COLUMBIA, MO (AP) — A judge will decide custody of the 1-year-old daughter of a Chinese woman who has been missing for more than three weeks, with the woman’s parents and the mother-in-law of her jailed U.S. husband seeking guardianship.
An attorney for Ke Ren and Xiaolin Ji, who are the parents of 28-year-old Mengqi Ji Elledge, said a written statement that they have a “close relationship with their granddaughter, despite the distance between them, and it is in the minor child’s best interest that they have physical custody of her,” instead of their son-in-law’s mother, Jean Elledge. The statement said they “believe that this is what their daughter would have wanted.”
Police said previously that the child was in the care of a relative. A court hearing in the case was Monday.
Mengqi Ji Elledge’s husband, Joseph Elledge, is jailed in Columbia, Missouri, on $500,000 bond on a child abuse charge. Joseph Elledge, a University of Missouri student, hasn’t been charged in the disappearance of his wife, a graduate of the school, although police announced last month that the investigation has led detectives to suspect foul play.
The probable cause statement filed in support of the abuse charge says he waited about 36 hours before reporting her missing. During that time, he took a long drive through unfamiliar remote areas of central Missouri.
Jean Elledge’s attorney, Garrett Taylor, didn’t immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press. No attorney is listed for her son in online court records.
In the probable cause statement, detectives were advised that Joseph Elledge abused the toddler by striking her on the buttocks hard enough to cause severe bruising in February. The girl’s mother, who is identified only as M.E. in the document, had wanted to contact police but gave Elledge another chance after he promised he would never do it again. She sent another person a picture of the bruising, however, and officers examining the mother’s iPad located pictures and videos of the bruising.
The affidavit said Joseph Elledge told officers that he did bruise the girl months earlier, saying initially that he did not know how it happened. He later told officers the girl was crying and would not stop. The bruising may have been caused by pinching the girl to distract her or by holding her too hard, Elledge told police.
Columbia police spokesman Steven Sapp said previously that police learned the couple had been having problems when Joseph Elledge divulged that during an on-camera interview with KRCG-TV. In the interview, Elledge described his wife as a doting mother but said “we were growing kind of distant in the past few months.”
Amy Davis Salladay, the attorney for the parents of Mengqi Ji Elledge, said they spoke daily with their daughter on the phone, and when she didn’t answer the phone on Oct. 8, they attempted to reach Joseph and Jean Elledge for help contacting her. The couple said in the statement that they ultimately learned about their daughter’s disappearance from a family friend.
Police said in a news release that she was reported missing on Oct. 9, while charging documents say Joseph Elledge reported her missing on Oct. 10. The statement said Jean Elledge did not return their calls until Oct. 11, claiming her phone app had been off for two days.
The statement noted that at the time of Joseph Elledge’s arrest on Oct. 25, he was attempting to leave Columbia with his child and his mother, Jean Elledge.
“Jean Elledge continues to withhold information from Mengqi’s parents and failed to inform them of the pending case for guardianship of their granddaughter,” the statement said, adding that “they are confused by Jean Elledge’s actions.”
Police said Mengqi Ji Elledge’s family has flown to Columbia so they can be present as the investigation unfolds. Mengqi Elledge was awarded a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of Missouri in December 2014. She previously attended the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai.