Science

How DNA from a tree helped police track down a young mother’s killer

On March 25, 2021, the body of 28-year-old Mengqi Jie was found buried in a shallow grave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park near Columbia, Missouri. Above Mengki’s burial site was a juniper tree that would eventually tell investigators who buried her lifeless body there.

“48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant reports on the case in “The Tree That Helped Solve a Murder,” streaming Saturday, December 10 at 10/9c on CBS and Paramount+.

Mengqi Ji and Jo Elledge
On October 10, 2019, 23-year-old Joseph Allez reported his wife, Mengqi Jie, missing. Elledge told Columbia, MO, police that he believed his wife may have left him and their 1-year-old daughter for another man with whom he said he had an online relationship.

Office of the District Attorney Dan Knight/Boone County DA


For more than a year, Mengqi’s husband, then 23 years old, had been insisting that his wife only take her purse and disappeared sometime in the morning of October 8, 2019. “We didn’t have a big fight,” Alledge told detectives, “I think the last big fight was actually a week ago. And it wasn’t really a big fight.”

In an interview with CBS affiliate KRCG, Elledge said he suspected that his wife had left him and their 1-year-old daughter for another man. “I know she was talking to someone else.” He said, “And I– I didn’t know that until after she left. But– I– you know– whatever she’s doing — I hope she’s safe.”

Dan Knight, then-Boone County prosecuting attorney, told Van Sant that even initially, he was skeptical about Ellage’s story. Mengqi left behind her passport, cellphone, house keys and car — but most importantly, she left behind her 1-year-old daughter. Knight told Van Sant “It became clear early on that Mengki would not have given up on her child … She was a great mother.” There was also no evidence that the young mother had run away. No Uber rides, airline tickets or credit card activity were ever discovered by investigators.

Sixteen days after his wife’s disappearance, Joe Allledge was arrested, but not on charges related to his wife’s disappearance. Dan Knight accused Elledge of child abuse, stemming from a photograph taken of his wife before she went missing, and sent to his mother in China. It was a picture of his baby’s bruised buttock. Mengqi told her mother that Allez made the baby twitch when she would not stop crying.

Joe Alledge's Dirty Shoes
At the time of Alledge’s arrest, officers had collected soiled shoes from Joe and Mengqi’s apartment. The shoes would prove to be crucial evidence in the case.

Office of the District Attorney Dan Knight/Boone County DA


On the day she was arrested, Elledge’s apartment was searched, and police confiscated a muddy pair of Elledge’s shoes, among other evidence crucial to his wife’s disappearance. “Just in case, down the road, they might be relevant?” Van Sant asked Knight. “Something was wrong, yes…they sensed it.”

The knight also senses something, and without Mengqi Ji’s body, he makes a bold move. Based on evidence shown to Van Sant in this week’s “48 Hours” report, Knight charged Joe Allledge with first-degree murder. The charges were filed on February 19, 2020 – days before the United States prepared itself for a global pandemic. “Then COVID basically shut down the court system,” Knight told Van Sant.

Ellage had been jailed on $500,000 bond for nearly a year when on March 25, 2021, a hiker went off the beaten path at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and saw a shiny object in the woods. As he got closer, Steven Roberts realized he had seen a woman’s purse. Then, using his walking stick to poke around, Roberts unearthed a skull and called the police. A coroner would later determine that Steven Roberts had discovered Mengqi Jie’s remains.

Remembering the muddy shoes of Joseph Alledge, Knight began researching cases in which clay and gravel evidence had been used to place people at crime scenes, and realized he had something even better. Is – the needles of the tree. With a call to a laboratory at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Knight speeds up DNA testing of several juniper tree needles stuck in the soles of Elise’s shoes.

“Do plants have the same DNA as people?” Van Sant asked horticultural plant geneticist Christine Edwards. “Exactly,” he replied, “every living organism on the planet has DNA.”

After carefully removing the needles sticking out from under Elledge’s shoes and extracting his DNA, Edwards’ colleague, Alex Linnon, was tasked with climbing several juniper trees surrounding Mengzi’s grave. He carefully counted each tree and then plucked them one by one, picking fresh needles from the highest branches. Linn joined Van Sant at the graveside to explain: “It involved a ladder and a 10, 15-foot long pole pruner so we could make sure the needles we were getting came from the exact same trees “

juniper needle proof
Juniper tree needles found embedded in the soles of Ellage’s shoes were tested for DNA and compared with DNA from needles collected in the field.

cbs news


Back in the lab, the DNA from the needles retrieved from Joe Allege’s shoes is compared to the DNA from the needles collected in the field, and there is an exact match from the tree that stood directly at Mengqi Jie’s burial site. Peter Van Sant asked Christine Edwards what the moment was like for her. “Really exciting,” she said, “I think I shouted,” We caught him… He was really there… There’s no doubt in my mind. He was there.”

“Who’d have ever thought of that?” “The DNA from these juniper trees helped solve this crime,” Knight said. To which Van Sant replied, “I’ve never heard anything like this before in my entire 48-hour career.”

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