Woman killed on Valentine's Day in suspected cyanide attack
04/14/2017 2:00 pm PDT
Ellie Tran worked hard pursuing her American Dream, since the first day she arrived from Vietnam. She was a young single mother with a 2-year-old daughter who put in extra hours to help support her parents.
But Ellie's mother says her daughter's dream was poisoned, literally, in a heartless attack on Valentine's Day.
"A substance we now know is suspected to be cyanide," said Kim Cung, who reported on the story from Crime Watch Daily affiliate WTKR in Norfolk, Virginia.
Cyanide is a poison so lethal that a tiny fraction of a teaspoon can kill a person.
But it's not Ellie's first encounter with life-threatening danger -- or with lethal chemicals.
There was a bizarre incident just two months earlier. Ellie was leaving the nail salon where she worked when the car in front of her backed into her. The driver got out. Ellie later described him to friends as a man in disguise, strangely dressed as a woman.
"That's when someone walked up to her and threw a substance at her they believe it was acid," said Kim Cung.
Friends say Ellie went to an emergency room, but thankfully she was not critically hurt. Her hair was damaged, but that was it. Ellie considered herself incredibly lucky.
But then, a couple of months later, on Valentine's Day evening this year, Ellie's mother hears Ellie's screams from the driveway. She runs outside to help her daughter who is in pain holding her leg and pointing at a man running down the street.
Ellie has been jabbed in the leg with a sharp object, most likely a syringe. Ellie's mother, who does not speak English, told reporters through an interpreter that she tried to call 911, but her daughter had already passed out.
Ellie rushed to the hospital, and put on life support. Sadly Ellie never wakes up again -- she later died at the hospital.
Now police say they have a murder suspect in custody: 29-year-old Joseph Merlino, Ellie's estranged husband and the father of her child. Ellie got a restraining order against him after she made a complaint to police about being physically abused by Merlino the summer before her death, and she moved out of their house to be with her parents, both newly arrived from Vietnam.
"She wanted to take care of her parents, and that really caused a majority of the arguments between Ellie and Joseph Merlino, that's when Ellie started living in fear, and that's why she installed security cameras inside her home and outside her home," said Kim Cung. "She was constantly worried about him coming after her and trying to take their 2-year-old daughter Jolie away.
Cops now believe Merlino was also involved in the earlier attack against Ellie. She reportedly told friends he was the disguised man, dressed in drag, who threw acid at her.
And her mother reportedly says she got a good look at the man fleeing the scene as she ran to help Ellie in the fatal driveway attack.
"Her mom says that she spotted Joseph Merlino running away. We're still waiting for that information to be confirmed by police," said Cung.
Police have also reviewed unreleased footage from security cameras at the house -- and it may not look good for Merlino.
"The Commonwealth's Attorney is still saying that they have proof that he was there and security camera footage captures him leaving," said Kim Cung.
Merlino's attorney says that there's no way his client is on that tape.
"The defendant was two and a half to three hours away when this crime took place," Joseph Merlino's attorney Richard Doummar. "We intend to provide evidence to prove that at the appropriate time."
But shortly after Merlino's arrest, his neighbors were shocked to see a SWAT team and a hazardous-materials crew show up at his house where he had lived alone.
Several homes on the block were evacuated as the team searched the premises.
"They found guns. They found tools that can make explosives," said Kim Cung.
Much ado about nothing, according to Merlino's attorney.
"Responding to anything found in his house, we emphatically present that those things were legal, there was nothing illegal about it," said Merlino.
But at recent bond hearing, the judge refused bail for Merlino, citing him as a flight risk.
"One of the most recent things we learned in Merlino's latest bond hearing is he had a plane ticket, set to fly to China," said Cung. "The Commonwealth's Attorney says that he had a fiancée there and he was ready to go live in China with her. Also, he is a danger to the Tran family."
Ellie's grieving parents are now seeking to adopt 2-year-old Jolie, desperate to protect her, while hoping to find justice for their own daughter. They say they live in constant fear of him and are worried that he's going to come after them or potentially kill his daughter.
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