Episode 037: Hannah Choi

April 25, 2022

When a young real estate broker went missing from her home, investigators moved quickly… but their suspect was already on the run. Will Hannah’s family ever see justice?

Episode Media
Hannah Choi
Hannah Choi
Hannah’s townhome in Alexandria, VA (Google Maps)
Piscataway Park in Maryland (Google Maps)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a recent case that is still ongoing, an investigation and manhunt that needs the public’s assistance. This episode includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

Thirty-five-year-old Hannah Choi was an independent, ambitious young woman. She lived in Alexandria, Virginia, and worked at a real estate firm across the border in Maryland, where she was a valued member of the team. In both her professional and personal life, Hannah was known to be dependable and resilient. According to her younger sister Minna, Hannah was always supportive, and looked for ways that she could help others.

In March of 2022, Hannah was sharing her Alexandria townhome with her ex-boyfriend, 27-year-old Joel Merino. Hannah and Joel had recently broken up, but Joel was still living in the house until his upcoming move to California.

On Saturday, March 5, Hannah and Joel met at Outback Steakhouse around 4:30pm. Joel was leaving in a few days, and this was going to be their farewell dinner. They shared a meal and had a few drinks, then headed back to the house around 7:30.

Early the next morning, Hannah’s friend Kristina, who had been staying in Hannah’s guest room at the time, arrived at the townhome after being gone on a work trip. She noticed that the front door had been left unlocked, but didn’t think too much of it. Entering the kitchen, Kristina saw a bag of leftovers from Outback Steakhouse on the counter; she put it in the refrigerator and headed upstairs to bed, passing Hannah’s closed bedroom door on the way.

Later that day, another friend arrived at the house. Hannah had asked her to come over and help stage the house for a showing. But Hannah didn’t come to the door. The friend spoke with Kristina, and the two women started to realize that Hannah didn’t seem to be at home. Concerned, they searched the house, looking for any indication of where she might have gone. Her car was still in the driveway, and her keys were in the house, but her purse and cell phone were missing. If Hannah had left, she must have gotten picked up by someone.

As they searched, they noticed that several windows in the house had been left open, and the sliding door in the basement was ajar. This was definitely out of the ordinary – it had been a cool night, not typical open-window weather. And Hannah certainly wouldn’t have left an outside door open on purpose.

Heading upstairs, Kristina commented that the carpeted staircase seemed to be cleaner than when she had left for her work trip. When they entered Hannah’s room, they noticed that the bed had been stripped of its sheets and the heavy white blanket that was usually on top was now missing. As strange as that was, Hannah’s friends were most alarmed by the red stains on the mattress and carpet. Both were wet to the touch and smelled of cleaning solution. A bottle of pet cleaner sat on the nightstand.

The women knew that something was seriously wrong. They called the Fairfax County Police Department and reported Hannah missing.

When detectives arrived at the townhome, Hannah’s friends laid out what they had discovered thus far. In addition to the evidence found in the house, Hannah was not answering any texts or calls, and she had missed a work appointment that morning, which was very unlike her. Hannah always followed through on her commitments.

Based on this information, detectives believed that Hannah had not just left home, but that she had likely been a victim of foul play. The case was turned over to the Major Crimes Bureau, and investigators got to work canvassing the neighborhood and pulling surveillance video.

Video footage showed that Hannah’s white BMW had been parked in her driveway all night on March 5th. Around 7:30pm, a black Kia Soul appeared in front of the house and remained in the driveway until half past midnight on the 6th. Because the video only captured images intermittently, there was no way to see who was driving the car.

But early on in the investigation, detectives got a lucky break. On March 6th, the same day Hannah was reported missing, a man walked into the police station and reported that he had lent his black Kia Soul to a friend, who then let someone else borrow it. The man felt uncomfortable with the situation and had concerns about the person who now had his vehicle.

Investigators spoke to the friend who initially borrowed the car, a young man named Otoniel Molina. Molina told detectives that he had lent the car to his uncle, Joel Merino. He also said that he had had a very worrisome conversation with Joel that morning.

According to Molina, he and Joel had been at a relative’s house in Washington DC. Joel had been agitated and upset, and told his nephew that he had found something on his girlfriend’s phone that made him believe she was cheating on him. He had gotten drunk and started arguing with her, and in his rage, he pushed her. As she fell, she hit her head and went still. Joel told his nephew that when he realized she wasn’t breathing, he panicked. Wrapping her in bedsheets, he put her in the car and drove to a park, leaving her body where he hoped it would never be found.

Armed with this information, investigators tracked down the Kia Soul where it was parked at Joel’s relative’s house, and the car’s owner gave them permission to search it. Inside, they discovered white bedding with dark bloodstains on the rear floorboard. There was also a black trash bag that contained a bloody floor mat. The car smelled strongly of cleaning products, and a spray bottle of cleaner was sitting on the ground next to the driver’s side door.

Now detectives had the daunting task of finding both Hannah and Joel – one presumably dead, the other on the run. Officials quickly secured a warrant to search Hannah’s townhome, and on March 7th, they collected multiple items from the house, including laptops, clothing, Hannah’s mattress cover, and a box of trash bags. They also collected a strand of hair and a condom, plus pieces of piping from all the sinks in the home.

Over the next week, investigators dug into Joel’s digital footprint. Detectives from the Fugitive Track and Apprehension Unit tracked his cell phone and determined that he had likely left Virginia. Joel had purchased a ticket to California for March 8th, the day he was originally planning to leave, but he never showed up for the flight. Fairfax County authorities contacted the United States Marshals Service and enlisted their help in the search for Joel Merino.

Meanwhile, search teams scoured the surrounding area looking for Hannah. Based on his cell data, Joel had spent a significant amount of time in Piscataway Park the night Hannah went missing. Located along the Potomac River on the border of Maryland and Virginia, Piscataway Park covers over 4,000 acres of woods and wetland. Multiple agencies across both states teamed up for an extensive, two-day search. But Hannah was nowhere to be found.

On March 15th, ten days after Hannah disappeared, the Fairfax County Police Department officially declared Joel Merino a suspect in the murder of Hannah Choi. He was charged with second-degree murder and disposal of a body.

In a statement to the press, Major Ed O’Carroll said of Hannah, “A bright, caring, amazing young woman with the world at her reach… She was the victim of foul play. She was the victim of violence, the victim of murder, and we know the suspect.”

O’Carroll acknowledged that it was unusual to file murder charges without a body, but he told reporters that they had gathered an abundance of evidence that gave them enough probable cause to issue the arrest warrant for Joel Merino.

After the press conference, Hannah’s family expressed their heartache and devastation. Hannah’s sister Minna told a local news station, “We just at least want to find her. It’s a strange limbo state we are in right now, and we just would really appreciate any sort of help.”

Minna also spoke about Hannah’s relationship with Joel, saying that the family hadn’t seen any red flags and that there were no telltale signs of abuse. Joel didn’t have a criminal history, and according to police, there had never been any reports of domestic disturbances at their home. But somehow they had ended up here, with Hannah dead and Joel a fugitive.

On Thursday, March 24th, human remains were found in a wooded area of Piscataway Park. Four days later, police announced that the body had been identified as that of Hannah Choi.

Minna read a statement on behalf of the Choi family, saying, “We are relieved to know that Hannah has been found. Our family finally has an opportunity for closure and requests privacy at this difficult time.”

As of this recording, Joel Merino is still on the run, and he is considered one of Fairfax County’s most wanted fugitives. Investigators have reason to believe that he left Virginia shortly after March 6th and was in the Atlanta, Georgia area for a while. They also believe that he may have returned to Virginia since then. Joel Merino is described as being 5’7” tall and weighing approximately 230 lbs. with black hair and brown eyes. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Fairfax County Police Department at 703-246-7800. Tips can be submitted anonymously at fairfaxcrimesolvers.org. If you see Joel Merino, do not approach him. Call 911 and notify law enforcement right away.

Hannah’s family is hopeful that justice may yet be served. In the words of her sister Minna, “If there was one word to describe my sister, it would be Superwoman. She was brave, strong, ambitious, and independent. She paved her own path through life and had resilience and a capacity for hard work that was unmatched… But above all, my sister was an advocate and a protector. If I was ever in trouble, she’d be there, right by my side, facing any challenge head-on with me. And while I’ve known this about her since we were little… It’s clear that she was a Superwoman for many: defending, advocating for, and coming to the aid of anyone who faced injustice or needed help.”