VIRGINIA BEACH — Every time the doorbell rings, Jolie Merlino calls for her mommy.
The 2-year-old girl isn’t old enough to understand that her mother, Ellie Mizon Tran, will never walk through the front door of their Virginia Beach home again.
“She says her mommy is sleeping,” said Oanh Le, Ellie Tran’s mother.
Ellie Tran, 35, died on Feb. 15 at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital, about a day after she was attacked in her Still Meadow Court driveway.
Her ex-boyfriend and Jolie’s father, 29-year-old Joseph “Joey” Vincent Merlino III, of the 1200 block of Warner Hall Drive, was charged with second-degree murder on Feb. 16 in connection to the incident.
The Tidewater Chief Medical Examiner’s office is working to find out exactly what killed Ellie Tran, but police believe Merlino “touched her in a manner that caused her to be ill,” said Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Tonya Pierce.
When Ellie Tran was attacked around 8 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, she was able to call 911 for herself, but her family said she quickly became so sick that she couldn’t speak, lost consciousness and needed a breathing tube.
“No words can describe the sorrow. I can lose everything, but I cannot lose my daughter,” Le said in Vietnamese, communicating with a Southside Daily reporter via translator.
A ‘golden’ daughter
Ellie Tran was born and raised in Hue, Vietnam as one of six children. She moved to North Carolina about 10 years ago when she married a Vietnamese-American man. The couple later divorced, and Ellie Tran moved to Virginia Beach.
In the spring of 2014, Ellie Tran was pregnant, and her parents decided to move to America to help raise the baby. Oanh Le, an ecstatic grandmother-to-be, remembers rubbing her daughter’s large belly in anticipation.
Jolie brought her grandmother immeasurable joy. Now every time the 64-year-old woman looks at her granddaughter, she sees the daughter she lost.
“I have to love her more now because she doesn’t have a mother,” Oanh Le said.
Although Ellie Tran’s father, 70-year-old Thuan Tran, works in a restaurant kitchen part time, the young mother was the primary earner for the family. She worked as a manicurist to support her daughter and parents, finding jobs at Deluxe Nails and Spa in Virginia Beach and H & L Nails and Tan Spa in Norfolk.
Oanh Le said her daughter was a bright and cheerful worker, describing her as “golden.” Ellie Tran paid the mortgage and utilities for their home and provided health insurance for her aging parents. She always insisted her mother get more sleep and told her parents not to worry about daily chores like cooking.
Even on Feb. 12 when Ellie Tran turned 35, she didn’t worry about having a special birthday. Oanh Le said her daughter would usually indulge in a small birthday celebration and some cake, but this year she was focused on saving money for the family.
“She always took good care of her family,” Oanh Le said. “She sacrificed for her daughter.”
One last photo
Ellie Tran’s parents aren’t sure when she began to date Merlino or why the couple broke up in the spring of 2016. They say when Ellie Tran died, the couple was in the midst of a custody battle and had a court date scheduled in March. Although Jolie primarily lived with her mother and grandparents, she did visit her father.
Jolie is a silly, beautiful girl, and the reason her mother radiated positive energy every day, Oanh Le said.
Jolie was her mother’s world. The pair loved to play together, sitting in the toy-covered living room learning shapes, colors and the alphabet through developmental games.
“She never got bored of playing with her daughter,” Oanh Le said.
The day she was attacked, Ellie Tran took Jolie on a walk around their neighborhood and the duo took a picture together. It was their last photo.
On Saturday afternoon, Ellie Tran’s parents sat at their dining room table with a group of Vietnamese friends and members of the Virginia Beach-based charity, the Love Foundation Corp.
The group discussed the aging couple’s future.
How will they pay the mortgage? Will they be safe? Who will get custody of their granddaughter?
In the background, Jolie could be heard calling for her mommy.
Quan Le, a representative of the Love Foundation Corp., said the charity does a lot of work for Vietnamese people abroad.
Now it’s time for them to get to work locally.
The charity has committed to helping Ellie Tran’s parents with their daily needs, including getting drivers licenses, connecting with social services and paying bills.
Quan Le said the charity plans to be involved with the family for at least the next year. They hope to continue to provide them support for a longer period of time, if needed.
The grandparents are desperate to stay in America and raise their granddaughter, but it will take a village, Quan Le said. Local temples and Vietnamese community members have donated money to help pay for Ellie Tran’s funeral and the foundation is seeking further donations to help her parents with their daily expenses.
“That’s our culture. They have a lot of worries,” Quan Le said. “We need to stand behind the community.”
Ellie Tran’s parents said it brings them some comfort to know that their community is behind them, but no caretaker will ever fill the void Ellie Tran’s death has left behind.
“If I could die and give life to Ellie I would,” her father said.
To learn how you can help Ellie Tran’s family, email email@example.com. You can make donations via PayPal by using the same email address or by sending a check directly to the Love Foundation Corp. at 1612 Tallwood Manor, Virginia Beach, Va., 23464. The memo should read “Ellie Tran.”
Mayfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.