surmised that Merriman — her former stepfather who still referred to her as his daughter — had found some of the images on her computer and took them, and others may have come from a long-missing digital camera and memory card.

She said she was scared of him. Janks said she decided to contact a stranger who’d once been referred to her as someone who could help her with security matters — a person the prosecutor has referred to as “a fixer.” She said she spoke to that person and they ultimately decided they would confront Merriman when he returned home later that month and force him to move.

Several days after she found the photo, Merriman was ready to leave the care facility. She picked him up and they stopped at a store to buy him whiskey.

When they got to his home, he’d already had whiskey and prescription drugs, and he fell twice getting out of her car.

The man who was going to help her confront Merriman was a no show. “I was a mess,” she said.

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:

“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.”

Janks said the texts were not what the prosecution implied. She just needed help getting Merriman out of her car and into his home.

One person who Janks implored for help that day did come by, but grew uneasy and left.

With no help coming, Janks decided to leave him in her car, she said. He’d done that before, sleeping off drunken episodes.

Janks said she found Merriman dead the next morning. She said she tried to move him to his home on her own, but he fell onto the driveway and she could not move him. She covered him with blankets and empty boxes, told unsuspecting neighbors she would come back to clean up the pile.

Meanwhile, the man who had grown uneasy called authorities that day — New Year’s Day 2021 — to report what he said happened the night before. That prompted deputies start looking for Merriman. A search of Merriman’s home turned up nothing.

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

Closing arguments are expected next week.