On Oct. 15, 2019, Joseph Elledge walked into the Columbia, Missouri Police Department without a lawyer to tell detectives about the mysterious disappearance of his 28-year-old wife,— six days earlier.
JOE ELLEDGE (police interview): We didn’t have any big fights … I think the last big fight was actually the week before. And it wasn’t really a big fight.
The 23-year-old described his wife as tense and withdrawn the night before she disappeared, so he gave her a massage.
JOE ELLEDGE (police interview): I was going kinda slow. I was trying to drag it out because I wanted to extend the amount of time that we were together doing something.
According to Joe, Mengqi eventually went to sleep, saying she had to be somewhere in the morning.
JOE ELLEDGE: I asked her about three times, “Who is she meeting?” And her answer was just, quote, “Me.” … she wouldn’t tell me who she was meeting or where she was going, what she was doing.
The next morning, Joe says he woke up alone. His wife was gone.
Dan Knight: He was claiming … she had just disappeared — that she had left her little girl behind. Her phone was left behind … her car. Her car keys were left behind.
From the beginning, then-Boone County prosecuting attorney Dan Knight, had doubts about Joe’s story.
Dan Knight: We were trying our best to leave no stones unturned. But there were a lot of stones.
Joe told investigators that after his wife disappeared, he found journal entries on her computer where she’d written about an online emotional affair she was having with a man living in China.
JOE ELLEDGE (police interview): The last paragraph said … “like It’s sad though that I have no interest in my husband.”
The day Joe spoke with detectives, he also did an exclusive interview with local CBS affiliate, KRCG, and implied that his wife may have left him for another man.
JOE ELLEDGE (KRCG interview): I hope that she’s with – at least with somebody who – who cares for her, you know, enough to keep her safe.
Joe and his family hired attorney Scott Rosenblum, who points out there were intimate texts between Mengqi Ji and the man she was communicating with.
Peter Van Sant: Sexual in nature?
Scott Rosenblum: Very sexual.
Texts like this one where she wrote, “I want you so much right now.”
Peter Van Sant: And did she ever express love for him in any of these communications?
Scott Rosenblum: She did.
The question was, had Mengqi run off to be with that man who lived in China, where she was born?
Amy Salladay is the Ji family’s attorney.
Amy Salladay: Mengqi was born during China’s One-Child Policy. But Ke Ren, Mengqi’s mother, would say that “We only ever wanted one child. We wanted to give all of our love to this child.”
Yáo Li: Mengqi is like the — the kid all the parents would want.
Yáo Li is a Chinese immigrant, and an assistant prosecutor in Boone County, who helped Dan Knight communicate with Mengqi’s parents.
Yáo Li: They are really, really proud of her. … I know how hard it is to get into a top university in Shanghai and Beijing … the competition … is really intense. … And she did that.
Dan Knight: Then she came to the University of Missouri in 2012 where she finished up her undergraduate studies and then she also obtained her master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Peter Van Sant: This was a brilliant woman. Correct?
Dan Knight: Absolutely.
One of her professors hired her right out of school at his biomaterials company, “Nanova,” where Joe also worked.
Dan Knight: Joe … grew up in Kansas City. … he then came to the University of Missouri, and he studied engineering, and he met Mengqi at Nanova Biomaterials. … My understanding is, is that she was his supervisor.
The two quickly fell in love, and a year and seven months into their relationship, Joe proposed. He took a knee on a trail in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park called “The Devil’s Icebox.” Two weeks later, they were married.
Dan Knight: I believe there was a rush to get married because Mengqi’s visa was about ready to expire.
Yáo Li: It’s a really foreign concept for American citizens to understand the stress that a immigrant is facing … She’s fully capable to support herself financially. But she cannot get this green card. … So, this really changes the power dynamics of a marriage.
Nearly five months into the marriage, Mengqi was offered a big job.
Yáo Li: And then she found out that she’s pregnant.
Mengqi and Joe decided she should turn down the job to be a full-time mom – even though, at the time, she was the sole income earner. Joe had quit working to finish school. In October 2018, the baby was born.
Yáo Li: So that’s the dynamic of this marriage. Mengqi was completely isolated from all the support system that she can have. … the little baby’s the only thing she has.
Her one lifeline was a daily call with her mother in China. It was their ritual. So, when Mengqi didn’t call on Oct. 9, 2019, her parents sent a friend living nearby to check on her.
JOE ELLEDGE (police interview): You know, I told him everything that happened. I told him that she just hasn’t been here for a couple days.
And it was only after that visit — the day after he said his wife vanished — that a seemingly unconcerned Joe Elledge finally called police to report her missing.
JOE ELLEDGE (to 311): Hi. I need to file a missing person’s report.
He didn’t dial 911 – Joe called the non-emergency 311.
Peter Van Sant: Do you find that suspicious?
Dan Knight: Absolutely. Absolutely. … it would be natural for him to have reported this immediately.
Instead, Joe would tell police that the day he woke up and found his wife missing, he went on two long leisurely drives in her car-with their baby in the backseat-looking for new hiking trails.
JOE ELLEDGE (police interview): There’s this, there’s just this big area that’s all – that’s all green on the Google Maps. And so, I wanted to go and see if there were walking paths back there.
Naturally, that raised eyebrows.
DET. JON VOSS: Did you lock your door when you left the apartment?
JOE ELLEDGE: Yeah.
DET. JON VOSS: If she comes home, how is she gonna get back in? You’ve got her keys and her car. Her phone’s in the house. She can’t even call anybody.
JOE ELLEDGE: Yeah, I don’t know.
Detectives, and Dan Knight, suspected foul play. But there was no physical evidence: no blood, no weapon, no witnesses, no body. There was also no evidence that Mengqi took off with that man in China.
Dan Knight: And then also — it became — apparent early on that Mengqi would not have abandoned her child, her 1-year-old daughter. … She was a great mother.
During his interview with detectives, Joe gave them access to his phone — and on it they found something stunning: 10 hours of secretly recorded conversations with his wife, like this one:
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): I would like to discuss our relationship. And I am kinda ready to discuss the end of it as well.
Dan Knight: Joe told Mengqi … that he wanted to divorce her.
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): I don’t like being married (laughs) to you. I don’t like living with you. … It’s been a terrible relationship. I’m eager – to end it.
Dan Knight: He was asking her whether or not she was going to basically cooperate … And if not … was going to – he was going to tell the judge … “that she had been abusive to him.”
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): Should I mention in court that you’re abusive to me? Should I ask them to-deport you?”
But that was nothing, says Dan Knight, compared to the nearly four-and-a-half hours of secretly recorded audio they found on Mengqi’s phone.
Peter Van Sant: What was on those conversations of significance?
Dan Knight: Unvarnished Joe Elledge.
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): If you keep acting this way, I’ve told you before, ain’t gonna be pretty.
A CONTROLLING RELATIONSHIP
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): What are you trying to do? … Are you trying to make me go crazy so that you can call the police on me and take my f*****’ baby away from me?
It was Oct. 29, 2018, about a year before Mengqi Ji would disappear, when she secretly recorded her husband Joe, going ballistic, for nearly an hour.
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): Do you want me to f****** break s***? Do you want me to hurt somebody?”
It all started weeks earlier, after Mengqi gave birth and her parents flew in from China to stay with them. It is Chinese custom for grandparents to stay and help for 100 days — a custom that infuriated Joe.
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): I don’t want your mom here … Your mom is causing problems … Your mom should f****** leave.
Dan Knight: What really infuriated Joe was that Mengqi was standing up to him and saying that she needed her mother.
MENGQI JI (audio recording): If I don’t take care of my own body, my own health, it’s not responsible for me … or this family –
JOE ELLEDGE: Yeah, I agree.
MENGQI JI: She’s helping me to do that. And I know it.
JOE ELLEDGE: I don’t like that woman. And I don’t think you should either.
Yáo Li: The tension was just to the breaking point, and there’s yelling, there’s cussing.
And Yáo Li says Joe really despised it when Mengqi and her mother Ke Ren spoke Chinese in his presence.
Yáo Li: That’s a stressor for him. Because everything that he doesn’t understand, he would assume the worst.
When Mengqi’s father returned to China, Joe decided to take back control, says Amy Salladay.
Amy Salladay: Mengqi’s mother was making Chinese dumplings … She’s making them for his birthday … And he doesn’t like how she’s using, using the cutting board.
Dan Knight: I called it the “cutting board incident.”
Prosecutor Dan Knight says it’s an incident that seems petty, but it led to an explosive argument.
JOE ELLEDGE (audio recording): Don’t do my cutting board like that. I’m telling you, cutting board doesn’t like that.
Dan Knight: He was demanding that his mother-in-law leave the residence immediately and permanently, never to return.
Peter Van Sant: Did Mengqi’s mother stand up to him? … and could that have triggered this cutting board incident?
Dan Knight: Mengqi’s mother, like Mengqi, was a Confucianist. She wanted harmony more than anything else. There was no standing up to Joe.
JOE ELLEDGE: There’s gonna be some f****** problems if she tries staying … I’m gonna make it f****** go away.
MENGQI JI: The problem …
JOE ELLEDGE: Yeah, you can bet your ass on that.
Dan Knight: It was a one-way street. It was Joe’s way or the highway.
MENGQI JI: You are not a God. You don’t understand –
JOE ELLEDGE: I am a f****** God … I say mom don’t stay here, she don’t stay here.
Mengqi pleaded with Joe to let her mother stay. He responded with insults and profanity.
JOE ELLEDGE: What the f*** is the matter with you? F****** brainless.
Dan Knight: He told her that she was incapable because she was a woman.
JOE ELLEDGE: You think you’re so empowered because of this society … You’re still just a woman.
Dan Knight: It was a calculated effort on his part to gaslight her, to try to brainwash her, to bring her under his control.
Joe was also threatening, explaining how he “conquers nature”- a cryptic comment that Dan Knight believes was a metaphor for wanting to hurt Mengqi.
JOE ELLEDGE: You know how I conquer nature? I f*****’ kill it. I grab its head and break its f****** neck. That’s how you conquer f****** nature.
Yáo Li: Mengqi ‘s … mother, of course, was in shock. It’s just really difficult for her to understand why this young man is so mad and so angry at her, at everything.
Mengqi felt so helpless that she called Joe’s mother Jean Geringer, who drove two hours to try and mediate.
MENGQI JI: I have no choice, I had to call you. I’m sorry … He’s gonna come back and just, I don’t know, unpredictable thing’s gonna happen.
Mengqi recorded that meeting as well.
JEAN GERINGER: I’m not here to choose sides. I’m here to try to be neutral and just give advice and guidance.
Even in his mom’s presence, Joe was not shy about expressing hateful, even violent thoughts about his mother-in-law.
JOE ELLEDGE: Do I just smack her? Do I just beat her down?
MENGQI JI: You wanted to.
JOE ELLEDGE: I have that craving … yes.
JEAN GERINGER: You can’t …
JOE ELLEDGE: I’m not going to though …
JEAN GERINGER: … you can’t go there.
Dan Knight: The evidence that we – that we had was that he was making his mother-in-law, Ke Ren, kneel to him and bow to him.
Joe would eventually apologize to his mother-in-law, but he still forced to her leave before the 100 days were up.
Yáo Li: She thought that apology was sincere. Or otherwise, she wouldn’t have left and then believing that things might get better.
Yáo Li translated Mengqi’s journals for the prosecutor’s office, and says things didn’t get better. But Mengqi couldn’t walk away.
Yáo Li: And even she is confused of, “Why I just cannot get out of this relationship” … That’s her constant question to herself.
Dan Knight thinks Mengqi felt trapped by her immigration status.
Dan Knight: In just five months she was set to have another interview where she would be applying to get her permanent green card.
A little over two weeks after Mengqi vanished, the Columbia Police Department announced it was opening a criminal investigation into her disappearance. That same day, police showed up at Joe’s apartment.
Amy Salladay: He’s with his mother. … The detectives at the scene were asking her, “Where is Mengqi, do you know where she is?”
Joe was arrested — not in connection with his wife’s disappearance, but on suspicion that he had physically abused their daughter.
ARRESTING OFFICER: We have become aware that there was some bruising … So, do you know what we’re talking about?
JOE ELLEDGE: Yup.
Dan Knight: This is through Ke Ren, her mother. … Mengqi had told her that she’d observed … bruising on the buttocks. And Ke Ren suggested that Mengqi confront Joe about this. … and that Joe then … admitted that he had done this … to the little girl.
ARRESTING OFFICER: Tell me exactly what happened.
JOE ELLEDGE: She was crying a lot one night… I think I pinched her butt a little bit.
Scott Rosenblum: To me, that was — a ruse to get him incarcerated.
Joe’s defense attorney, Scott Rosenblum.
Scott Rosenblum: He was a young parent. Maybe he made a mistake. But there was no other indication that he was abusive towards his daughter. None whatsoever.
Joe was held on a $500,000 bond, his mother took custody of his daughter, and Dan Knight set about proving his theory about what happened to Mengqi.
Dan Knight: I thought from pretty much the very beginning this eventually was gonna wind up being a murder case. Things just had to develop.
Peter Van Sant: So, you’re tellin’ me that these trees that we are standing among right now helped solve a … case?
Dan Knight: Absolutely.
TREES HAVE DNA, TOO
Dan Knight: On October 25th, 2019, police executed a search warrant over at Joe Elledge’s and Mengqi’s apartment.
That was the same day Joe Elledge was arrested on suspicion of child abuse. Mengqi had been missing for a little over two weeks.
Dan Knight: These officers, they were on the ball. … they were able to find some things that were … great evidence in this case.
Dan Knight: Police collected … from his backpack … writings, different writings.
Notes Joe had apparently written to himself about how to respond to questions from reporters and investigators.
Dan Knight: One of those I labeled as being a script, “what to tell the police.”
Dan Knight: Another thing that he had written was that he was to speak about Mengqi in the present tense rather than the past tense.
JOE ELLEDGE: She’s a very dedicated person. Ah, she’s a hard worker and I really like that.
Peter Van Sant: Why would a man who was claiming his wife had walked away, have to remind himself to not speak about her in the past tense?
Dan Knight: Because he killed her.
Detectives looked for possible evidence in every corner of the apartment, and on a hunch, also took a muddy pair of Joe’s boots into evidence.
Peter Van Sant: Just in case, down the road, they might be relevant?
Dan Knight: Something was amiss, yes. And … they sensed it. And they took ’em.
The search for Mengqi became a hunt for her remains, starting by retracing the long, leisurely drives that Joe said he took – with his baby in the backseat – while only he knew that wife was “missing.”
JOE ELLEDGE: We just went driving and it was a really nice day and so I just wanted to go out.
But every lead was just another dead end. So, Dan Knight made a bold move.
Dan Knight: I decided to go ahead and file charges. Murder in the first degree without a body.
Charges were filed while Joe was still in jail on abuse charges.
With Joe behind bars, Knight stepped up the search for Mengqi’s body.
Dan Knight: These are the cell tower records that we had in this case.
Peter Van Sant: This is his cell phone then? Joe’s cellphone?
Dan Knight: That’s correct.
According to Joe’s cell phone records, he had spent 30 minutes by the Lamine River, the day he claimed Mengqi disappeared – something he had not told police.
Convinced her body was here, authorities searched for months. There was even a memorial on the river, attended by Mengqi’s mother.
Yáo Li: By March of 2020, we had really given up … we needed to do something to be able to say goodbye.
Then, a year later, with Joe Elledge still awaiting trial, a hiker was making his way through a wooded area in the very park where Joe had proposed to Mengqi. A flash of color in the dirt caught his eye. It was a purse.
Dan Knight: He had this walking stick. And he kind of flipped that purse around just a little bit. … He noticed that there were these shoes … And then … He saw somethin’ that looked like was maybe a- skull … and in fact, it was a skull, Mengqi’s skull.
Peter Van Sant: She had finally been found?
Dan Knight: That’s right. That’s right. it was a miracle.
Yáo Li: I think that’s – that’s the worst moment for a parent.
Yáo Li: I had a video conference with Mengqi’s parents, who were both back in China.
Yáo Li: They didn’t say anything. All you s — see is their tears.
They now knew their daughter was dead — but how and why were still a mystery. Sadly, even the medical examiner’s office couldn’t say what killed Mengqi.
Peter Van Sant: Was there damage to her bone structure that —
Dan Knight: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: Unnatural damage?
Dan Knight: Yes, there was. Four … ribs were broken all the way through.
Peter Van Sant: Do you believe that those broken ribs are evidence of physical abuse, of a physical attack?
Dan Knight: Of a massive, catastrophic blow to her back, all the way, these through and through breaks that she would have been in agonizing pain.
Dan Knight was building a theory of what happened to Mengqi-and items collected about a year-and-a-half earlier, were about to become key. For one thing, Joe’s cell phone records put him near Mengqi’s burial site the day he reported her missing.
Peter Van Sant: What were the weather conditions like that day?
Dan Knight: Unfortunately for Joe but fortunately for justice, it was raining.
Knight had those muddy boots — and a hunch was about to pay off.
Dan Knight: As you can see right here, there is soil that is caked onto these boots.
Mud and gravel on the soles of Joe’s boots were sent out for analysis, along with foliage stuck in the mud.
Dan Knight: We’ve got 12 different types of vegetation in these boots.
Dan Knight decided to send Joe’s boots to a lab at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where juniper tree needles were carefully removed from the soles for DNA testing.
Peter Van Sant: Plants have DNA just like people?
Christine Edwards: Absolutely, yeah. Every organism, every living organism in the planet has DNA.
Christine Edwards is a plant population geneticist who never dreamed she’d become a CSI investigator in a murder case.
Christine Edwards: They wanted to see if there was some way that we could match the vegetation in the boots to the … site where a woman’s remains were found.
Christine Edwards: These are two samples that were collected from … the left boot right here.
Christine Edwards: Once we knew that we could get usable DNA out of the – the forensic samples that we took from the boots, then we needed to match them to the – the trees at the site.
Edwards’ colleague was tasked with collecting sample needles from the juniper trees surrounding Mengqi’s gravesite.
Peter Van Sant: How do you do it? Pick it up off the ground or go up to the trees?
Alex Linan: So, we have to go all the way up to the trees. And this involved a ladder and a 10, 15-foot-long pole pruner so that we could make sure that the needles that we were getting came from the exact tree that it was. So, we couldn’t just get it from the ground. It had to be from the tree.
Each sample was stored and numbered, and back at the lab, they were compared to the needles found on Joe’s boots.
Christine Edwards (pointing to a monitor): These two lines here are the genotype of one of the samples from the boot. … And this one is from the tree that is overhanging the gravesite. And as you can see, the lines match up.
Peter Van Sant: And that moment for you when you realized you had a match?
Christine Edwards: Yeah, It … was really exciting. … “We got him.” … He was there.
Peter Van Sant: No doubt he was there.
Christine Edwards: No doubt in my mind. He was there.
Peter Van Sant: Scientifically confirmed?
Alex Linan: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: Just like a fingerprint, just like DNA, blood DNA that is presented in trial, this is just as reliable.
Alex Linan: Exactly. Exactly the same technology.
Peter Van Sant: So, what you’re telling me is, these trees that are all around us here played a role in solving a murder?
Alex Linan: Absolutely. Yes.
Dan Knight says it’s only the second murder case he knows of where tree DNA has been used as evidence.
Dan Knight: The walls were closing in on Joe. So, I expected at trial for there to be another defense, besides … “Oh, Mengqi must’ve just run off and gone to China.”
And Dan Knight was right.
TRAGIC ACCIDENT OR PREMEDITATED MURDER?
On Nov. 1, 2021, Joe Elledge went on trial for the murder of his wife, Mengqi Ji.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): The question is … what happened in that apartment?
And Joe’s attorney Scott Rosenblum pivoted to a new explanation about what happened to Mengqi. Joe didn’t mean to kill his wife.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): What happened was a tragic accident.
Thanks to a juniper tree and its DNA, Joe could no longer claim that Mengqi had run away. He now had to admit that he buried his wife in a shallow grave.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): He had no intent, not — certainly not murder. That’s not even close.
Joe did have something to do with Mengqi’s death, said Rosenblum, but it was not murder. He took jurors back to Oct. 8, 2019, the day Mengqi died.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): And as they go into the evening hours … he asks her if he – if she wants a massage. Joe proceeds and … Tries to initiate sex. She rebuffs him. She says no.
Joe now admits he knew about his wife’s online affair with that man in China, Rosenblum said. And on this night, he confronted her.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): He’s upset, he’s hurt, and he wants to take his daughter for a walk. … She lunges towards him and pushes him … and he pushes her … Pushes her into the countertop.
Joe claims that’s when Mengqi broke her ribs. The defense called Dr. Keith Norton, the pathologist who conducted Mengqi’s autopsy, and he said it was possible.
DR. KEITH NORTON: Yes, but it would have to be a very forcible push.
Peter Van Sant: Does Joe maintain that she initiated this physical encounter?
Scott Rosenblum: 100%.
Peter Van Sant: She came after him?
Scott Rosenblum: Well, I mean … she wanted to prevent him from leaving with their daughter.
Peter Van Sant: He claimed in his new story that she attacked him … Do you buy any of that?
Dan Knight: Of course not.
Peter Van Sant: Look at the size difference here.
Dan Knight: Of course not. He’s twice as big as her.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): And again, she lunges at him and … he pushes her away … and she falls this time on her back and he hears the thud of her head hitting the ground.
Joe claims Mengqi was knocked nearly unconscious and then got up and went to bed. In the morning, when the baby started crying, Mengqi didn’t wake up.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM (opening statement): He’s sort of violently shaking her. Are you all right? Are you — all right? And it is abundantly clear at that point in time that his wife is dead.
Peter Van Sant: Why did Joe lie?
Scott Rosenblum: He … he was scared. … He made a choice, an erratic, irrational choice.
Peter Van Sant: Is that someone who’s in a panic state, or is that a killer who’s trying to – to cover up his crime?
Scott Rosenblum: I believe … it was, uh, evidence of extreme panic.
Dan Knight (at burial site): That story was very clever, but it … wasn’t what happened.
Prosecutor Dan Knight says all the proof he needs that Joe’s story is made up are those four broken ribs.
Peter Van Sant: You know how painful it is to break a single rib … She would’ve had to have been to a hospital, right?
Dan Knight: Oh, sure. There’s no doubt about it.
Knight says he keeps going back to Joe’s story about giving Mengqi a massage that night and believes that’s when he killed her.
Dan Knight: I don’t know if he put his hands around her neck and he strangled the life out of her. I don’t know if he, maybe, forced her face into a pillow. … But I know one thing for sure. That murder was horrific.
A premeditated murder says Knight, fueled by months of growing anger.
Dan Knight: He hated Mengqi with everything he had.
JOE ELLEDGE (audio): I’ll find a happier life. F*** this s***. I ain’t – I ain’t happy here.
Joe took the stand in his own defense, and insisted that he loved his wife, even though there was tension in the marriage.
SCOTT ROSENBLUM: You would have these arguments, you both felt you were misunderstand (sic), then there’d be a reconciliation and you would love each other.
JOE ELLEDGE: That’s right.
The defense tried to get jurors to relate to the sometimes-stormy nature of Joe and Mengqi’s marriage; moments of arguing common with many couples. Joe claimed his wife was responsible for much of the tension.
JOE ELLEDGE (on the stand): Uh, she would raise her voice – uh, yelled … And, uh, she wouldn’t – listen to me very well.
Amy Salladay: They wanted to paint her as the aggressor … they wanted people to feel like it was her fault.
Amy Salladay and Yáo Li were in the courtroom, regularly texting updates to Mengqi’s mother – who was unable to travel.
Yáo Li: She didn’t believe a bit of it. And – um – that was very emotional for her.
When Dan Knight finally had his chance to question Joe Elledge, he point-blank asked Joe how he killed the mother of his child.
DAN KNIGHT: Did you maybe stand up on top of her and jump on top of her back?
JOE ELLEDGE: No.
DAN KNIGHT: Did you suffocate her?
JOE ELLEDGE: No.
After nearly two weeks of testimony detailing the audio recordings, digital evidence, cell tower data, and the tree DNA linking Joe to Mengqi’s burial site, both sides delivered their closing arguments. Rosenblum asked for manslaughter, “Return the right verdict,” and Dan Knight asked for first-degree murder.
DAN KNIGHT: She deserves justice ladies and gentlemen! Mengqi deserves justice!
Amy Salladay: We were all nervous. And we hoped that the jury would see the case the way that we saw it.
A JURY DECIDES
Amy Salladay: We’ve all come to know Mengqi … and so I think we all felt that connection to her. And we hoped that justice would be served.
It was 7 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2021, and after deliberating for nearly seven hours, the jury had its verdict.
JUDGE: Mr. Elledge would you please stand to receive the verdict. … We the jury find the defendant Joseph Duane Elledge guilty of murder in the second degree.
Guilty of second-degree murder. The jury believed that Joe killed Mengqi, but not with premeditation. Yáo Li says Mengqi’s parents were very pleased.
Yáo Li: They weren’t nervous about a conviction at all. … They believe this is a fair system.
But the day wasn’t over yet. The jury would now hear testimony in the “penalty phase.”
Dan Knight: I had to turn around very quickly late that night and start presenting evidence.
Dan Knight wanted life in prison. The defense asked for 10 years.
The state called several of Mengqi’s friends, who spoke about the impact of her death.
QINYI WANG | Friend: I feel very sad. And I feel angry.
FRIEND: That hurt us, that make us huge pain and huge sorrow.
The defense called only one witness to plead for mercy — Joe’s mother Jean Geringer.
JEAN GERINGER: It’s very disturbing. It’s heartbreaking because it’s so out of his character.
It was midnight when the jury got the case again. A little over an hour later —
JUDGE: We the jury … declare the punishment for a term of 28 years.
Dan Knight believes the jury gave Joe one year for every year of Mengqi’s short life. Yáo Li informed Mengqi’s parents.
Yáo Li: I don’t think … the numbers matter to them. I think the truth matters the most … that’s what is frustrating … I don’t think they will ever, ever know the whole truth of what actually happened.
All they can hope for now is to be able to raise their granddaughter in China, says family attorney Amy Salida.
Amy Salladay: Her future is — is undetermined at this point.
Mengqi’s daughter now lives with Joe’s mother, but Mengqi’s parents are seeking shared custody of the now 4-year-old.
Amy Salladay: I hope that she can be raised to know her mother’s Chinese culture and to know her mother’s family.
Scott Rosenblum says that while the baby will always know her Chinese grandparents, she is in good hands with Joe’s mother.
Scott Rosenblum: Jean and her husband are great parents. … She makes it her business to include — the maternal grandparents in the baby’s life.
Dan Knight would not discuss the custody case but did say this about the trauma already suffered by Mengqi’s daughter.
Dan Knight: Number one: she was in the apartment at the time that Joe killed Mengqi, her mother. … one of these days, she’s gonna find out about that. … Second thing is when Joe drove around, the next day … Mengqi was in the trunk and … their little girl was strapped into a car seat. … But the thing that she’s also gonna find out about is that Joe … would’ve been just fine with her going the rest of her life thinking that her mother abandoned her.
Amy Salladay: I want her daughter to know that she was a great mother. She was dedicated. She loved her with all of her heart. … I want her to be remembered for her smile and how friendly and outgoing she was.
Mengqi Ji’s legacy of accomplishment, dedication and love lives on in her baby girl, and in the hearts of those whose lives she touched.
Yáo Li: Everybody sees the goodness in her. That’s why everybody’s so connected with her.
A decision in the custody case is expected by the end of this month.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, call 1-800-799-SAFE or visit thehotline.org.
Prosecutor Daniel Knight died on June 4, 2022.
Produced by Judy Rybak and Emily Wichick. Ryan N. Smith is the development producer. Shaheen Tokhi is the associate producer. Michael Loftus is the broadcast associate. Michael McHugh is producer/editor. Doreen Schechter, Michelle Harris and Phil Tangel are the editors. Peter Schweitzer is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.