Solana Beach interior designer guilty in death of stepfather

Jade Janks on first day of trial, Dec. 7, 2022, at Vista Courthouse
Jade Janks listens to the opening statement of Deputy District Attorney Jorge Del Portillo on the first day of her murder trial at the Vista Courthouse. With her is her legal team, defense attorneys Marc Carlos and Michelle Camacho, at left.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jade Janks said she found Tom Merriman, 64, dead in her car; prosecutors said she drugged and strangled him after learning he had stolen nude photos of her


A Solana Beach interior designer was found guilty Wednesday, Dec. 21, in the death of her former stepfather, who prosecutors said she killed after finding nude images of herself on his computer — including one he kept as the screensaver.

Jade Janks, 39, was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury that deliberated about a day in Vista Superior Court. She faces a sentence of 25-years to life in prison at a hearing set for April 3.

Prosecutors had accused Janks of drugging and strangling Tom Merriman, co-founder of the education and research nonprofit Butterfly Farms, which had a half-acre vivarium in Encinitas.

The prosecution said Merriman, 64, was killed New Year’s Eve 2020, hours after Janks picked him up from a medical care facility where he’d been rehabilitating after a fall. His official cause of death was an overdose of prescription sleeping pills.

Janks found the compromising photos on Merriman’s computer about a week before he died, Deputy District Attorney Jorge Del Portillo told the jury.

He said the find left Janks “beyond freaked out,” and she plotted to kill Merriman and make it look like an accidental overdose. He also said she strangled him with her hands and put a plastic bag over his head.

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

The trial began Dec. 7. She took the stand last week.

Tom Merriman
(Photos from U-T Staff)

Janks testified that Merriman and her mother were long divorced, but she still took care of him, and he referred to Janks as his daughter. A few years ago, Merriman and Janks ended up as nextdoor neighbors.

She testified that she was tidying up Merriman’s apartment while he was in a medical facility in late December 2020. She bumped his computer, and it awoke with her nude photo as the screensaver. Horrified, she searched the computer and found hundreds more images.

The images were several years old — some dating back to her late teens — and included those taken consensually with a former boyfriend. Janks surmised that Merriman had swiped the photos from her laptop and from a long-missing digital camera.

Janks testified that she planned to confront Merriman. And because they were neighbors who shared a driveway on South Nardo Avenue, she wanted him to move away.

Del Portillo told the jury that Janks was so distraught that she plotted to kill Merriman and make it look like the death was accidental. The prosecutor showed the jury dozens of texts Janks sent to various people in the hours after she picked Merriman up from the care facility. He said she was seeking help with her plan as the day progressed.

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.”

Janks said the texts were not what the prosecution said they were.

She said the discovery of the photos left her terrified of Merriman. While Merriman was still in the rehab facility, Janks contacted a stranger she’d long ago been told was someone who could help her with security matters — a person the prosecutor has referred to as “a fixer.”

She said she wanted that person to help her confront Merriman. But when she brought Merriman home, the man was a no-show.

Janks testified that Merriman drank whiskey on the short ride home and fell twice when they arrived. He was intoxicated and too heavy for her to move, she said. A friend stopped by and helped her get him back into her car so she could return him to the rehab facility. But, she said, staff at the facility refused to open the doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After pleading for help from several people, Janks said, she decided to let him sleep it off in her SUV in their shared driveway.

She said she went outside in the morning, New Year’s Day 2021, and found him dead. She said she panicked and left his body in the driveway, piling boxes and blankets on it.

Deputies found his body under the pile of trash the next day.

City News Service contributed to this report.