COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri man who admitted to burying his wife’s body and misleading authorities for more than a year about her whereabouts will be sentenced Friday for killing her.
Jurors in November convicted 26-year-old Joseph Elledge of second-degree murder in the killing of 28-year-old Mengqi Ji, whom he met after she moved from China to study engineering at the University of Missouri.
The jury recommended that Elledge be sentenced to 28 years in prison, and the judge’s sentence can’t exceed that recommendation. A second-degree murder conviction requires Elledge to serve at least 85% of his sentence before he would be eligible for parole.
Elledge reported Ji missing in October 2019, prompting months of extensive searches. Her remains were found last March in a park near Columbia, where the couple lived.
Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight described Elledge as a “stone cold killer” and argued that he was guilty of first-degree murder because he intentionally killed Ji. Prosecutors used social media posts, audio tapes and a journal Elledge kept to document the couple’s volatile relationship.
But Elledge said Ji’s death was accidental. He said Ji fell and hit her head on Oct. 8, 2019, after he pushed her during an argument, and that he found her dead in bed the next morning. He said he panicked, put her body in the trunk of her car and didn’t report what happened while he tried to decide what to do.
On Oct. 10, 2019, with the couple’s then-year-old daughter in the car, Elledge drove to Rock Bridge State Park, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Columbia. There, he dug a grave and buried Ji at a site near the spot where he had proposed to her. He then returned home and reported her missing.
Elledge’s attorney Scott Rosenblum argued that his client was awkward and made “unbelievably dumb” decisions after Ji died, but that he never intended to kill his wife and should not have been charged with murder.
Jurors opted for a second-degree murder conviction, which doesn’t carry a mandatory life sentence.
Elledge said he discovered in the days before Ji’s death that she had been exchanging sexually suggestive messages with a man from China via social media. He also testified that the couple’s relationship suffered because of tension caused by her parents, who moved from China to live with them after their daughter was born in October 2018.
The couple met in 2015 at Nanova, a company that makes dental products, where Ji was Elledge’s supervisor. They began dating the following year and eventually traveled to China, where Elledge asked Ji’s parents for permission to marry her. The couple married in 2017.
Ji earned a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of Missouri in December 2014. Elledge was a student at the university when his wife died.
An attorney for Ji’s family told the Columbia Daily Tribune after the verdict that they were pleased with Knight’s efforts.