Most people in the country know all about DNA from watching CSI, Law and Order and other crime shows. But they probably didn’t know that trees have DNA too. Actually, every living organism does.

And that is a good thing because tree DNA helped solve the murder of 28-year-old Mengqi Ji whose body was found in March of 2021 buried in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in Missouri in a shallow grave. Above her body was a juniper tree that would eventually be connected to the person who murdered her.

The TV crime show “48 Hours” on CBS covered the story and called the episode “The Tree That Helped Solve a Murder.”

Mengqi’s husband, Joe Elledge, had insisted that his wife had taken her purse and disappeared in October of 2019, saying that he thought his wife had left him and her one-year-old daughter for another guy.

But the police weren’t buying it. The prosecuting attorney, Dan Knight, told “48 Hours” that the wife and mother had left behind many things including her passport, cell phone, house keys and car – but most importantly, she left behind her daughter. He said, “It became apparent early on that Mengqi would not have abandoned her child – and there was no evidence that she had ran away including no airline tickets, credit card activity or Uber rides ever uncovered by the investigators.

During the investigation, police had seized a muddy pair of Elledge’s boots just in case they might become relevant at some point.

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Without having found Mengqi’s body yet, Elledge was still charged with first-degree murder in February of 2020, right before the pandemic started. He was in jail for about a year and then in March of 2021, a hiker found Mengqi’s body.

Knight, remembering the Elledge’s muddy boots that were collected, started researching cases that used gravel and soil evidence to place people at scenes of crimes. With his tree needles in evidence, he called up the lab at the Missouri Botanical Garden and got them to do some DNA testing on the needles that were found stuck to the soles of Elledge’s boots. Alex Linan, a worker at the Garden, was assigned to climb several juniper trees around Mengqi’s grave and get samples. The CBS report says “He meticulously numbered each tree and then scaled them one by one, picking fresh needles from the highest branches.” Linan told the network “This involved a ladder and a 15-foot-long pole pruner so that we could make sure that the needles that we were getting came from the exact tree.”

When the DNA from the needles from Elledge’s boots were compared to the DNA from the needles gathered in the field, “there was an exact match to the tree that stands directly over Mengqi Ji’s burial site” says CBS.

Elledge was found guilty of second-degree murder in November of 2021 after a nine-day trial. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Somewhere out there, a tree is very happy to have participated in putting away a murderer.