Ex-Navy petty officer gets 16 years to life for killing wife, dumping body in bay two years later
By TERI FIGUEROA | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 12, 2021
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A former Navy sailor was sentenced Friday to 16 years to life in prison after he was found guilty of killing his wife, holding onto her body for two years then dumping it in San Diego Bay shortly before he moved out of town.
Matthew Sullivan has denied killing Elizabeth Sullivan — prosecutors said he stabbed the 32-year-old in their Liberty Station home in October 2014 — but last year, a San Diego Superior Court jury found him guilty of second-degree murder.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Albert Harutunian III, who presided over the trial, handed down the sentence.
"The jury verdict and the evidence at trial made it clear that Matthew Sullivan brutally murdered his wife, methodically cleaned up the messy murder site, and then hid the body for years," Harutunian said.
"He almost got away with it, but his final attempt to hide the body at the bottom of the bay failed."
Elizabeth Sullivan had been missing for two years when her body was found in San Diego Bay on Oct. 4, 2014.
That same day, movers were at the home she had shared with her husband and their two children. Matthew Sullivan was getting out of the military and was moving to the East Coast.
At trial, Deputy District Attorney Jill Lindberg argued that Sullivan killed his wife because she had an affair and was planning to leave him. She had threatened to take their kids and took more than $1,000 out of their bank account, the prosecutor said.
On Friday, Lindberg said Sullivan had "murdered his wife in their home as their children were in the other room."
"He made her look like the person who had abandoned her family, when that was not the case and he knew it," Lindberg said, adding that Sullivan had allowed the children to "twist in the wind and wonder what had happened to (their mother)."
Sullivan's attorney, Marcus DeBose, has argued that Elizabeth Sullivan had abused drugs, didn't always come home at night and sometimes slept in a nearby park.
At Friday's hearing, DeBose said his client had no history of crime and had been a Boy Scout as a child in Minnesota. Sullivan later spent eight years in the Navy, with deployments overseas including the Middle East, the attorney said. The former petty officer was honorably discharged in 2016.
Sullivan, 36, made a brief statement during the hearing, saying some defense witnesses were not able to testify for various reasons and that he believed they would have turned the case in his favor.
"I firmly believe their testimony would have changed the verdict in this trial," he said.
Lindberg responded: "There is clearly no remorse on the defendant's part. He thinks he could have gotten a different verdict."
After roughly 10 days of trial testimony, jurors deliberated for about a day and half before reaching their verdict last March. The panel cleared Sullivan of first-degree murder, but found him guilty of second-degree murder.
A search of the couple's home uncovered Elizabeth Sullivan's blood soaked into the bottom side of a carpet, the padding and wooden floor in her bedroom. Investigators also found a knife tucked under attic insulation. It bore traces of her blood.
Detectives would later learn that the day after she disappeared, her husband bought carpet cleaner.
Sullivan did not report his wife missing. One of her friends did.
Sullivan's attorney said that the blood in carpet happened when Elizabeth cut herself, as she was known do to when under stress. He also said it was likely that that she was the one who hid the knife in the attic to hide her cutting.
DeBose also said it was speculation to suggest, as the prosecution had, that his client had kept a body in a small freezer in the home for two years.
Sullivan was arrested in Delaware in 2018 and extradited to San Diego to stand trial.