"The main goal of the future is to stop violence. The world is addicted to it."
It was the 14th of October 2014. A Tuesday. Thirty two year old Elizabeth Sullivan was reported missing from her home in Liberty Station, San Diego, California, United States. Elizabeth lived there with her husband, former U.S. Navy sailor, Matthew Sullivan and their two young daughters.
Elizabeth and Matthew met in Virginia. Elizabeth had grown up there and Matthew was stationed in the Navy there. They married in 2010 and when Matthew was transferred to San Diego, they moved there and had two children.
The day before she was reported missing, the 13th of October, Elizabeth was seen near San Diego’s Liberty Station. She sent a number of text messages to family and friends that day but later that night, when her friends and family tried to contact her, they couldn't as her phone had been switched off. That same day, Matthew made a 911 call to let police know that Elizabeth took all of the money out of their shared bank account. He told police that he was worried he would be framed and arrested. He said that Elizabeth:
“made a mess of the bedroom and took photos.”
But Matthew wasn't the person who reported Elizabeth missing. Her friend reported her missing when he couldn't contact her. So where was Elizabeth?
Friends and family began looking for Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s father flew to San Diego from his home in Virginia to help look for his daughter. Elizabeth's family did not believe she would have left without letting anyone know. They were afraid that something had happened to her.
Police discovered that Elizabeth called 911 in March 2014 during an argument about custody and child support with Matthew. She told police that there was a history of domestic violence between the couple and that she was afraid that it would escalate.
Despite that, Lt. Mike Holden was keen that there would be no speculation at the outset of the disappearance:
“I want to stress that we have no suspects or persons-of-interest in this case. Right now, we have more questions than answers.”
Those questions remained unanswered for almost two years as there was no evidence found of any foul play.
On the 6th of October 2016, Elizabeth's body was found floating in San Diego Bay, around half a mile from her home. Elizabeth had been stabbed to death.
Police believed Elizabeth's body had been “hidden somewhere” before it was disposed of in the Bay due to the level of decomposition and they spent another year and a half collecting evidence and preparing a file in order to have enough evidence to charge Matthew Sullivan with murder. He was arrested outside his new home in Wyoming, Delaware. He was extradited to San Diego and charged with first degree murder. The felony complaint alleged that Matthew killed Elizabeth "on or about and between October 13, 2014 and October 14, 2014." The complaint further alleged that he used a knife.
Matthew pleaded not guilty.
It was the Prosecution's case that Matthew murdered Elizabeth because she was having an affair and planned to leave him. It was their case that Matthew discovered that Elizabeth planned to take their money and children and file for divorce. The Prosecution told the Court that it was no coincidence that the very same day that Elizabeth's body was found floating in the Bay two years after she went missing , Matthew was moving from San Diego to Maryland with his new girlfriend.
It was the Prosecution's case that Matthew beat Elizabeth and stabbed her to death inside their home. It was their case that Elizabeth was killed in her bedroom and their two girls, who were just four and two years old at the time, were in the room next door. The Prosecution believed that he then hid her body for almost two years before dumping it in the Bay when he was moving to a new State.
Matthew and Elizabeth Sullivan
The Court heard that the knife used to stab Elizabeth was found in the attic of the home the couple shared in the Liberty Station area. It was found hidden in the insulation and had traces of Elizabeth's blood on it. Police searched the house after Matthew moved out and found it.
The Prosecution told the Court that suspicious flooding was found under the carpet inside the bedroom and it was later confirmed to be Elizabeth's blood. It was on the bottom side of a carpet, the padding and wooden floor in the bedroom. That was why they believed she was stabbed in the bedroom.
Elizabeth's Autopsy revealed she had been stabbed at least five times, the knife nicking and breaking her ribs. Her nose and jaw were broken.
In relation to a motive, the Prosecution told the Jury that Matthew had:
“He had lots of motives, he had the means, he had the opportunity. The crime scene was in her bedroom. The murder weapon was in the attic over his bedroom.”
The Prosecution outlined their relationship for the Jury. They had a whirlwind romance but that turned to domestic violence. That domestic violence escalated and led to murder. The Court heard that Elizabeth was having an affair. Matthew found out just one month before Elizabeth was reported missing. Elizabeth had signed up to an online dating website and met a man via that site. She didn't tell the man that she was married and had children. The man's friend saw child safety seats in her car one day and was worried that she may be leaving children home alone somewhere so he reported her to the Child Protective Services. They opened a file and began an investigation and that was how Matthew found out about the affair.
The Court heard that the day Elizabeth was last seen alive was the 13th of October and that was the day she visited a divorce Attorney.
The Court heard from Elizabeth's friend Nathan Caracter. He testified that Elizabeth confided in him that she and Matthew had "married for all the wrong reasons" and she felt it was a loveless marriage. She wasn't happy. He testified that she had an extra-marital relationship and Matthew found out about it in September 2014.
Nathan told the Court that that added further strain on their marriage and in the days before her disappearance, Elizabeth had talked with a divorce Attorney and transferred money from a joint bank account to her own account. Nathan told the Court that she was also taking steps to get a restraining order against her husband to stop him from moving his mother and sister into their marital home. He testified:
"She was empowered. She felt like she could finally do something with her life, instead of letting life lead her."
The Court heard that on the 14th of October, Matthew went to a Home Depot store and bought carpet cleaner. It was the Prosecution's case that he cleaned the bedroom after killing his wife and then stored her body for almost two years in a small freezer in their garage. When the home was searched, the cadaver dogs were alerted to the freezer. It was empty but police believed that it indicated there had been a body inside it previously. When Elizabeth's body was found, it was not as decomposed as it should have been which indicated the body was frozen for a period. The Prosecution believed he moved her body as he was moving house but did not anticipate that Elizabeth's body would float when he chose to throw the body into the Bay.
Matthew and Elizabeth Sullivan
It was the Defense's case that the marriage was deteriorating and had been since 2012. They told the Court that Matthew was a man who was trying to hold on to his wife but she kept pulling away towards a self destructive lifestyle. He was trying to help her.
It was their case that Elizabeth was on a downward spiral which involved drug taking, cutting and sleeping outside. Her friend confirmed that on two occasions, he did methamphetamine with her. The Defense told the Court that Elizabeth abused drugs from wine, marijuana and amphetamines to whiskey, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. The drug taking was so bad that she sometimes did not return home at night and the Defense said that she would sometimes sleep in the park beside the Bay.
The Defense argued that the suspicious flooding found under the carpet in the bedroom was not from a pool of blood after Elizabeth had been stabbed to death but from a wound that Elizabeth inflicted on herself after the Child Protective Services opened a file on her. Matthew found her bleeding in the bedroom and said that she cut herself with a piece of broken glass. There were multiple cuts on her arm and he wanted to get help but she begged him not to.
The Defense argued that the knife that was found in the attic was likely hidden there by Elizabeth herself. She cut herself frequently as part of her self destructive ways and Matthew said that she would cut herself whenever she was stressed.
The Defense told the Jury that the Prosecution's theory that Elizabeth's body was stored inside a freezer was just that; a theory. It was speculation only as there was no proof of same.
The Court heard that Matthew asked his mother, her partner and his sister to move into the house in October 2014 to help with child care only and he did not want Elizabeth to leave, he wanted to help her.
The Defense told the Jury that Matthew had no criminal record and had served in the Navy for eight years.
After a day and a half of deliberations, the Jury found Matthew guilty of second degree murder.
Matthew made a statement to the Court after he was found guilty and before the sentencing phase:
"The only issue I had about Trial was I believe I was not allowed to call in relevant witnesses to my defense. I thoroughly believe their testimony would've thoroughly changed the verdict in this Trial."
The Prosecution asked the Judge to sentence Matthew to 16 years to life in prison without the possibility of probation:
"There is clearly no remorse from the defendant. He thinks he could've gotten a different verdict apparently. He doesn't feel one iota of sorrow for what he did. He does not deserve probation."
The Judge agreed with the Prosecution:
"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."
The Judge sentenced Matthew to 16 years to life in prison.
After the sentencing hearing, Elizabeth's godsister Calandra Puckett said:
"This sentence will do nothing to fix that she's gone, however, it may help pack the chasm left behind by the demonic act of Matthew Sullivan."
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
"The effects of abuse are devastating and far reaching. Domestic violence speaks many languages, has many colors and lives in many different communities."
- Sandra Pupatello