KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Investigators believe a Missouri man may have strangled or suffocated his Chinese wife before she went missing in early October, according to a probable cause statement.
Joseph Elledge, of Columbia, was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder in the death of Mengqi Ji, although her body has not been recovered.
The statement by Columbia police officer Allen Mitchell said Elledge gave his wife a massage the night before she disappeared but she would not have sex with him, and Elledge was frustrated because Ji had been hesitant to have sex with him for several months.
Mitchell noted that Ji was about 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds, while Elledge is 6 feet and weighs about 170 pounds.
"Joseph being on Mengqi's back would have put Mengqi in a compromising position that would not have allowed her options for defending herself," Mitchell says in the statement.
He said strangulation or suffocation is relatively bloodless, silent but violent act and noted that no blood was found in Elledge's or Ji's vehicles or in the apartment, and Elledge did not have any defensive wounds on him.
Elledge didn't report his wife missing to anyone for more than 24 hours and took two drives to remote areas near rivers. Search teams have looked for Ji's body several times in the Lamine River near Boonville but her body has not been found. Cell phone records show Elledge drove to that river for about 45 minutes in the hours after his wife disappeared, the statement say s.
Ji's family approved of Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight's decision to file the murder charges although her body has not been found. Prosecuting such “no body” cases is challenging but can be done if the prosecution has a strong circumstantial case, said Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri.
In the Elledge case, prosecutors will need to show that Ji did not intend to take her own life or disappear because the defense will argue she may have run away from a difficult marriage, he said.
Prosecutors can use the fact the couple had a 1-year-old daughter and that Ji hasn't been in contact with her family, along with suggestions the couple was unhappily married and cell phone evidence that Elledge was not where he said he was after his wife disappeared to bolster their case, he said.
“Every piece of evidence is a brick, and with enough bricks you can build a wall," Trachtenberg said. “(The prosecution) wants to wall this guy in with a lot of bricks.”
There have been successful murder prosecutions with a victim's body in Missouri. For example, Ralph Davis was convicted of killing his wife, Susan, who disappeared from Columbia in 1986. Her vehicle was found two years later in a storage locker. No body was inside but investigators found blood, fragments from a human skull and shattered windows from a shotgun blast. The evidence, along with testimony that Davis lied about her disappearance led to his conviction. He was executed in 1999.
Before the murder charge was filed, Elledge was charged with child abuse involving the couple's daughter. He has pleaded not guilty. On Thursday, defense and prosecuting attorneys sparred over setting a trial date for that case.
Knight said he was dropping an additional charge of endangering the welfare but would seek a third-degree domestic assault charge against Elledge, The Columbia Missourian reported.
Boone County Circuit Judge J. Hasbrouck Jacobs set April 6 for Elledge's child abuse trial.
Defense attorney John O'Connor said he would not be prepared to go to trial by then, noting he still had to interview more than 50 witnesses and the prosecution was still filing evidence.
Knight pushed for the April 6 date because he was concerned Ji's mother, Ke Ren, may have to return to China by April 15, when her six-month visa expires. Ji's parents have been in the United State since their daughter was reported missing.