A former Navy man accused of killing his estranged wife, whose decomposing body was found in San Diego Bay nearly two years after she vanished, was ordered Friday to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge.
Matthew Sullivan, 33, is accused in the stabbing death of his 31-year- old wife, Elizabeth, who disappeared sometime in the evening hours of Oct. 13, 2014. He faces 26 years to life in prison if convicted.
Her body was discovered on Oct. 4, 2016, in the water about a half- mile from the Sullivans’ home. An autopsy revealed a series of injuries to her ribs consistent with stab wounds, as well as fractures in her jaw and the left side of her nose.
The defendant left the Navy and moved from California days after the body’s discovery, according to preliminary hearing testimony from now-retired San Diego Police Department Detective Kimberly Collier.
Prosecutors allege that Sullivan killed Elizabeth at the couple’s Liberty Station home, then hid the body somewhere inside the home — possibly inside a freezer — until Sullivan was forced to discard her remains when movers arrived in San Diego on Oct. 4 at the onset of his cross-country move to Maryland.
A former San Diego County deputy medical examiner who helped conduct the victim’s autopsy said decomposition made it difficult to narrow down her time of death, but that he did not believe she had been in the bay for the two- year period she was missing, as the decomposition would have been more advanced.
Following the defendant’s move, investigators searched the home, revealing an “uncharacteristic” amount of belongings left behind, as well as blood discovered beneath the carpet of Elizabeth Sullivan’s bedroom, Collier said. Prosecutors also allege that a knife with the victim’s blood on it was found in the attic.
Collier testified that a phone call reported by a friend of the victim prompted the bedroom search. The couple were in the midst of a divorce and sleeping in separate bedrooms at the time, according to testimony.
Collier said Elizabeth phoned the friend on the night of Oct. 13, 2014, and told her that she was having an argument with the defendant and was “afraid of him.” The friend instructed Elizabeth to keep her bedroom door locked, Collier said.
Luminol, a chemical used to detect blood, “lit up” the area on the floor leading to a bathroom connected to the victim’s bedroom, Collier said, with a visible blood stain discovered when investigators peeled back the carpeting.
In a statement released around the time of her husband’s arrest, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan alleged that the victim — a mother of two young girls — was in an abusive relationship with her husband and said she was in the process of leaving him when she was killed.
Defense attorney Marcus DeBose noted multiple reports of witnesses claiming they had seen Elizabeth alive after Oct. 13, though Deputy District Attorney Jill Lindberg pointed to credit card and cell phone inactivity on Elizabeth’s part after the date she went missing, and characterized the witness accounts as not credible.
She also argued that the imminent arrival of Matthew’s mother and sister at the couple’s home in October of 2014 forced him to twice purchase carpet cleaner from a nearby hardware store, presumably to clean up the blood stain after allegedly stabbing his wife.
However, DeBose argued that the presence of Elizabeth’s blood inside her bedroom may have stemmed from self-inflicted cutting, due to a reported history of depression and self-harm.
He also argued that emails were sent from Elizabeth’s email account to an acquaintance in late October and early November 2014. Amid the ongoing search for the victim, a person identifying themselves as Elizabeth stated in the emails she was safe, but wanted to keep a low profile.
Collier testified that investigators believe Matthew Sullivan was posing as his wife in those messages.
The defendant was arrested last year at his home in Delaware and extradited to San Diego, where he’s being held on $2 million bail.
Sullivan is due back in court March 4 for arraignment.
–City News Service
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