VIRGINIA BEACH — Seven months before her ex-boyfriend was charged with her murder, Ellie Mizon Tran told police she was scared of him.
In July 2016, Tran pressed charges against Joseph “Joey” Vincent Merlino III, 29, telling police he assaulted her in front of their 2-year-old daughter, Jolie.
The couple dated for about three years, breaking up because Tran felt like Merlino was too controlling, said Diamond Phan, Tran’s best friend of 10 years.
“My boyfriend scared me. He told me he will put me under the ground behind his house,” Tran wrote in a July 11, 2016 criminal complaint filed in Virginia Beach Juvenile Domestic Relations Court.
Tran went on to detail the alleged attack, writing that Merlino grabbed her by the neck, restrained her hands and feet and hung her upside down with her head almost touching the ground.
“I could not do anything,” she wrote. “He did that to me several times in front of my daughter … My daughter was so scared and she cried and scream [sic].”
Merlino was charged with assault against a family member. The charge was dismissed with prejudice, and Merlino was fined $1,000.
“My recollection is that both sides dropped the case,” said defense attorney Richard Doummar, who said he had a hard time remembering the case. Doummar represented Merlino in the assault case and is also representing him in the murder case.
“The system failed her,” Tran’s friend Albert Lai said in a February interview. “She reported to the police department, but they couldn’t save her.”
Tran died on Feb. 15 in Sentara Princess Anne Hospital, about a day after she was attacked in her Still Meadow Court driveway. One day later, Merlino was charged with second-degree murder in connection with her death.
The Tidewater Chief Medical Examiner’s office hasn’t released the cause of Tran’s death, but police believe Merlino “touched her in a manner that caused her to be ill,” said Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Tonya Pierce.
Tran’s family said that when she was attacked around 8 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, she quickly became so sick that she collapsed, couldn’t speak, lost consciousness and needed a breathing tube.
Tran’s friends said the 35-year-old mother was scared of Merlino. Her friend Loan Luu said Tran called her some nights when she couldn’t sleep because of fear.
“She was so scared of him,” Luu said. “She protected herself and the baby.”
Phan said the couple fought constantly, especially over Jolie and where to live. The couple lived together for a few months, but Tran wanted to move back in with her parents, while Merlino wanted them to stay in his home on the 1900 block of Warner Hall Drive.
“He wasn’t respectful,” to her parents, Phan said. “They fought a lot when they lived together. He tried to control her.”
Phan and Luu, said that Valentine’s Day wasn’t the first time Tran had been attacked in recent months.
On Dec. 4, around 7 p.m., an unknown person backed into Tran’s car, exited the car and threw liquid at her, according to the Virginia Beach Police Department.
Phan and Luu said Tran was leaving her job at KT Nails II on Laskin Road when the unidentified man threw acid on her. They believe he was dressed in women’s clothing and wearing a wig to disguise himself.
Tran turned her face, but the substance burned her hair and she was taken to the hospital.
“I feel so bad for her,” Phan said. “When I’m sleeping I dream of her and her daughter.”
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