The murder of a Chinese woman at the hands of her American husband in Columbia, Missouri was a long and painful case for police investigators, attorneys and, most of all, her parents.
Mengqi Ji was 28 and mother to a 1-year-old daughter when her husband Joseph Elledge, a student at the University of Missouri, reported her missing in October 2019. After extensive police searches in various rural areas, her remains were found in March 2021 by a hiker in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
Elledge was convicted of second-degree murder in November 2021. A judge set his prison sentence at 28 years, as recommended by the trial jury. Elledge filed an appeal in September 2022.
The case was the subject of an episode of A&E’s Killer Cases, now available for streaming in the A&E app.
Husband Quickly a Suspect
Mengqi Ji had moved from China as part of an exchange student program to study at the University of Missouri, where she earned a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in December 2014. She met her future husband in 2015, when she was his supervisor at a company that makes dental products. The couple traveled to China, where Elledge asked Mengqi Ji’s parents for permission to marry her, and they got married in 2017.
About a week after her disappearance, police became suspicious of Elledge’s story, Columbia Assistant Police Chief Jeremiah Hunter tells A&E True Crime.
Elledge reported his wife missing the afternoon of October 10, 2019, telling police he’d last seen her a day and a half earlier. He said he last saw her when she went to bed at about 11:30 p.m. on October 8 and then woke up the next morning to find her gone.
“We keyed on some of the things he had told us throughout the investigations, statements that he had made, that just weren’t adding up,” Hunter says. “Also, we noticed he talked about her [to the media] in the past tense. That was a pretty big red flag.”
On Mengqi Ji’s iPad, police found photos and videos showing bruising on the couple’s daughter, and arrested Elledge on child abuse charges on October 25, 2019. Elledge pleaded guilty to child abuse, child endangerment and domestic assault in February 2022 after initially pleading not guilty in March 2020.
Elledge was described as a “jealous, controlling, manipulative psychopath” by Boone County Chief Prosecutor Dan Knight during a bond hearing in November 2019.
Elledge was charged in February 2020 with his wife’s murder, even though her body hadn’t been found yet.
So why did it take so long? It wasn’t for lack of effort, Hunter says.
Elledge’s cell phone GPS records at the time of his wife’s disappearance showed he drove around for several hours across different counties in the mid-Missouri region, Hunter says. “We searched essentially everywhere he had gone, and we conducted searches by air and by land,” he says.
Columbia police issued 11 news releases about the case between 2019 and 2021, including asking people to check their hunting cameras for signs of unusual activity.
Investigators faced questions about why they spent a lot of time searching an area near the Lamine River and Highway 41, about 35 miles west of where Mengqi Ji’s remains were found. That was because Elledge didn’t tell police he’d been there, despite spending 40 minutes in the area, Hunter says. “We weren’t naïve to the fact that she could be somewhere else,” he adds.
As for Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, “We did search around there by air. Especially during the winter, when the foliage was gone,” Hunter says.
Hunter said police are grateful the hiker found Mengqi Ji’s remains. “It was a huge relief to bring some closure to our detectives and her family,” he says. “Our detectives did an outstanding job and they continued to work to get this all the way through prosecution, and really wanted this for her family.”
Anguish, Language Barriers
That was the third time that Ke Ren and Xiaolin Ji had been told to be prepared for the discovery of their daughter’s body, their attorney Amy Salladay tells A&E True Crime via email.
As for how long it took for that to happen, the Columbia Police Department and the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office were understaffed and dealing with 28 other open murder cases, Salladay says. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic had caused uncertainty about the status of funding for local authorities, she adds.
“When it is your child, those facts do not matter,” she says, “but this was the backdrop taking place during the investigation.”
Her clients, Ke Ren and Xiaolin Ji, also were frustrated at the lack of immediate response and search efforts when their daughter went missing, says Salladay, who represents the couple in a custody case involving their granddaughter, Anna.
Mengqi Ji was the couple’s only child, born in 1991 during China’s one-child policy. She was an excellent painter, highly intelligent and cared deeply about her daughter, Salladay says.
Her parents—who spoke with their daughter daily—flew from Xian, China to Columbia four days after she was reported missing, but were forced by the pandemic to go back home in September 2020, Salladay says.
The murder and child custody cases were scheduled to go to court in the first half of 2020, but were delayed by the pandemic, Salladay says. Ke Ren’s extended family had planned to travel to Missouri to lend their support but were derailed by the pandemic. Isolated, battling depression, and concerned about their lack of access to U.S. health care, Mengqi Ji’s parents ultimately decided to return to China, Salladay says.
“When they initially came here, they believed Mengqi Ji was alive,” Salladay says. “It has been traumatic for them to not know the language, to be reliant on others for transportation, and to have lived here constantly waiting for answers about what had happened to their daughter. They often say it was their worst nightmare to come here and then face the reality that she had been murdered by her own husband.”
Ke Ren and Xiaolin Ji got temporary custody of Anna in December 2019 but had to relinquish that to Elledge’s mother when they returned to China, Salladay says. The custody case is not fully resolved and is set for trial at the end of October 2022, she adds.
A History of Abuse
Elledge was emotionally abusive to his wife, Salladay says, threatening to deport her and putting her down by saying she didn’t understand American culture. Prosecutors speculated that he strangled her to avoid a costly divorce and to stop her from fleeing to China with their daughter, the Associated Press reported.
“There were [domestic violence] resources available to help Mengqi,” Salladay says, “but because of the cultural differences, she did not know about them and was afraid to reach out for help.”
Elledge’s mother, Jean Geringer, spoke during the penalty phase of the murder case in November 2021. “It’s very disturbing, it’s heartbreaking,” local TV station ABC17 quoted her as saying about her son’s behavior. “It’s just so out of his character.”
The language barrier was a difficulty for her clients, too, Salladay says. For example, the first day of custody hearings had to be postponed because the translator was not fluent in Mandarin Chinese, she says.
Community members fluent in Mandarin Chinese attended police interviews with the family, and Salladay hired a law student to help with translation during meetings and hearings. After graduating law school, the student was hired by the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to assist with the murder trial, she says.
Salladay and her clients also learned to communicate via WeChat, an app with translation features. During one emotional moment in Elledge’s murder trial, Salladay says, Mengqi Ji’s mother asked her to convey her “overwhelming gratitude” to the hiker who found her daughter’s body.
Salladay also credits prosecutor Dan Knight, who died in June 2022, with spending countless hours on the case.
“We all connected with Mengqi’s spirit while working on this case,” Salladay says. “I can imagine what she would have been like as a friend, colleague and mother. This has been a difficult case because of the deep sadness and trauma that has occurred.”