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Murder on Montana Ave.

ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN

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."

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."

In the intervening time, the Weekly has learned, Becerril was free, unfettered and, prosecutors say, aggressively defrauding unsuspecting clients in what the District Attorney's Office describes as a Ponzi scheme whose full extent is still unknown.

The DA is prosecuting Becerril on two fronts: allegations of murdering his friend Merman in order to shut him up, and allegations of feeding an incessant need for cash and glitzy cars by orchestrating the bold forging of signatures to steal a home out from under a Covina woman who unfortunately had used Becerril's firm, AP Financial Group, as her financial adviser.

Santa Monica police say it could take years to determine all the victims' names and losses. They say Becerril led "a very broad and deep" fraud ring. Losses are expected to be in the millions.

On May 15, Becerril faces a preliminary hearing in downtown Los Angeles on murder and 31 other charges, including forgery, money laundering and grand theft. Becerril's wife, sister and an associate, Abram Guajardo — from AP Financial — face trial for fraud on June 6.

Sasha Merman's killing stands out in part because it unfolded on one of California's toniest streets, Santa Monica's Montana Avenue. But it was also — unusually — the second murder in Santa Monica in four days. Earlier that week a Maxim model was strangled in her apartment three miles from Merman's condo. When the Los Angeles Times wrote the story up, one neighbor wondered if the two strange slayings might be linked to the economic downturn.

The Times wrote: " 'When crimes like this happen in Santa Monica, it doesn't bode well for the whole nation,' said Jack Rothstein, 57, a fiction writer who was passing by the crime scene this morning." He turned out to be an unusually prescient passerby.

Montana Avenue is a wide, tree-lined boulevard that runs along one side of the Brentwood Country Club through Santa Monica all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Five Twenty complex sits five blocks from a palm-dotted jogging path overlooking the beach in a neighborhood frequented by celebrities like Jennifer Garner, Amber Valletta and Brooke Shields.

Sasha Merman — beloved art teacher and yearbook adviser at a tough school in Watts, warm and well-known figure in the tight-knit Russian community rooted in West Hollywood, and right-wing position player on the Fight'in Squirrels hockey team — lived in a west-facing unit at the Five Twenty, with a fireplace, hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and eat-in kitchen.

Just east on Montana is a high-end business district filled with boutiques, cafés, a cheese shop and an embarrassment of frozen dessert riches — Menchie's, Pinkberry and Italian ice only steps from one another.

From his home on Montana Avenue, it's 22 miles and almost an hour's drive with traffic to Edwin Markham Middle School in mostly Latino and largely low-income Watts. The school is not far from L.A.'s largest housing projects, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens, home to the rival Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods.

In 2007 there were 1,600 students at Markham. For decades the school ranked among the lowest-performing in the state, defeating all attempts to fix it. Shortly after Merman's 2008 murder, in a last-ditch effort to turn Markham around, the entire teaching staff was dismissed and replaced by new teachers and administrators selected by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's reformist Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Merman started there in 2001. In 2002, an errant blood clot put Merman's uncle Michael, the closest thing he had to a father, on a ventilator. Michael Merman passed away in a matter of days.

The Soviet immigrant had been a successful computer engineer. Michael Merman held five patents and helped design the interface for ATMs at Citibank. When his nephew Sasha was 7, Michael invited the boy and his mother to join him in L.A.

But for five years, the Soviets refused to let Sofia Merman leave. She worked at a children's center, caring for the offspring of atomic researchers. The paranoid Soviets suspected she might "know" things. She received a visit from the KGB. "They were very nice," she says, but they said she should think twice about moving to the United States.

But Sofia Merman was worried about her son's safety. Anti-Semitism in Moscow was rampant, anti-Israeli propaganda was common, and they were Jewish. In addition, Sasha had a dark complexion, so Muscovites might assume he was from the Caucasus region and come down hard on him for that.

"If not for this, they will kill him for that," she remembers thinking. So in 1985, when Sasha was 12, they moved to America, into a modest apartment in a heavily Russian-immigrant neighborhood in West Hollywood, where she still lives.

Sasha attended Fairfax High, made friends and later joined the U.S. Navy. He used his GI money to study illustration at Otis College of Art and Design.

A fan of surrealism, he showed great promise. Yet even after he received formal training at this top school, Merman's favorite tools were simple: a pen and a napkin.

"He would take just regular napkins, restaurant napkins, and a black felt-tip pen," recalls Milla Goldenberg, a former girlfriend of Merman's, "and just kind of doodle on a napkin. And he would come up with these amazing creations — just an outpouring of whatever was in his head, a stream of consciousness onto the napkin."

Using digital tools, Merman would layer elements from those pen-and-ink images onto color-saturated fantasy landscapes featuring an ice floe, a desert or a rainforest.

When Michael Merman died suddenly in 2002, he left everything — including the gorgeous Santa Monica condo — to Sofia and Sasha. Sasha moved in and began driving daily from the upscale world of Montana Avenue to Markham Middle School in Watts — where he met Daniel Becerril.

Becerril came to campus every few months to relay new opportunities to teachers who were already investing their retirement accounts with his Huntington Beach firm, AP Financial Group, and to recruit new clients. Becerril convinced educators of his expertise with the 403(b) — a retirement account used by public schools — telling teachers such as Merman that he could get them a higher return.

In the past year, some $111.6 million was contributed to retirement accounts by 22,800 LAUSD employees. This huge pot of money has been a draw for financial-products salesmen who circle the schools like birds of prey, ready to pick off a percentage commission from the transfer of accounts.

David Bonneau, who worked at LAUSD's Andrew Carnegie Middle School in Carson, clearly remembers being approached by just such a salesman — Daniel Becerril, in fact — seven years ago. "A principal — two principals ago — brought him to the school, basically to introduce him to promote his financial products," Bonneau says. "He brought him to a faculty meeting, gave him some time to speak. So I transferred my former accounts over to him."

In February, United Teachers Los Angeles treasurer Arlene Inouye, writing in the union newsletter, warned teachers about trusting the non-vetted investment advisers who freely roam teachers' lounges, seeking the retirement funds of educators.

Headlined, "Beware of the 403(b) Pizza Peddlers," the article warns: "It's sad that, for free sandwiches or pizza during lunch at our schools, we as LAUSD educators often are encouraged to invest in certain 403(b) products. ... I know how easy it is for us to be swayed by experienced and persuasive salespeople because it has happened to me. Being on the school site attaches false cache [sic] and credibility to the sales reps' information and product offerings."

The year Merman was murdered, UTLA stopped endorsing 403(b) vendors. Last year, LAUSD issued a bulletin officially banning 403(b) salespeople from campuses.

But both of these official acts are largely empty gestures. All a salesman needs is a friendly relationship with a campus administrator to gain an audience with L.A. teachers. Were he not behind bars in Men's Central Jail, Daniel Becerril could as easily walk on campus today as he did years ago.

Sasha Merman wasn't a rich man, and he might never have sought out a financial adviser. But by chance, of the city's 660 schools, Becerril walked into his and gave a persuasive pitch about squeezing a better return out of Merman's 403(b). Authorities say this was one of several games Becerril and his firm ran. AP Financial Group also claimed expertise in life insurance, annuities, estate planning, credit repair, bankruptcy and home-loan modifications.

After teachers and other LAUSD employees moved their accounts to his firm, and he took a cut from the transfer, Becerril would pressure teachers to invest their own money in higher-risk propositions, such as distressed properties in Texas or Florida, or viaticals — a legal but somewhat discomfiting bet hedged on life insurance polices of the elderly or infirm. For those who didn't have cash, Becerril's firm was ready to help them take equity out of their homes.

Merman was sitting on just the kind of gold mine Becerril liked to sniff out. His uncle had bought the Montana Avenue condo in 1991 for $229,000. When he inherited it, it was worth nearly triple that, $650,000, and it was completely paid off.

Becerril, a bright guy with a confidence-inspiring handshake, was four years younger than Merman but took him under his wing like an older brother. It was 2006, the height of the housing bubble insanity that gripped Los Angeles, when Becerril advised Merman how to take the money out of the condo: Merman would borrow $250,000 against the condo and lend it to Becerril, who would invest it and within six months would return it to him — plus a $50,000 profit. Becerril would even make monthly loan repayments to Merman during the six months.

The entire deal was done on a handshake. There was no contract. By this time, they were good friends. Merman's mother says she and her son attended Becerril's wedding. Another ex-girlfriend, Lara Elliott, remembers Sasha visiting the Becerrils in the hospital for the birth of their child. On one page of Merman's journal, among little poems, song lyrics and notes, is a list of people to buy gifts for.

Merman's mother is at the top of the gift list. A few lines below her name is Becerril's.

"He was a Scorpio, if you understand," Elliott says of Merman in a thick Russian accent. "My brother and my father are Scorpios. They are very passionate people in friendship, and that is one of the reasons he trusted that guy so much — not even because he wanted to do something with the money.

"The money issue for him was important but not above all — the friendship, the family, the mother, of course, he loved so much — this was above everything. For friends, he would go miles."

That's what people agree upon as they look back on the tragedy that followed. It wasn't that Merman didn't care about the money, but the very point of having money was to help out his friends.

Timothy Marynov, Sasha's best friend from Fairfax High School, remembers how a mutual friend got heavily into drugs and needed a couple of thousand dollars to get out of trouble. Merman lent him the money, no questions asked.

"The guy never gave it back to him and Sasha just said, 'Whatever. It's not worth the aggravation, you know?' He was kind of like that."

But when Merman told Marynov about the $250,000 loan he handed Becerril in December 2006, Marynov was dumbfounded. "I was, like, 'Dude, what the hell did you do that for?' I think part of it was just that he was a nice guy. He never really had money and he came into all this money when his uncle died. I think in a way this guy kind of sold it, like, 'Help me out, I really need this — and I'll make it worth your while.' "

Things went fine for a while. But by April 2007, about the time that Merman met Lara Elliott at a house party, Becerril's monthly payments to Merman on the $250,000 were taking longer.

"Every time, it was delayed — and then it became even worse because it was big delays," Elliott remembers. Becerril stopped returning Merman's phone calls.

Unknown to Merman, documents obtained by the Weekly show, his attention was being consumed by an alleged scheme against Sandra S. (the Weekly is not identifying her because she is not connected to the murder case).

Sandra S.'s house in Covina was a modest single-story with a well-kept lawn. A Realtor might have extolled its virtues — chef's kitchen, ample yard, close to excellent schools — if the home in which Sandra S. lived were for sale. It wasn't. Yet in 2009, the stunned and horrified homeowner was informed that the property was no longer hers and that its new owner, a man she'd never heard of, had defaulted on the mortgage. She was being evicted.

According to the L.A. prosecutor, Sandra S. had innocently approached AP Financial Group about getting a loan modification. Instead, Becerril's firm chose Sandra S. as a victim, stealing her house in a con that left her, literally, out in the cold.

According to the DA and records obtained by the Weekly, on April 18, 2007, employees of AP Financial forged the signatures of both Sandra S. and her husband, and notarized further fake documents, signing her house over to Becerril's wife, "Sandra Raya," who also goes by Sandra Raya Becerril. Records from that day show Sandra Raya "purchased" the house from Sandra S. for $442,000.

That alleged con resulted in 12 counts against Becerril's wife, his sister Rebekah Becerril and former associate Guajardo.

At the same time, the other fiscal fraud was unfolding on Montana Avenue, with Merman as the target, prosecutors say. By June 2007, the $300,000 was due to Merman from Becerril. According to Elliott, then Merman's girlfriend, when Becerril failed to pay the promised $300,000 and ducked Merman's calls, Merman was so sick about possibly losing the condo that he couldn't work on his art.

Was Daniel Becerril relying on the cash he was allegedly draining from the home of Sandra S. to pay off the increasingly anxious Merman? In August, two months after Becerril failed to pay Merman the $300,000 — and just as the housing bubble began to go bad for thousands in Southern California — Sandra S.'s house was flipped by Sandra Raya Becerril and sold to a third party for $442,000, property records show.

The money from the sale of Sandra S.'s home wound up in AP Financial accounts, according to prosecutors. The housing bubble burst not long after that. The house went for a paltry $158,000 the next time it sold, in 2009.

Merman, unaware of the Becerrils' alleged scheme against Sandra S., continued to give the benefit of the doubt to his pal. Around this time, Elliott and Merman broke up and she moved out of the Montana Avenue condo.

By then, Becerril had tapped everything of Merman's he could. Police say he had quietly diverted to himself an additional $300,000 in investments Merman made through AP Financial. He had Merman's mother's maiden name, his Social Security number, numbers to all of his accounts, his life insurance policy information and financial access to the condo, which had been transferred into the LLC's name.

Only one person knows for sure why Sasha Merman had to die. The DA's theory is that Becerril killed Merman so that he would never detect — or go to the authorities about — the additional $300,000 Becerril stole from Merman while dodging his calls about the $250,000 loan he never repaid.

What is known is that Becerril was scheduled to meet Merman at his condo on the afternoon of March 18, 2008. Merman's mother says Becerril admits to her that he was at the property that day but claims he met Merman outside in one of his cars. (He owns matching black and white Cadillac Escalades, as well as a silver Mercedes-Benz.)

Authorities say Merman's hands were slashed with defensive wounds from fighting his killer. The one-sided battle was marked by an overturned tree and a broken planter found near Merman's feet, and a broken vase on the entertainment center.

"When people get into fights, the stabbing can be in any position available," says Dr. Michael Baden, a nationally known forensic pathologist and a former New York City chief medical examiner. He says it appears that "whoever did this stabbed him in the back of the neck, which may have caused him to fall down, and get more stab wounds."

What is odd, Baden says, is the face-up position in which he was found, lying atop a bloody towel. "If he was found supine — face up — that means whoever did this turned him over."

No one heard a thing. Yet the condo's hardwood floors often reverberated below. Sometimes at night, when Elliott still lived there, the neighbors would complain that the couple's footsteps were too loud. "My question is how they didn't hear that fight," she says.

Elliott wonders if things might have been different had she still lived on Montana with Merman. They'd had a dog — maybe it could have protected him. He is a Labrador, Elliott says, "but, you know, mix. He is from shelter. He has little bit of pit bull."

His mother wonders, too, if she could have prevented the tragedy. Sofia was supposed to be there that afternoon, but she says, "I was sick. I have a temperature. If not the situation, I would have been there."

The day after the horrified manager discovered Merman's body, Santa Monica police contacted Elliott. When they said they were calling about her ex-boyfriend's death, she hung up on them.

"I didn't believe it. I thought it was somebody joking in a bad way and I hung up at first. I said, 'I don't get that stupid joke.' And they called back," Elliott says.

She met with two detectives that evening, and the pair asked a lot of questions about Daniel Becerril, AP Financial Group and her ex-boyfriend's financial dealings.

The Sunday after his body was discovered, Merman's hockey team, the Fight'in Squirrels based in Westminster, had a moment of silence for "the Russian Rocket" before the game. Then the team attended his funeral and presented his mother with his jersey. Students from Markham, some of whom had lost neighbors and friends to violence in Watts but never a teacher, handed Sofia Merman poems and an oversize laminated card filled with condolences.

In the casket, Merman didn't look like himself. His face was puffed up from the multiple knife wounds to the back of his head. "The day of the funeral, I couldn't even ..." Elliott hesitates. "My friends were next to me because it was scary to look at him. It was blown up, like two times bigger, his face."

At the funeral, those closest to Merman couldn't help but think about Sasha's mounting frustrations with his sketchy financial planner. Amid the marble sculptures and manicured lawns at Hollywood Forever, the mourners asked one another: Could Daniel Becerril be responsible for forcing Sofia Merman to bury her son?

Norm Savage, a Fight'in Squirrel teammate, says, "Immediately after his funeral, his good friend who helped organize everything — since his mother was so distraught — he asked us, 'Do you know anybody by the name of Daniel?' "

Years went by before anyone close to Merman would hear of any movement on the case by Santa Monica detectives.

Police contacted Elliott in the summer of 2010. Two years had elapsed. They played her five phone calls recorded by a bank and asked if the voice, which claimed to be Sasha Merman, was in fact his. Elliott told the cops that three of the five calls were not Sasha Merman's voice.

This time, Elliott had a couple of questions for the detectives. "I was asking them, 'What's going on? When will they find somebody?' " she remembers. "But they never said. They said they were in the process; they almost know; they need more time."

It took two years after that for Santa Monica police to arrest Daniel Becerril on suspicion of murder. And in the four years SMPD spent working the case, an investigation by FINRA shows, it appears Becerril continued to scam unwitting AP Financial clients with impunity.

Becerril seems to have been thwarted not so much by law enforcement but, at least in part, by a persistent woman identified in documents from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority as simply "CB."

In December 2008, CB gave Becerril $11,500 to invest for her. She asked for paperwork verifying her investments but, over several months, he repeatedly failed to provide it. She gave him an ultimatum: Return my money or I'll file a complaint. CB did get her money back, finally, but she reported Becerril to FINRA nonetheless.

Her allegations led to a hearing in 2009. FINRA, which can take years to gather facts if the targets of its investigations refuse to cooperate, did not file a formal complaint against Becerril until more than a year later, in late 2010. Finally, on Feb. 23, 2012, FINRA barred Becerril from the financial industry.

Within one week of FINRA's action, the Santa Monica Police Department's slow-paced investigation, which had left friends and family at a loss, suddenly lurched forward. Police arrested Becerril on suspicion of murder.

The Santa Monica Police Department refuses to discuss the case. And with so many potential fraud victims out there, spokesman Sgt. Richard Lewis says the follow-up probably would take "a couple of years," adding, "There are issues that people don't know about that are going to delay ... for quite some time" completion of its investigation of AP Financial.

One alleged victim of AP Financial, Debbie Search, is not waiting for Santa Monica police any longer. Search, who invested $166,000 with AP Financial beginning in 2009, is marshaling other victims for a civil lawsuit against the firm. So far, she says, she has found 11 local victims who have lost close to $1 million collectively.

She tells the Weekly that when she approached Santa Monica police about her own case, a detective suggested she speak to Richard Jay Blaskey.

This was an exceedingly strange recommendation for the city's law enforcement authorities to make to an alleged victim of Becerril's. After all, Blaskey represented Becerril in several lawsuits, as well as during his FINRA hearing, and his practice shared an office with AP Financial Group. (Blaskey refuses to comment. But Search says Blaskey told her that he too is a victim of Becerril.)

Yet just a few weeks ago, in April, AP Financial Group's office line was still answering, "Thank you for calling AP Financial Group, law offices of Richard Jay Blaskey — and have a fabulous day." Today, the line is not working.

Becerril no longer enjoys the high life. He sits in an L.A. County jail cell, awaiting a preliminary hearing for the slaying of Alexander "Sasha" Merman, and for 30 counts of financial fraud. His assets — 12 bank accounts, a house on a cul-de-sac in Huntington Beach, two Cadillac Escalades and a silver S-Class Mercedes-Benz — have been frozen by DA Steve Cooley's office.

If Becerril is convicted, the assets will be used to pay restitution. But the DA says the frozen assets wouldn't even cover the losses to Merman and Sandra S.

Even if they did, money would offer little comfort to Sofia Merman. She lost her much-loved only son and, amidst her grief, was forced to sell the Montana Avenue condo to repay the money, never recovered, that Sasha had borrowed against it and handed over to Becerril.

If only he had seen what his mother saw when she tried to warn him four years ago: "His face is like a killer's."

Reach the writer at tstuart@laweekly.com.