A former Navy man convicted of fatally stabbing his estranged wife, whose body was found in San Diego Bay nearly two years after she vanished, was sentenced Friday to 16 years to life in state prison.
Matthew Scott Sullivan, 36, was convicted by a San Diego jury last year of second-degree murder in the death of his 32-year-old wife, Elizabeth, who vanished on the evening of Oct. 13, 2014.
Prosecutors say Sullivan killed his wife at the couple’s Liberty Station home, then hid her body inside a freezer for nearly two years before dumping it in the water on the day he was set to move out of San Diego.
Deputy District Attorney Jill Lindberg told jurors that after stabbing his wife five times in her bedroom, Sullivan hid the body and murder weapon inside his home until he was compelled to discard the remains when movers arrived Oct. 4, 2016, at the onset of his cross-country move to the East Coast.
His wife’s decomposed body was discovered that same day in the water about a half-mile from their residence, dressed in the same clothes she was last reported wearing. An autopsy revealed a series of injuries to her ribs consistent with stab wounds, as well as fractures to her jaw and her nose.
Investigators also discovered the victim’s blood beneath the carpet of her bedroom and on a knife found in the attic of the couple’s home, according to Lindberg.
At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor said that after killing his wife “as their children were in the other room,” Sullivan acted as though she had left home and disappeared of her own accord.
“He made her look like the person who had abandoned her family, when that was not the case and he knew it,” allowing them to “twist in the wind and wonder what had happened to her” for the two years she was missing, Lindberg said.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Albert Harutunian III denied a defense motion to impose probation, saying “the jury verdict and the evidence at trial makes clear that Matthew Sullivan brutally murdered his wife, methodically cleaned up the messy murder site and then hid the body for years. He almost got away with it, but his final attempt to hide the body at the bottom of the bay failed.”
Sullivan made a brief statement at the hearing, in which he said some defense witnesses were not able to testify for various reasons and that he believed they would have turned the case in his favor.
Defense attorney Marcus DeBose argued at trial that the presence of the victim’s blood inside her bedroom and on the knife stemmed from self-inflicted cutting, due to a reported history of depression and self-harm. He said that about a month before her disappearance, Sullivan had discovered that his wife had cut herself with a broken shard of glass and bled heavily throughout her bedroom.
DeBose said a more plausible theory was that she stashed the knife in the attic to keep her cutting behaviors furtive, rather than her husband holding onto the murder weapon for two years, when he could have easily disposed of it at any time.
DeBose also claimed his client’s wife engaged in erratic behavior, including the cutting, as well as substance abuse, and frequently disappeared from home without notice. The defense attorney said she’d previously talked to her father and friends about leaving Sullivan and their two children.
Lindberg told jurors that the victim never contacted anyone after Oct. 13 and never touched about $1,000 she transferred from the couple’s joint account to her personal bank account shortly before her disappearance.
The Sullivans’ marriage was spiraling over financial issues and her affair with another man, leading the couple to start sleeping in separate bedrooms, the prosecutor said.
When Sullivan arranged for his mother and sister to move into the Liberty Station home on Oct. 13 to begin caring for their children, his wife contacted an attorney to secure a restraining order to keep her husband’s family out of the home, Lindberg said.
In addition to being angry over his wife’s cheating and her attempts to obtain a restraining order, the prosecutor said Sullivan also feared she might take his children in the impending divorce.
At some point after Oct. 13, 2014, one of the victim’s friends, who knew she was planning to leave Sullivan, couldn’t reach her and reported her missing.
Sullivan did not report her disappearance, but Lindberg noted he did go to a store the morning of Oct. 14 to purchase a single item: carpet cleaner.
Investigators searched the home in 2014, when it was still a missing persons case, and found an empty freezer in the garage, Lindberg said, but nothing that could lead to an arrest.
A former San Diego County deputy medical examiner who helped conduct the autopsy testified that the victim’s decomposition was more consistent with someone who had been dead for one to two months.
Lindberg said the most probable explanation is that Sullivan utilized the freezer to hide the body, which accounted for the delayed decomposition, while DeBose countered that theory was mere speculation.
The prosecutor said a police cadaver dog alerted officers to the presence of a body in Sullivan’s garage during the 2016 investigation, which she said indicated the body had been hidden in the freezer there and was recently moved.
The defendant was arrested in 2018 at his home in Delaware and extradited to San Diego.