It was Valentine’s Day and although romance was the last thing on Ellie Tran’s mind, love and devotion certainly were.
The single mum was working as many hours as she could as a manicurist to support her two-year-old daughter. Ellie, 35, was also living with her parents in Virginia Beach, on the east coast of America.
They had moved over from Vietnam to help her raise their granddaughter, but they didn’t speak English and Ellie, who put family above all else, insisted on looking after them.
She worked at various salons to bring as much money in as she could, and even when Ellie got home, she’d fuss around her parents.
On 14 February 2017, while the world was celebrating with their soulmate or out searching for The One, Ellie was content with her true love – her daughter.
She was the one good thing to come out of her rocky relationship with Joseph Merlino III. Joseph, then 29, was the owner of a mobile phone repair shop in Oceanfront, Virginia.
He fell for Ellie who was beautiful and full of life. They’d dated for a few years and Ellie had fallen pregnant.
Straight away there was tension. Ellie expressed how important it was to have her family involved with the new baby, so when her parents moved over, she wanted her and Joseph to live with them. He wasn’t so keen.
When their little girl was born, Ellie tried to make the relationship work, despite her boyfriend being incredibly controlling.
Ellie had traditional beliefs and wanted her family to stay together. But when she became scared of Joseph, she knew it was time to end things.
At one point she went to the police saying Joseph had grabbed her by the neck in front of their daughter and he’d threatened to put Ellie ‘under the ground’. Joseph was fined.
After the couple split, Ellie found a place with her parents and they focused on making a happy family home. Ellie worked to pay the bills and the mortgage, and would insist on cooking and doing the chores too.
Surrounded by love, life was getting better for Ellie, but the shadow of Joseph continued to loom. They were locked in a bitter custody battle.
While Ellie worked all the hours to support her family, Joseph would try to break into her home, or follow her.
Frightened, Ellie had surveillance cameras fitted and wrote in her diary that she was living in fear of what he might do. Joseph already had a new girlfriend – a woman he’d met in China while he was there for work – but without his daughter, he refused to move on.
On the evening of Valentine’s Day 2017, at around 8pm, Ellie pulled into her driveway. She had no idea Joseph lay in wait. As she got out of her car and headed to the front door, Joseph attacked.
He plunged an antique syringe into Ellie’s upper leg and injected her with a dose of cyanide – an extremely lethal poison that can result in immediate death in high enough doses.
The whole attack was caught on the surveillance cameras Ellie had installed to keep Joseph away.
As Joseph fled, Ellie’s mum, Oanh Le, heard the screams and ran outside to see what was happening. Ellie was holding her leg and pointed to the figure running down the street.
‘Merlino stuck something in my leg,’ she cried.
At first, Ellie was able to dial 911, but within 15 minutes she was unconscious and unable to breathe.
Ellie was rushed to Sentara Princess Anne Hospital, but by midnight she was declared brain dead, and the following day her family reluctantly turned off her life support.
Ellie had died of cyanide poisoning.
Considering the turbulent history between them, Joseph was quickly brought in for questioning. Although Ellie’s mum had identified Joseph, it wasn’t clear on the footage whether it was him.
The attacker had worn a high visibility shirt, presumably to distort the image and make it harder to identify him. Joseph said he had been over 100 miles away visiting family in Victoria, Virginia, when Ellie had been stabbed.
His mobile phone placed him there, but no calls or messages were sent from it, suggesting he might not have been with it at the time.
After further investigation, Joseph looked more and more guilty. He would go to a local pizza restaurant every day, and in January the owner received a package addressed to Joseph.
When he told Joseph about it, he walked into the kitchen, grabbed it and left.
Police found a woman in New Hampshire who later testified that she’d sold a vintage steel syringe for $68 on the website Etsy to someone in Virginia Beach. She’d shipped the package to the very same pizza restaurant.
Officers also found internet searches about cyanide on Joseph’s laptop and discovered he had a flight booked to China. He was charged with murder.
While awaiting his trial, Joseph went on a two-month hunger strike and lost 40lbs. The prosecution believed he was trying to make himself look different to the images on the surveillance video.
He was also sending coded letters to his family and girlfriend that were intercepted.
Investigators believed he was trying to get his girlfriend to create a false chat log to give him an alibi and get friends to say they’d seen them both face-chatting at the time of the murder.
At the trial in June last year, Joseph pleaded not guilty.
His defence still argued that he was over 100 miles away at the time of the attack. Joseph took the stand and was questioned about the web searches he made in January 2017, with subjects including ‘high quality syringes’, ‘what if cyanide gets in the blood stream?’, and ‘how many milligrams of cyanide will kill you?’.
Joseph said anyone could have had access to it.
Ellie’s mum testified through a translator about the evening her daughter was attacked.
She said she saw Joseph across the street and sobbed hysterically as footage of Ellie’s ambush was played for the jury.
Later that month, Joseph, 31, was found guilty of first-degree murder and the jury recommended life in prison.
He ended his hunger strike. Ellie’s sister Phi Tran had travelled from Vietnam to attend the trial and told the media that she was relieved at the verdict.
‘Justice had been made under American law,’ she said, emotionally.
‘We just want to say thank you. Thank you so much.’
In the December, there was more drama at the sentencing when Joseph was wheeled into court in an upright gurney-type wheelchair, covered in a blanket.
He was foaming at the mouth, rocking from side to side and unresponsive.
The judge was forced to postpone the penalty phase. A prison doctor testified that he could have been suffering from a mental condition brought on by the stress of being incarcerated and had started acting that way the morning of his sentencing.
The prosecution said he was simply feigning the episode to avoid hearing the inevitable news that he faced many years behind bars.
The following week, Joseph was sentenced to life in prison. He blamed his lawyers for their failings in the case and said he plans to appeal.
‘This was an erroneous conviction,’ Joseph told the court. ‘Time will always tell.’
Joseph picked one of the most romantic days of the year to slay a woman who did nothing but love the important people in her life.
Now a little girl breaks her grandparents’ hearts every time the front door opens and she asks if it’s her mummy coming home.
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