Prosecutors: Woman killed on Valentine’s Day was injected with cyanide

Photo courtesy: Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A Virginia Beach man accused of killing his wife on Valentine’s Day was denied bond in a hearing Friday morning that revealed new details about the alleged murder.

Joseph Merlino III is charged with second-degree murder for the death of Ellie Tran in February. Officers went to Merlino’s home the day after Tran’s death to serve a warrant.

Tran told officers the night of Tuesday, Feb. 14 she was attacked by someone in her driveway. She was taken to the hospital in critical condition and died the next night.

Defense attorney Richard Doummar argued Friday that Merlino, 29, had left that Sunday — two days before the alleged attack — and headed to a family member’s home in Victoria, Virginia.

Doummar says Merlino hit a deer on the way up, causing his car to become disabled. Merlino was at his brother’s house when the Feb. 14 incident happened, according to Doummar.

A neighbor of Merlino’s brother said the 29-year-old was there at that time, according to Doummar.

Prosecutors said Friday that Ellie Tran had just gotten home the night of the attack. Someone allegedly pinned her to the ground and injected her with cyanide.

Prosecutors say Tran started screaming, and that her mother saw Merlino running away from the home when she went outside to look. A neighbor also identified Merlino as he was running away, according to prosecutors.

According to a warrant from a search Merlino’s home, authorities found explosive material — much of which was already mixed together — as well as guns.

Doummar argued Friday that Merlino is not a flight risk.

Prosecutors claim Merlino makes regular trips to China because of his cellphone business — and that he has contacts there. He also purchased a plane ticket to China and began liquidating his assets after the murder, according to prosecutors.

A Virginia Beach judge said Friday she believes Merlino is a danger to the community because of the explosive material and guns, as well as the ticket to China he allegedly purchased.

A December 2016 case in which a caustic substance was thrown in Tran’s face — and someone reportedly tried to inject her — has been reopened.

No charges were filed in the case, but forensics investigators are looking into the substance that was said to have been thrown.

A preliminary hearing has been set for  May 10.

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