Last month, 35-year-old Hannah Choi and her ex-boyfriend shared a “goodbye dinner” at an Outback Steakhouse in Northern Virginia.
What Choi didn’t know at the time was that it would be her last meal.
After Choi’s remains were discovered three weeks later in a Maryland park, her former live-in boyfriend, 27-year-old Joel Mosso Merino, was charged with second-degree murder and disposal of a body, and went on the run. But while his whereabouts remain unknown, a search warrant unsealed in Fairfax County Circuit Court provides new, previously unreported details of Choi’s final moments.
The search for Choi made headlines in the area, and Choi’s family raised more than $50,000 as a reward for information leading to Merino’s arrest. Police believed Choi’s murder began with an argument, and dubbed Merino Fairfax County’s “most wanted.”
“She was an amazing person,” Choi’s former boss Rebecca Weiner, told The Daily Beast. “She’d do anything for anyone, and she was a mentor for so many people.”
On March 5, Choi met up with Merino at around 4:30 p.m., according to the warrant. They had recently broken up, and this was to be their official farewell.
Choi’s sister, Minna, told The Daily Beast that Merino was planning on moving to California the following week to “start a new life.”
“That was supposed to be his last weekend in the house, he was leaving the state on Tuesday,” she said.
Choi, who worked as a real estate broker, was planning to sell her Alexandria townhouse. The next day, a friend showed up at her place to help her stage the home for showings. However, Choi—who had unexpectedly missed a work meeting earlier that day—wasn’t there. She wasn’t picking up her phone or responding to texts, and none of her family or friends had heard from her, which was highly unusual for Choi.
The warrant says the back sliding door to her home was found open, the front door closed but unlocked, and several windows opened. A takeout bag from Outback was sitting there, with leftovers inside.
The friend, along with a houseguest who had been staying with Choi, checked the bedroom and found the sheets and blankets missing, according to the warrant. The mattress appeared to be stained with blood, and the room smelled of cleaning products, according to the warrant, which was obtained by newscaster Bruce Leshan of local CBS affiliate WUSA9. Choi’s white BMW was still in the driveway, the filing says. That’s when they called police.
“There was a spray bottle of pet cleaner on a nightstand,” the warrant continues. “[The houseguest] also observed that the stairs from the upstairs to the main living level were much cleaner than they had been when she left for her work trip [a day earlier]. Area hospitals within Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland were checked for Choi or a Jane Doe, results were negative.”
That same day, a friend of Merino’s nephew showed up at the Fairfax PD’s Franconia District Station “to report his concerns about his vehicle and the person driving it,” the warrant explains.
The friend told cops that he had lent his black Kia Soul to a buddy, who in turn loaned it to Merino, his uncle. The nephew said he had earlier had a “concerning conversation” with Merino at a relative’s home, which he described to investigators.
“Joel told him that he found information on his girlfriend’s phone regarding her infidelity,” says the warrant. “The girlfriend’s name is Hannah Choi. [The nephew] reported that his uncle said that they argued and he had hit Hannah. He said he was drunk and didn’t know what to do. Hannah fell and may have hit her head. Joel said that he moved her to [a] park in the vehicle. [The nephew] advised that his uncle was agitated and upset.”
But Minna Choi told The Daily Beast that her sister had not been unfaithful, and claimed that Merino planted the message on Choi’s phone after she was already dead.
“There were no signs,” Minna said. “He was good to her. There were no red flags. I don’t want to make him out to be a good guy or anything like that, but there were no signs.”
Detectives checked surveillance video from a nearby house, and saw the black Kia leave Choi’s driveway around 12:30 a.m. They tracked it to the relative’s driveway, and searched the vehicle’s interior.
On the rear floorboards, investigators say they found white bedding with what appeared to be blood on it. The car smelled strongly of cleaning solution, and a bottle of cleaning product was outside the driver-side door, the warrant says.
In a search for evidence in Choi’s townhouse, police seized, among other things, three laptops, an iPad, various articles of clothing, two pillows, a toothbrush, a “gold foil fleck,” and a condom and wrapper.
“I will now forever be without my life coach and biggest cheerleader,” Choi’s sister posted on the family’s GoFundMe page. “We were supposed to be partners-in-crime, through thick and thin, forever. But now, she’s been taken away from me and everyone who loves her.”
Meanwhile, Minna Choi told The Daily Beast, the family is “trying to get back to a new normal, but it’s obviously been very hard and devastating. I think sometimes it’s hard to process it. There’s really no words to describe it.”
Fairfax police said Merino was last seen in security footage in the Atlanta area, and may be using a fake name. Cops said he previously bought a plane ticket for Southern California, but never showed up at the airport.
“Joel, if you’re listening to me, turn yourself in,” Fairfax County PD Maj. Ed O’Carroll said at a televised press conference on March 28. “Surrender on your terms, at a time and place of your choosing, or be arrested on ours. And to our community: we need your help finding Hannah’s killer.”