A marijuana cultivator was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing his ex-girlfriend in her Huntington Beach home 4 1/2 years ago.
Jason Joseph Becher, 46, was found guilty May 13 of first-degree murder, and jurors found true a special-circumstance allegation of lying in wait. He was convicted of pummeling and strangling 50-year-old Marylou Sarkissian on Dec. 2, 2016.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson tacked on five years to the LWOP sentence because of a prior conviction for domestic violence against another victim.
Sarkissian’s sister, Debbie Zdrazil, told the judge in court that her sibling’s birthday was Tuesday, “but there will be no more birthday celebrations,” and that, “Her twins graduated from high school yesterday and their 18th birthday is today.”
Zdrazil said her older sister “always did the speaking for me and was overprotective of me … I am here today to do the talking for her, to protect her children for her, to fight for justice for her.”
She said the system failed her sister.
Nearly three weeks before Becher attacked Sarkissian on Aug. 28, 2016, the victim got a 5-year protective order, Zdrazil said. She said sheriff’s deputies could not find Becher to serve him the papers, so she and her sister hired three private investigators to track him down.
“Marylou and I followed all the rules and relied on the police department to protect us, but obviously, the entire system is flawed and domestic violence is not taken seriously enough,” Zdrazil said.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera played for the jury enraged, expletive-filled voicemails the defendant left for the victim’s sister and her son accusing Sarkissian of infidelity and stealing money from him.
Becher illegally cultivated marijuana and sold it for cash, accumulating so much money he stashed it at Sarkissian’s home, and she put some of it in a safe deposit box, Madera said.
“I know about six times you cheated on me,” he said on one voicemail. “And then you ripped me off at the end .. for like $500,000.”
Sarkissian made large cash deposits for five years in a bank account she set up for him, the prosecutor said.
From 2013 through 2016, Sarkissian spent $261,000 over her reported income as a pharmaceutical representative, according to Madera, who said some of the money appears to have come from her father and child support for the mother of three.
It’s possible the two had an agreement in which she would share in some of the profits, Madera said.
On Aug. 28, 2016, the victim called 911 and Madera played part of that dispatch for jurors. Sarkissian, who had obtained a restraining order against the defendant earlier that month, told a dispatcher that he “pushed me, shoved me, choked me with a towel … held me hostage.”
That November, the two got together at a hotel, and the next day, the defendant texted her a message apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Becher pledged that he wanted to “grow old with you. I want to take care of you for the rest of your life” in one message.
“Then, why can’t you control your violence?” Sarkissian responded. “My cheek is all swollen and I have bruises everywhere.”
Sarkissian put an end to the relationship right before Thanksgiving when she said she called police and told him, “You can’t terrorize me, choke me, suffocate me with a pillow and think it’s OK,” according to Madera.
Becher responded with more outraged voicemails demanding that she “return my (expletive) money, you understand? I ain’t playing (expletive) games with you anymore,” Madera said.
“At some point, she blocked him and she was done with him,” the prosecutor said.
The next day, Sarkissian made an appointment to install a new security system, which was put in the evening before she was killed, Madera said.
Becher’s uncle told police that his nephew said with a laugh as he was leaving his house the afternoon of Dec. 1 that “It’s going to be a bad day in Huntington Beach for Marylou,” Madera said.
Phone records show Becher was at the victim’s home about 11 p.m. that day, the prosecutor said.
Investigators suspect that Becher unsuccessfully tried to break into the home with a crowbar, and knowing Sarkissian’s patterns from living together, waited for her to let her dog out and made his way in, Madera said.
The victim sustained multiple rib fractures, a broken nose and there is evidence she was strangled, Madera said, adding the newly installed video surveillance in the home shows him cleaning up evidence.
Becher drove to his sister’s home in Oregon, but she and her husband talked him into turning himself in because there was a manhunt underway, Madera said.
Becher’s attorney, Irene Pai of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, conceded in her closing argument that her client killed Sarkissian, but argued the “case is between a second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. I do not believe my client ever entertained an intent to kill.”
Pai said the attack on the victim “reeks of rage and reaction,” and not a planned assault.
“People who plan a murder and plan not to be apprehended afterward usually don’t turn themselves in,” Pai said.
Pai said whenever her client got to talk face to face with the victim about the finances of his illegal marijuana business, she ended up calming him down. But there was “an explosion of anger that happened in that bedroom” that led to the victim’s death, she said.
“I will not beg you to excuse or justify this killing,” Pai said. “The issue is what was he thinking at the time he inflicted blow after blow after blow that resulted in Marylou Sarkissian’s death. I’m not asking you to like Jason Becher. I’m not asking you to relate to him.”
Becher grew up in poverty and was frugal despite raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars selling marijuana, Pai said. He sustained a brain injury in a car crash when he was 12 years old and it affected his ability to control his temper, Pai said.
There does not appear to be any agreement between the two to share profits, though he for a time trusted her to hold onto his money, the defense attorney said. But starting in July 2015, there is growing evidence she started skimming money, the defense attorney said. Whenever Becher confronted her about stealing money and infidelity, she vehemently denied it, the attorney said.
Jurors also heard testimony about the defendant’s prior conviction for domestic violence against another girlfriend in 2005.
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