Court documents: Man accused of injecting wife with cyanide sent encoded letters from behind bars

Posted at 7:42 PM, May 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-17 00:02:18-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - About a month before his trial, newly unsealed court documents show Joseph Merlino is calculating ways he can control his upcoming trial. Merlino is charged with first-degree murder and accused of attacking and injecting his estranged wife, Ellie Tran who was 35, with cyanide on Valentine's Day 2017.

While Merlino is behind bars at the Virginia Beach City Jail, newly unsealed court documents show he sent encoded letters. An FBI Cryptanalysis deciphered the letters for Norfolk Police and determined in those letters Merlino gave instructions to several people on how to testify in court and directing them to create fake chat logs to aid his defense.

Some of the letters were sent to Merlino's Mom and he told her to pressure Commonwealth Attorney witnesses to take back their statements.

Court documents also say a criminal informant for the Virginia Beach Police Department said Merlino started to use a fellow inmate to make phone calls and send letters for him. The other inmate would call Merlino's mom, while Merlino stood nearby directing and taking notes.

Calls made by inmates are subject to recording and monitoring and this disclaimer is played before each inmate phone call. The court documents say in one of those phone calls to Merlino's mom, a P.O. Box was set up so the two could communicate.

The informant told police Merlino confided in him he was instructing people how to testify in court. In other conversations with the informant, Merlino made references to using a hitman, which Merlino referred to as "pizza being ordered." A manila envelope was given to the fellow inmate to give to Merlino's Mom, which she successfully got.

In April, Merlino appeared in court with two new attorneys, asking for the trial to be moved out of Virginia Beach and for certain evidence to be excluded from the trial. In that appearance, Merlino was wearing a yellow jumpsuit with extra restraints.

According to a spokesperson with the Virginia Beach Jail, inmates wear yellow jumpsuits when they are on disciplinary status for being assaultive or breaking some other facility rule. The spokesperson says these inmates often have extra restraints placed on them when they go to court for safety reasons, especially if the deputies have reason to believe they may be a threat or may try to flee.

According to the defense, extensive media coverage of Merlino's arrest and Tran's death will make it impossible to seat an unbiased jury. The Commonwealth disagreed, saying there are rules in place to ensure that a fair jury is seated. They also argued that this is not the first time Virginia Beach has had a high-profile case. The judge sided with the Commonwealth.

The other motion brought up by the defense was to have several pieces of evidence excluded from trial. The defense says ammunition, tactical gear, gun paraphernalia and chemicals found at Merlino's Virginia Beach home and business would unfairly impact the jury. The judge again disagreed.

Merlino has maintained his innocence since his arrest, which was shortly after Tran's death.

His trial is scheduled to begin June 19.