As the water search for the body of a Columbia woman now missing two months continued for a seventh day, a staging area once a flurry of activity was mostly empty and authorities were no closer to finding her.
Mengqi Ji went missing sometime late Oct. 8 and is feared murdered by her husband Joseph Elledge, 23, whom prosecutors have named as a suspect but have not charged with the crime.
On Wednesday, authorities again searched for her in the Lamine River beneath the Highway 41 bridge in Cooper County, but with a seemingly reduced effort than in the week prior.
Two Columbia Public Works trucks were seen on the east bank of the river Wednesday afternoon. Operators were using a backhoe to continue to dredge near the bridge piling where search efforts have been focused. A Missouri State Highway Patrol truck carrying a boat, a Columbia Crime Scene Investigation van and a Cooper County cruiser were seen in the De Bourgmont Access, but the parking lot was somewhat still compared to earlier days.
However, Columbia police spokesman Jeff Pitts wrote in an email on Wednesday that the search had not ended, evaluations are taking place on a day-by-day basis and portions of the search do not require the amount of manpower seen last week.
“Part of that evaluation process is determining what resources and personnel are going to be needed in order to accomplish the next step in the investigation,” Pitts wrote. “Currently, we are still conducting the same debris removal operation in order to give divers and other personnel access for exploration. This search consists of multiple agencies and variables encountered on a day by day basis. Each part of the investigation involves tailoring resources for specific tasks to be as efficient and safe as possible.”
What led investigators to that particular area of the river also remained a mystery Wednesday. The only public information that might tie Joseph Elledge to Ji’s death was that he took a lengthy road trip through rural mid-Missouri between the time his wife went missing and him contacting police.
Much of that information comes from a Nov. 6 bond hearing where Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight named Elledge, who is charged with abusing the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, as the primary suspect in his wife’s “murder.”
The statement came as defense attorney John O’Connor objected to a line of questioning to detective Alan Mitchell, who in a rare move for such a proceeding was laying out some of what investigators had found so far in relation to Ji’s disappearance.
“Your honor I am establishing he is the prime suspect in the murder of Mengqi Elledge, his wife,” Knight told Associate Circuit Judge Tracy Gonzalez. “That right there would go to his bond, what the bond should be fixed at in this case. The cases are intertwined.”
The objection was one of dozens registered by O’Connor, who alleged Knight was pushing for a bond on a murder charge while his client at the time was facing a child abuse charge. Knight argued due to court bond rules, such testimony was fair as it spoke to character.
Regardless, Mitchell continued to speak about the mid-Missouri road trip taken by Elledge, who told investigators when he woke about 8 a.m. on Oct. 9, the baby was crying and Ji was gone. He looked around the residence and immediate area for her, to no avail, and about 10:30 a.m. left the couple’s home in the 2600 block of Eastwood Drive and drove to Jefferson City.
In his testimony about what Elledge told him about his drives around the region after his wife's disappearance, Mitchell did not mention Cooper County or the Lamine River.
“To relax,” Mitchell said in response to Knight’s question about why Elledge went for the drive.
“He was not familiar with it (Jefferson City)," Mitchell said. "He said he drove down 63 and then turned around once he is in Jeff City and attempted to come back and ended up taking the wrong road and continued on 54 north up to I-70. Then he proceeded on I-70 back to his residence.”
Regarding a second drive Elledge took later that day, Mitchell said Elledge told investigators he did research on Google maps and found “a large forest” in the Columbia, Jefferson City, Kingdom City triangle. There might be some walking trails there where he could take his child for a walk, Mitchell said to describe what Elledge told him.
A section of the Mark Twain National Forest straddles the Boone-Callaway county line east of Ashland.
“On that trip, he told us he went south on 63 and got off on the Ashland exit and proceeded over to Guthrie, back to Ashland and back to Guthrie," Mitchell said. "On the way back to Guthrie his gas light came on and he started looking for a station, which Guthrie doesn't have. He said he then went south to a small town that also did not have a gas station. He said he then went north to Fulton and stopped at one just prior to Fulton.”
After gassing up on Highway 54, Elledge drove through Fulton and traveled back to I-70, but passed Columbia and went to Rocheport, where he stopped at two MKT trail accesses and about 10:50 p.m. arrived back home.
“He said he drove down to a couple entrances to the MKT trail and one was blocked by sandbags and another one was open,” Mitchell said. “He said he then turned around and went back home.”
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Ji is asked to please contact the Columbia Police Department at 573-874-7652 or CrimeStoppers at 573-875-8477 to remain anonymous.