COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
The Columbia Police Department has finished its search for the remains of missing Columbia mother Mengqi Ji.
Ji went missing on Oct. 8, 2019 and was reported missing by her husband Joseph Elledge on Oct. 10,2019.
Columbia police searched the Lamine River outside of Boonville for Ji after cellphone records showed Elledge being in the area of the Lamine River on Oct. 9 for around 45 minutes. According to a probable cause statement, he also drove to several other areas around mid-Missouri.
Officers did an aerial search and a search on foot in each of those areas.
"We followed the route that he took. We followed the route, and then anywhere there was like wooded areas or bodies of water we searched those," said Assistant Chief Jeremiah Hunter.
Police spent months searching the Lamine River with local and state partners.
The department eventually built a levee in the river in order to get larger equipment further out into the water.
When they pulled the levee out of the water, crews took around 25 truck loads of debris to an undisclosed location and searched through it.
Police were looking for any sign that Ji had been in the area or for any remains.
Crews laid the truck loads of debris out in rows and let it dry. Police then used human remain detective K9's to search the debris.
Detectives then searched by hand, with a sifting table, and heavy equipment.
"The majority of the heavy equipment was used to thin things down, thin the material down so it wasn't as thick for the dogs to sniff through, and to break through it," Hunter said.
Hunter said crews worked to turn over every stone and search thoroughly.
"You get in line on your hands and knees and you phsycially just grab the material, look through it, search through it. If you've found something of interest then you take it over to the sifting table, he said.
"Literally you have to go through all 25 loads on hands and knees and feel your way through it," he said.
Police did not find anything in their search, meaning Elledge could go to court without any DNA evidence of Ji's death.
Criminal Attorney Mike Hamilton said without a body or any remains it could be much more difficult to convince a jury of murder.
"If they found anything just to show that she was in that river, that would bolster what their theory is which is that she was killed and brought there and dumped," Hamilton said. "Without a body it's purely circumstantial and a jury may not buy it."
Hamilton said the only other case he recalled from Boone County that was similar still had blood as DNA evidence .
A probable cause statement in the murder case alleges Elledge may have strangled Ji which is why there was no blood or other DNA evidence.
He said it is still possible a jury could find Elledge guilty.
"It depends on how much the judge lets in. I mean, opinion evidence, 'Oh she'd never go.' I mean, is that going to be admissible. Well the prosecutor's going to have to do that to present their theory, or what I think their theory in the case is," he said.
Hamilton said if there is a conviction it could be overturned based on the lack of a body and individual rulings around the pieces of evidence in the case.
He also expects both sides of the case to make motions to prevent certain evidence from being introduced to the courtroom.
"It may be trying to keep witnesses out or testimony to where, again, if it's inadmissible why would they bring it in? If they start in then the jury's confused or if they say something that's prejudicial enough to either side it could result in a mistrial," Hamilton said.
He said the search through the debris is one of the things that either side could try to bring in or block.
A trial in the murder case has not been scheduled yet.