Murder on Montana Ave. 

Was LAUSD teacher Sasha Merman slain to hide Daniel Becerril's greed?

Thursday, May 10 2012

The living room of Sofia Merman's West Hollywood apartment is filled with photos of her only son. Sasha in cap and gown, Sasha sitting for his Navy portrait, Sasha and his mother standing in the Black Sea in Odessa. The images are tucked inside stacks of photo albums and sit in frames beside his college and postgraduate diplomas, certificates of excellence as an art teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and blown-up copies of his intricate pen-and-ink drawings.

Shortly after her son's 2008 murder, Sofia sat in the living room with Sasha's friend and financial planner, Daniel Becerril, who first met Sasha when he was invited onto the campus of Markham Middle School to help teachers invest their retirement funds. Sofia asked Becerril if he'd heard about Sasha's killing. He said yes. She asked why he hadn't called to express his sympathies. He said he didn't know why.

"He said, 'Yes, yes — he come to us, we love him, he met our children who love him so very much,' " Sofia Merman relates in a thick Russian accent. She remembers telling Becerril, "Yes, [Sasha] told me you were nearly older brother, and he help you."

click to flip through (12) ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN

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But there was one thing she did not share with Becerril that day nearly four years ago, as she mourned the slain Sasha. "I didn't tell him what I tell my son [about Becerril]: 'His face is like a killer.' "

Months earlier, on March 8, 2008, Sasha Merman took Sofia out for Russian Mother's Day. He had good news: Becerril had helped him incorporate his art business, Sasha's Illusions. Since 2001, he had not only taught art in public school but also maintained a website, Sashas-Illusions.com, where he displayed his surrealistic giclée prints and sought the attention of potential collectors.

At the restaurant, he told his mother how Becerril advised him to set everything up, including incorporating in Delaware for the favorable tax laws. Sasha even transferred his beautiful Santa Monica condo — inherited from his uncle, which allowed him, on a modest teacher's salary, to live on pricey Montana Avenue near the ocean — into the LLC's name.

But his mother had a bad feeling about Becerril and warned her son that night: "I said, 'He has the face of a killer.' " Her son replied, "Mommy, what you talking about?"

Ten days later, on March 19, the manager of the Five Twenty condominium complex in Santa Monica, where Sasha lived, found a note on her door. It was from Sofia Merman, asking the manager to check in on her son in the condo above. Sofia hadn't heard from Sasha since Monday night, yet they usually spoke several times a day.

The manager, who is not identified by name in documents obtained by L.A. Weekly, let herself into Sasha's second-floor apartment. She turned on the lights — which illuminated a horrific scene, later dutifully recorded by the L.A. County Coroner:

"The decedent was located lying supine on the floor in the southwest portion of the living room, with his back covered in a partially bloody towel."

Blood and signs of a struggle were everywhere — blood on the floor, blood on the bookshelves, a broken vase and an overturned potted tree. Somebody had viciously stabbed Sasha Merman eight times from behind — once in the back of the head, twice behind his left ear, once in the back of the neck, four times in his back.

In an outpouring of shock and grief over the baffling murder of their Markham yearbook adviser and arts teacher, students weighed in online: "i loved him very much n i miss him soo much," wrote commenter Jessica. Dawn Montgomery wrote, "YEARBOOK LOVES U AND WANTS YOU TO COME BACK ANYTIME CAUSE IT DOESNT SEEM REAL TO US." One friend directly addressed the killer: "You are not even an animal. You are garbage. ... You are weakness and fear personified."

Homicide detectives from the Santa Monica Police Department quickly identified Becerril as a person of interest in the murder. A few months later, a complaint by another financial client of Becerril's prompted an investigation by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Yet four years would elapse before FINRA would finally bar Becerril from the financial industry — on Feb. 23, 2012. And exactly one week later, on March 1, Santa Monica police arrested him on suspicion of murder.

Leading criminal defense attorney Charles Lindner, whom Becerril has hired to defend him, says of Santa Monica police: "I don't know why they are charging him with murder. I can tell you that nothing had changed in the four years since 2008, and apparently Santa Monica PD just decided that they weren't going to get any more, and after four years of doing nothing, proceeded to arrest my client and charge him with murder."

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