It was Jan. 1, 2021, when the San Diego Sheriff’s Department got a call from a man saying his friend,, might have killed her stepfather, Tom Merriman.
Assistant district attorneys Jorge Del Portillo and Teresa Pham tell “48 Hours” correspondent Tracy Smith that the caller “told sheriff’s deputies she confessed to drugging him, suffocating him and strangling him to death.”
The call triggered a search for Merriman. His body was soon found, and Janks was arrested and charged with his murder. But she said she was innocent.
A STRANGE PHONE CALL
San Diego County, California, is an idyllic place — most of the time.
CALLER (to San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.): Well, I’ve got a situation, last night … A friend of mine asked me to come over. She said that she had possibly killed her stepdad …
CALLER:I stewed on this all night … I barely slept … and I’m scared to death … I don’t want to be part of this … I didn’t have anything to do with her …
That frightened phone call came in New Year’s Day 2021. The caller said his one-time girlfriend may have committed a murder.
CALLER: I don’t know if she really did this.
Jorge Del Portillo: The sheriff’s department received a call from a guy that said, my friend confessed to me last night that she murdered her stepfather.
San Diego County Deputy D.A. Jorge Del Portillo.
Jorge Del Portillo: He told deputies, “Hey … I don’t know if what she’s saying is true, I didn’t see him, I — but this is something I had to tell the police.”
The alleged victim was a 64-year-old man named Tom Merriman, who lived in Solana Beach, California.
Ramona Hamilton: I liked him. I thought he was very nice.
Ramona Hamilton and her husband George were Tom’s neighbors. Ramona knew him better, and she found out Tom also ran an unusual business: a butterfly farm.
Ramona Hamilton: I’m a gardener and I love butterflies.
Pat Flanagan also liked butterflies. He was Tom Merriman’s business partner out at the farm.
Pat Flanagan: He was my best friend.
Tracy Smith: Did he become kind of a butterfly expert?
Pat Flanagan: Oh, he is a butterfly expert.
Tracy Smith: You say, “he is.”
Pat Flanagan: Yeah.
Tracy Smith: You still talk about him in the present tense?
Pat Flanagan: Yeah. I do (emotional).
It was on Dec. 31, 2020, that Tom Merriman was last seen alive. Ramona and George Hamilton saw him in his stepdaughter’s SUV in their shared driveway.
George Hamilton: And he was sitting on this side on the passenger side, with his feet out, and his walker out in front of him and he looked like hell.
Tom had just spent more than two weeks in the hospital and a rehab center after a bad fall. He also had heart and liver problems.
Ramona Hamilton: He looked awful. I don’t even know if he knew me.
Tracy Smith: But at the time, it just seemed like maybe he got sent home from the hospital, heavily drugged.
Ramona Hamilton: Heavily drugged — yes.
George Hamilton: That’s all we knew. That’s all we knew.
And then George Hamilton saw Tom’s stepdaughter, 37-year-old Jade Janks. Tom Merriman had come into Jade’s life when she was 15, marrying her mom.
Jade and Tom were apparently close; she lived right next door. On this day, Jade had just driven him home.
Ramona Hamilton: He called her his daughter.
Tracy Smith: He called Jade his daughter?
Ramona Hamilton: Yes.
George Hamilton: Right.
Tracy Smith: They seemed close.
Ramona Hamilton: And they seem very close.
Ramona Hamilton: She was fixing dinner for him every night.
Ramona Hamilton: She seemed to take care of him —
Tracy Smith: What’d you think of Jade?
Ramona Hamilton: I thought she was a very pretty woman.
Jade had done some work in Ramona’s apartment.
Ramona Hamilton: She was an interior … decorator.
Heather Pearce: That’s Jade. … she can be a tomboy and a girlie girl all in the same day. … she can … get herself dirty for work, carrying rocks and concrete in her pickup truck … And … we’re dressed up … ready to go to, like, a nice fancy dinner.
Heather Pearce grew up next door to Jade in San Diego County.
Heather Pearce: Jade was very cool … I loved being around her.
Jade was 13 years older.
Heather Pearce: She’s definitely a little more than a big sister and a little less than a mom … her energy was just very strong … loving and caring and genuine and, so when you’re around her, you feel good.
She also knew Jade’s stepdad, Tom Merriman.
Heather Pearce: I think she always just loved him and cared about him.
Back at Tom’s place in Solana Beach, it was now Jan. 1 — the day after he’d gotten back from the rehab center, the day after the Hamiltons had seen him looking so poorly in the driveway.
This time they only saw Jade in the driveway. She was standing by a pile of trash and boxes.
George Hamilton: I saw her out at the side here with the boxes and cartons … a little while later … there’s a knock on the door … And she come to the door to tell me that she’d made a mess down there … but she’d clean it up later.
It was a few hours later when law enforcement pulled into their driveway.
CALLER (to San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.): I’m scared to death … I don’t want to be part of this … I didn’t have anything to do with her …
They came to investigate that strange phone call — the one that claimed Tom Merriman had been murdered.
Jorge Del Portillo: They were trying to find Tom. Where is Tom?
Jorge Del Portillo: They walked by this pile of trash in the driveway.
Jorge Del Portillo: They — they knocked on his door. They went inside.
They didn’t find Tom, but they did see his stepdaughter.
Jorge Del Portillo: When they saw Jade Janks driving out of her driveway, they pulled her over, brought her in for questioning and asked that very question, “Where is Tom?”
At the police station, Jade said she was cold, so they gave her a blanket.
DETECTIVE: Well, we’re trying to find Tom … do you know where Tom is?
JADE JANKS: No.
DETECTIVE: His family hasn’t seen him for over 48 hours, so —
JADE JANKS: He just got released from the hospital yesterday.
DETECTIVE: OK. Did you see him yesterday?
JADE JANKS: Yeah. I picked him up from the hospital.
DETECTIVE: OK. Do you know where he went?
JADE JANKS: No … what can you tell me other than he’s just missing?
DETECTIVE: We don’t know where he’s at, we’re trying to find him.
Eventually they let Jade go, but there was still no sign of Tom. Officers spent all night combing through his apartment looking for clues.
Then, just after the first morning light, one of the officers was walking down the driveway towards Tom’s apartment when she saw that pile of trash.
There’s a wheelbarrow, some boxes and some bags.
Jorge Del Portillo: She removed a trash bag from that trash and immediately saw the silhouette of a man.
Tracy Smith: And there he was. Tom Merriman.
Jorge Del Portillo: Tom Merriman … laid dead and buried.
HOW DID TOM MERRIMAN DIE?
Jorge Del Portillo: I’ve never seen that. … I’ve never seen a case where a body was buried under a pile of trash in the driveway.
The apparent crime scene was smack in the middle of the driveway of the lush compound just a mile from the beach.
Jorge Del Portillo: He was wearing the hospital bracelet that he was just in the hospital. … the same T-shirt and the same pajamas that he was discharged.
Jorge Del Portillo: As soon as they found the body … they knew we have our suspect, and they made the arrest.
On the morning of Jan. 2, 2021, Jade Janks was arrested and charged with Tom Merriman’s murder. But things were about to get complicated.
Jorge Del Portillo: She lawyered up and didn’t want to answer any more questions.
So, authorities continued to work the case — starting with that phone call.
CALLER (to San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.): It sounds like she killed this guy.
That call had come from that friend of Jade’s — a man named Adam Siplyak. He told police she called him to her apartment, and then she asked him for a favor.
ADAM SIPLYAK: … and asked me to move the body with her …
ADAM SIPLYAK: I said, “I can’t help you” … and I never saw the body.
Adam Siplyak may not have seen the body that night, but, eventually, he did tell police that Jade confessed to him. That she had knocked Tom out with an overdose of medicine and then strangled him.
It was a pretty dramatic story. And authorities were confident the autopsy would confirm that story — there would be physical evidence that Tom was strangled to death. But that’s not what happened.
Teresa Pham: I was actually there for the autopsy.
Assistant District Attorney Theresa Pham, who led the investigation, talked to the medical examiner.
Theresa Pham: So, what they found was, unfortunately, not a lot of physical evidence.
Tracy Smith: Right. So, you have this supposed confession of her saying she — she strangled him, but no evidence of strangulation.
Jorge Del Portillo: That’s right.
The final autopsy report said that the cause of Tom Merriman’s death was “acute Zolpidem intoxication.” Zolpidem is the generic name for the sleeping pill Ambien.
Tracy Smith: Is it possible that Tom Merriman died by accident? … he was in poor health. It’s not that many pills that he took.
Jorge Del Portillo: Certainly, it’s possible … but the evidence belied that notion. This was no accident.
But even if the autopsy didn’t point to strangulation, investigators sayclearly pointed to murder.
Tracy Smith: Jade’s cellphone was a gold mine.
Jorge Del Portillo: It was a gold mine.
Jade’s phone was full of texts.
Tracy Smith: How would you categorize those text messages?
Teresa Pham: Suspicious.
Jorge Del Portillo: Incriminating.
Teresa Pham: A plan.
According to prosecutors, that plan was to get rid of Tom Merriman one way or another.
Investigators say it all started on Dec. 23 — that’s about a week before Tom’s body was found. Tom was in the hospital after that bad fall. Jade says she was cleaning up his apartment when she found something.
Teresa Pham: So, she’s at Tom’s apartment. And his laptop, I guess, must have been in sleep mode or something like that, but she knocked into it, and it woke up. … And on the screensaver is a nude photograph of her in the shower.
And there was more. Much more.
Teresa Pham: She must have had his password. So, once she was able to get into his laptop … was when she was able to find, a lot more of nude photos of her.
Tracy Smith: Hundreds.
Teresa Pham: Hundreds.
Jorge Del Portillo: These were photos that she took willingly with her partner at the time. Some were of her in the shower naked.
Authorities don’t know how Merriman got those pictures, but Jade says she never gave them to him, and prosecutors say she panicked.
Jorge Del Portillo: In her words, she was beyond freaked out. That’s what she wrote to a friend, that she couldn’t shower alone, that she was vomiting at just the idea of looking at a shower based on what she had discovered.
Jorge Del Portillo: She’s sleeping with … a knife on the nightstand just in case he comes early home from the hospital.
According to prosecutors, that’s when Jade launches her plan. How? One of her friends connects her with a guy. A guy the prosecutors called “The Fixer.”
Jorge Del Portillo: There’s a text message where he tells Jade,” if you have a problem, I could fix it for you.” And that’s how we came up with the label, “The Fixer.”
The so-called “fixer” was a man named Alan Roach.
Tracy Smith: Who is Alan Roach?
Jorge Del Portillo: Alan Roach is a guy — He’s a security guard. … That’s what he does. … but I think he makes himself out to be someone else that he’s not.
Teresa Pham: We were thinking Jade views him as the character in “Pulp Fiction” — someone that you reach out to when you want one of your problems fixed. And that’s what he was, he was the fixer.
Tracy Smith: He was the fixer.
Tracy Smith: Is Alan a hit man?
Jorge Del Portillo: He is not a hit man. And — but what’s important is, what does Jade think Alan is.
Prosecutors say Jade wanted her fixer to help her get rid of Tom.
Jorge Del Portillo: She had a plan that she stuck to.
Tracy Smith: The plan was murder.
Jorge Del Portillo: The plan was murder.
JADE JANKS TAKES THE STAND
It was now December 2022 — two years after Tom Merriman’s body was found under that pile of garbage — and Jade Janks was about to stand trial for his murder.
Tracy Smith: Let me just ask you flat out, did Jade Janks murder her stepfather Tom Merriman?
Marc Carlos: Jade has maintained her innocence throughout this entire, uh, incident.
Jade’s attorney, Marc Carlos, insists this was not a murder, and says Jade had no reason to kill her stepfather.
Marc Carlos: Finding nude photos of yourself on a stepfather’s computer would make you angry, you know, might make you break off relationships with him. … But enough to kill somebody? I don’t think so.
He says Tom’s death was an unfortunate accident, brought on by his poor health and self-administered prescription drugs.
Marc Carlos: I think he took the medication himself. … He had multiple substances in his system. I think he made a cocktail of the drugs that he had with him and had a bad reaction to it and caused his — his death.
At trial, Jade was supported by family and friends, including her biological father, Steve Janks, and her longtime friend, Heather Pearce.
Heather Pearce: Tom was a mess, an absolute mess for a long time … there’s no way that she had like a plan and first degree and all of that. I was like, there’s no way because that’s not Jade.
Prosecutors Jorge Del Portillo and Theresa Pham were worried the jury might feel that Jade herself was the victim.
Teresa Pham: She’s a sympathetic defendant.
Jorge Del Portillo: She is.
Teresa Pham: I mean she found naked photos of herself on her stepdad’s computer.
Jade takes the stand to tell the jury what happened in her own words.
Jade says that ever since she met Tom when she was a teenager, they maintained a strong bond.
JADE JANKS: It’s hard to come by somebody you just feel that you can trust completely. And I did feel that way. … I referred to him as my father and he could call me his daughter.
Which is why, Jade tells the jury, it was so devastating to find those photos on Dec. 23 while Tom was in the hospital, and she was cleaning his apartment.
JADE JANKS: I bumped the mouse on his desktop computer and it — it shook the screen awake and I looked and there’s a picture of female breasts on the screen. … And I look … and … those — those are my breasts. … I — I just — I couldn’t believe it. I — I was in complete shock.
Jade describes finding even more on Tom’s computer.
JADE JANKS: There was a rolling screen, like a slideshow of pictures of me that was taken over the years.
MARC CARLOS: OK. What type of pictures were they?
JADE JANKS (crying): They were naked photos.
MARC CARLOS: OK, do you, did you ever give naked photos to, uh, to your stepfather?
JADE JANKS: No.
MARC CARLOS: I mean, did you ever show him naked photos of yourself?
JADE JANKS (crying): No.
Tracy Smith: And how did he get these photos?
Marc Carlos: Jade doesn’t know.
Tracy Smith: These were photos that Jade had taken of herself?
Marc Carlos: Jade and various boyfriends.
MARC CARLOS: Have you ever made any, uh, sexual overtures toward your stepfather?
JADE JANKS: No. No.
MARC CARLOS: Did you tell him that you had, uh, nude photos of yourself?
JADE JANKS: No.
MARC CARLOS: You never showed him anything similar to those, correct?
JADE JANKS: No, he was my dad.
Tom was still in the hospital, but Jade says she didn’t feel safe.
MARC CARLOS: You were afraid that he was going to come back and find out that you had found the photos, yes?
JADE JANKS: Yes.
MARC CARLOS: And you were worried about how he might react toward you.
JADE JANKS: Yes.
MARC CARLOS: Right. And he lived next door to you.
JADE JANKS: Yes.
And that’s why Jade says she got in touch with Alan Roach, who worked in security, the day she found those photos.
MARC CARLOS: So, why did you think that you needed somebody like Alan Roach?
Jade pauses as she considers her answer.
JADE JANKS: I — I was — I was scared. I mean, when I first saw the photos, I — I couldn’t even use the bathroom. … I just felt so disgusting. I couldn’t shower either. I was just scared. … I was scared of being, you know, nude and vulnerable. And I just — I wanted somebody to just look out for me and make sure that, you know, I was safe.
Over the next few days, Tom was moved from the hospital to a rehab center, and Jade felt she had to act.
JADE JANKS: I can’t continue just living next door to him and not feeling safe or feeling like this. I mean, I have to do something.
MARC CARLOS: When you say, “I needed to do something,” did you need to kill him?
JADE JANKS: No! … I wanted Tom to just go away and leave me alone.
According to Jade, Alan Roach was planning to come over after she brought Tom home, to help her confront him.
JADE JANKS: I wanted Alan to basically, you know, explain to him this — this is not OK. Or I could explain it, but Alan just be there just in case.
Jade says that on Dec. 31, in spite of her feelings, she was doing everything she could to help Tom who, she says, seemed preoccupied with finding medication.
JADE JANKS: He started calling at about 6:45 in the morning and he’s asking me to get him codeine, which I don’t really understand. … He says that he hasn’t, I think, slept and he wants to rest.
Jade took Tom out of the rehab at a little after 11 a.m. He had a bag of medication with him, including Ambien. Remember, the autopsy says Ambien is what killed him. Jade says, almost as soon as Tom got into her car, he also helped himself to her prescription medicines.
JADE JANKS: He kept saying things, “did you have any painkillers, is thi,s it? Oh, here” and then he just kind of took it.
Jade says Tom seemed fine when she stopped at a shopping plaza and texted Alan Roach to come meet her. She went into a couple of stores while she waited to hear back.
JADE JANKS: I was just getting started on a, um, a house project, so I just went to go get supplies and kind of shop around
Jade bought gloves, towels and a nylon cord—and some spray paint. She says these items were for a painting project.
JADE JANKS: I — typically, I lay plastic down … and kind of enclose it so that I’m not getting paint on all the, the foliage.
Jade still hadn’t heard back from Roach and took Tom home. She says Tom was now too groggy to walk on his own, and she couldn’t get him out of her car. She says she was worried about him and drove him back to the rehab for help.
JADE JANKS: I just explained, you know, my dad’s just been released and something’s wrong. You need to bring him back. They wouldn’t — they wouldn’t let me inside, though. … they’re pretty adamant with COVID. I couldn’t go inside.
Jade returned home with Tom, but says she was still not able to get him out of her car. Roach had finally texted back to say he couldn’t make it over after all, but sent his friend, a man named Brian Salomon, to help her get Tom inside.
MARC CARLOS: And had you ever met Brian Salomon before?
JADE JANKS: No.
Jade says Salomon wouldn’t help her with Tom and left right away. So, Jade reached out to her friend Adam Siplyak and asked him to come over. Siplyak arrived later that evening.
JADE JANKS: I just said — I mean, I — I — I was — I was just in tears. I had said that, you know, I want — I want to get him into my house, or, into his house.
Jade says Siplyak quickly got upset and left without helping her. And this is where Jade’s story doesn’t line up with Siplyak’s: remember, Adam was the person who called police on New Year’s Day.
ADAM SIPLYAK (to San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.): … she said she had possibly killed her stepdad …
Jade says she didn’t confess to anything. She says Siplyak was distressed by how sick Tom looked and that’s why he wouldn’t help her. After he left, Jade says she didn’t know what else to do and tried to get Tom situated in her car for the night so he could sleep off whatever he had taken.
JADE JANKS: I made sure he’s comfortable. And he had pillows, and I try to remember… Yeah. I mean, he had a blanket.
The next morning, in the cold light of New Year’s Day, Jade says Tom was still in her car when she realized the worst had happened.
MARC CARLOS: Did you touch Mr. Merriman?
JADE JANKS: Yes.
MARC CARLOS: What did you feel?
JADE JANKS (crying:) I — I tried to pull his leg and his pajamas and lifted it. His leg was cold.
MARC CARLOS: Ms. Janks, did you think Tom Merriman was dead at that point?
JADE JANKS: I knew he was.
JADE JANKS’ INCRIMINATING TEXTS
After Jade told the jury how she found Tom’s body, her own attorney challenged her.
MARC CARLOS: Did you think about calling 911?
JADE JANKS (crying): Um, I was scared to.
MARC CARLOS: Why were you scared?
JADE JANKS: I didn’t want to get blamed. I mean, I just — I was the one that picked him up. … And I didn’t want to get blamed for — for killing him.
And she tried to explain what she did with his body.
JADE JANKS (crying): I continued to — to pull him out. I still wanted to get him into his house. I — I mean, I didn’t — I didn’t know what else to do.
JADE JANKS (crying): I panicked. … I put the blanket over him, and I got empty boxes and just kind of stacked it, made it look just like a pile of debris.
Jade may have left Tom’s body in the driveway, but she says she had never meant him harm.
MARC CARLOS: I mean, did you want your stepfather dead?
JADE JANKS: No.
MARC CARLOS: Ms. Janks, did you grab him with your own two hands —
JADE JANKS (crying): No, I would never.
MARC CARLOS: — and did you strangle him?
JADE JANKS (crying): No.
MARC CARLOS: Would you — would you ever have done that to … Tom Merriman?
JADE JANKS: I wouldn’t do that to anybody. No.
And then, the prosecutors told their version of the story.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: You lied to the police about where Tom was?
JADE JANKS: I didn’t … I just asked for an attorney, and I kept asking for one.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: You didn’t want the police to know that Tom died in your car?
JADE JANKS: I wasn’t trying to hide it, but I didn’t want to go alone and tell them that.
Prosecutors said Jade was lying to cover up her plan.
Jorge Del Portillo: The plan was to drug him, suffocate him and stage it to look like an overdose.
Del Portillo says, after she picked Tom up from the rehab, Jade used his own prescription sleeping pills to knock him out.
And he says he has proof: Jade’s DNA is on those packs of pills.
Jorge Del Portillo: The package of Zolpidem, which is the Ambien sleeping pills, that had the defendant’s DNA on it, but not Tom’s. And I think it’s important that the jury heard that, that it was Jade Janks’ DNA on that Zolpidem pack.
And according to prosecutors. There’s much more evidence, too.
Jade, they say, left a real-time trail of clues that day. Remember her cellphone — the one they called “a gold mine”? It turns out it was packed with texts. Messages that they say outlined her plan to kill.
Theresa Phan: We’re talking 11, 12 minutes after being discharged, she sends a text message to Alan, the fixer, saying, “I just dosed the hell out of him.”
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: When someone says, I dosed the hell out of them, you would agree with me, that that means someone gave another person a whole lot of drugs, right?
JADE JANKS: I guess it’s a poor phrasing.
Del Portillo thinks Jade’s explanation is nonsense.
He says, first, she drugged Tom, and then she needed to stall for a bit and her texts even say that.
JADA JANKS TEXT: Stopping at Dixieland to stall.
Jorge Del Portillo: She was stalling for the drugs — to really kick in and make him asleep and unaware of what she was about to do.
Jorge Del Portillo: She’s stalling to see if this guy, Alan Roach, can come by and help her commit the murder.
And remember those supplies Jade said she picked up for a painting project? According to the prosecutors, they were actually Jade’s “murder kit.”
Jorge Del Portillo: She goes to the store and buys this murder kit. … zip ties, gloves, rope, and towels.
Prosecutors say, up to that point, Jade’s plan was on track. But by a little after noon, things started to go wrong.
Jorge Del Portillo: You could see from the text messages that she was in a panic.
Jade’s texting her so-called “fixer” Alan Roach. She writes, “He’s waking up.” And she adds, “Can you come over?”
But the “fixer” is not responding.
Jorge Del Portillo: This plot was a total mess, and it fell apart right away.
Finally, “the fixer” texts her back. He says he can’t come, but he’s sending someone he knows — that guy named Brian Salomon.
Tracy Smith: OK. So, the plan … is Brian will bring Tom into the house.
Teresa Pham: Yep.
Jorge Del Portillo: Brian Salomon later told us that when he went over to help Jade … that she told him something that he’ll never forget … “I want you to bring him inside, strangle him, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Brian Salomon quickly left the house without doing anything. And soon, Jade is back texting the missing “fixer” again.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: At 3 p.m., you texted Alan, “he’s waking up and I’m not sure how much longer I can control my temper …” is that right?
JADE JANKS: Yes, but that was to Alan.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: You texted Alan, “he’s waking up and getting way more aggressive. So, it’s way more real.” True?
JADE JANKS: True.
JADE JANKS: I think, again, I was just panicking and trying to urge Alan to come over.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: You would agree with me that this looks very suspicious, this text message?
JADE JANKS: Oh, yeah.
Jade texts Alan again: “I can’t keep a kicking body in my truck.”
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: Now that we know Tom was found dead in his driveway under a pile of trash that you put together, that this text message looks very suspicious. You’d agree with me, right?
JADE JANKS: I mean, I — yes.
It’s now around 4 p.m. Roach has disappeared.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: You texted Alan, “F*** he’s up. I guess I’m on my own.” True?
JADE JANKS: True.
Tracy Smith: How do you think she killed Tom?
Jorge Del Portillo: We believe that the evidence shows that she put a bag over his head … When the bag is not working fast enough, she has to strangle him, and she has no other choice. … It’s too late to back out now.
Investigators even found a plastic bag in Jade’s car. It had her DNA on the outside and Tom’s on the inside. But there’s a huge problem with the prosecution’s case, and that’s the autopsy.
The autopsy never said Tom was strangled; there weren’t any marks on his neck. So, what happened? How could Jade possibly have strangled him to death?
Jorge Del Portillo: That presented — a big difficulty for us strategically of going forward in trial.
Tracy Smith: Right. So, you have this supposed confession of her saying she — she strangled him, but no evidence of strangulation.
Teresa Pham and Jorge Del Portillo: Right.
Turns out the prosecutors had an answer for that.
They say it’s totally possible to strangle someone to death without leaving marks if the victim is already knocked out.
Teresa Pham: I think that is part of the plan, is to dose him just enough to where he’s incapacitated. … So, if you’re unconscious, your breathing is already depressed.
Teresa Pham: Once someone is already unconscious … it does not require that much pressure and would not leave bruising. It would not leave breakage of the cartilage that’s inside the throat, it would not leave physical evidence.
Jorge Del Portillo: It only takes four pounds of pressure to kill, to cut off the blood supply to your head. And when you and I shook hands earlier today, that was about 11 pounds of pressure. So, it’s less than a handshake to kill.
After she murdered Tom, prosecutors say she left his body in her car overnight, and the next morning, Jade had to do something about it.
In a story full of strange twists, this may be the oddest: prosecutors say Tom’s body was still in Jade’s car and she wanted to make his death look like an accident — like he’d overdosed on his own medicine. But she couldn’t get his 180-pound body out of the car, and into his apartment, and no one would help her. So, they say she drove to a hospital with Tom dead in the back of her car, picked up a wheelchair, put it in her car and drove back to Tom’s place.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: How did you get the wheelchair in your car if Tom was still in there?
JADE JANKS: Oh, it’s — it’s big. … The trunk was up, Tom was kind of, you know, his legs were akimbo, and he was laying down and I kind of hoisted it up into the back window of the 4Runner then rolled down.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: When you were doing this, at this point did you know Tom was dead?
JADE JANKS (sighs): I did but I didn’t want to know it yet.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: So, you suspected Tom was dead and you’re at Scripps Hospital and you don’t tell anyone at the hospital that Tom might need some help.
JADE JANKS: Correct.
And there was just one more thing.
On the day the cops came by looking for Tom they didn’t know anything yet — just that Tom might be missing. Jade jumped into her car.
Teresa Pham: When she was pulling out of her driveway when they were getting ready to do … the welfare check, she was pulling out of her driveway, and she was getting detained after being pulled over. The very last text message on her cellphone was to Alan Roach saying, “lose my number.”
Tracy Smith: What does that say to you?
Jorge Del Portillo: Get rid of the evidence.
THE VERDICT COMES IN
Jorge Del Portillo: That was the biggest hurdle in our case, we feel, was the jury might dislike Tom Merriman so much that they would vote to either acquit or reduce the murder to something else.
As Jade’s trial is drawing to a close, prosecutor Jorge Del Portillo wants to make sure the jury’s attention is on what Jade Janks has done, and not on Tom.
Jorge Del Portillo: Tom was not on trial. This wasn’t his trial. He didn’t get a trial. … She was his judge, jury and executioner. And so, it all comes back to Jade.
In his closing argument to the jury, Marc Carlos emphasizes what he says are the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case.
MARC CARLOS: What type of evidence do we have? We have a lot of speculation. … It’s speculation upon speculation upon speculation.
He argues Adam Siplyak’s story that Jade confessed is a lie.
MARC CARLOS: Mr. Siplyak — no credibility. He wants to get out of something that he thinks might have happened.
And he says Brian Salomon, who also claimed Jade confessed to him that day, can’t be telling the truth.
MARC CARLOS: He claims that immediately — and this was his testimony — immediately upon entering, she says, “he’s in the car, go strangle him.” This is somebody that Jade Janks has never met before.
Neither Adam Siplyak, Brian Salomon nor Alan Roach was charged with any crime in this case, and Marc Carlos urges the jury to stick to what he calls the truth.
MARC CARLOS: And the truth is they have zero — zero evidence to support a murder.
But Jorge del Portillo gets to make the last argument the jury will hear.
JORGE DEL PORTILLO: It starts with “I just dosed the hell out of him.” The plan is starting. And with Alan, it ends with “Lose my number. I’m getting pulled over.” And buried in between all of those text messages is a murder plot.
Jorge Del Portillo: Find her guilty of murder because the evidence proves it, the law requires it, and justice demands it.
The jury went out that afternoon and was back the next morning to continue their deliberations.
Jorge Del Portillo: Jury comes in at 9 a.m. We get the call at 9:30 a.m. “We have a verdict.” … We were shocked.
Teresa Pham: We were a little bit nervous.
Jorge Del Portillo: The quickest verdict that I’ve ever had was 15 minutes, and it was a not guilty. So, I don’t put a lot of stock in quick verdicts.
Tom’s business partner Pat Flanagan got a text about it.
Pat Flanagan: I was very anxious. My hands were — my hands were sweating. I was nervous.
JUDGE ROBERT KEARNEY: Has the jury reached its verdict?
JUROR #9: We have, Your Honor.
CLERK: We, the jury, in the above-entitled cause find the defendant, Jade Sasha Janks,…
Guilty of first-degree murder. Jade appears stunned.
Jorge Del Portillo: It was a huge relief.
Teresa Pham: Relief.
Jorge Del Portillo: It was an absolute relief.
Tracy Smith: And when you heard that word, guilty.
Pat Flanagan: It — it felt right.
Pat Flannagan says he saw Jade’s reaction to the verdict later – online.
Pat Flanagan: I still go back and watch that sometimes.
Tracy Smith: Why?
Pat Flanagan: Because I feel bad for Tom. … He died buried in trash. … now she gets to feel a little of that pain that we’ve all been feeling for years.
But there is still the matter of those photos.
Tracy Smith: Jade said that she found nude photos of herself on Tom’s computer.
Pat Flanagan: Yeah.
Tracy Smith: Do you believe that?
Pat Flanagan: I — I can’t disprove it. I find it — I — I don’t want to believe it.
Tracy Smith: It’s interesting you say you don’t want to believe it.
Pat Flanagan: Yeah.
Tom’s hard drive was not recovered after his body was found, but prosecutors, who spent two years investigating this case, believe Jade is telling the truth — at least about this.
Tracy Smith: Did you have any doubt that these photos actually existed?
Jorge Del Portillo: We talked about that. … But we had no doubt. We found that photo on Tom’s laptop showing that it had been used as a wallpaper, showing that it had been on his laptop since August of 2019, so we had no doubt that these photos existed.
In March 2023, three months after she was convicted of Tom’s murder, Jade was in court for her sentencing, and cried as she listened as a local pastor shared his memories of Tom and the butterfly farm.
FRANK MODIC: I still remember Tom and wish I could drop by for a smile, to ask a question about plants or butterflies or just to recharge those batteries that keep seeming to — to wear down as I get older. I believe my life is richer because I knew Tom.
Jade’s biological father, who had not spoken publicly since she was charged, put the focus back on Tom’s betrayal.
STEVEN JANKS: Firstly, I can only imagine what she went through when she found out that Tom, her stepfather, a person she trusted, that she called dad, was a sick, perverted individual. … All I can say is this fight is not over. I truly believe that an injustice has taken place.
Jade Janks spoke that day, too.
JADE JANKS: Tom came into my life when I was just a little girl and exerted influence during that early stage of development when I was still figuring things out. Unfortunately, that influence manifested itself into inappropriate touch, coercion, reckless behavior, and complete violation of what I now realize was years of psychological manipulation. All of this came crashing down on me when I found hundreds of naked photos of myself on his computer, I felt shattered.
Jade did not tell this story during trial, and “48 Hours” can’t verify it. Jade still insists she didn’t kill Tom, and only admits to covering up his dead body.
JADE JANKS: I’m still picking up the pieces and it’s my sincerest hope that over the next few years I can put the pieces back and heal from this trauma. I’m sorry I didn’t act the way I was supposed to that day. I think about it every day since.
The judge sentenced Jade to serve 25 years to life. As the prosecution looks back on a difficult and emotional case, they say it could have easily turned out very differently.
Jorge Del Portillo: She could have gotten away with murder had she carried out her plan … and the police did a welfare check and found Tom laying in his — in his bed, she would have got away with murder.
Jade Janks will be eligible for parole in 2038. She is appealing her conviction.
Produced by Chuck Stevenson and Sarah Prior. Cindy Cesare is the development producer. Lauren Turner Dunn is the field producer. Gregory Kaplan and Ken Blum are the editors. Peter Schweitzer is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.
Elaine Hadley is a dedicated journalist covering the ever-evolving landscape of U.S. news. With a keen interest in politics and a commitment to uncovering the truth, she provides insightful commentary and in-depth analysis on domestic issues. When not reporting, Elaine enjoys exploring the diverse cultures and landscapes of the United States.