A Navy man fatally stabbed his estranged wife at their Liberty Station home, then hid her body inside a freezer for nearly two years before dumping it in San Diego Bay, a prosecutor said Wednesday, while a defense attorney told jurors the victim disappeared from home of her own accord after previously expressing her desire to leave her family behind.
Jurors heard closing arguments, then began deliberating the fate of Matthew Scott Sullivan, 35, who is accused of murdering his 31-year-old wife, Elizabeth, who vanished the evening of Oct. 13, 2014. He’s charged with first-degree murder and an allegation of using a knife in the killing.
Prosecutors allege Sullivan killed his wife at the couple’s San Diego home, then hid the body somewhere inside — possibly in a freezer — until he was compelled to discard her remains when movers arrived Oct. 4, 2016, at the onset of his cross-country move to the East Coast.
Her 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 at least five stab wounds, as well as fractures in her jaw and her nose.
Investigators also discovered the victim’s blood beneath the carpet of her bedroom and on a knife in the attic of the couple’s home, according to Deputy District Attorney Jill Lindberg.
Defense attorney Marcus DeBose argued that the presence of her 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 alleged murder weapon for two years, when he could have easily disposed of it at any time.
DeBose also said his client’s wife engaged in erratic behavior, including the cutting, as well as substance abuse, and frequently disappeared from home without notice. DeBose said she’d previously talked to her father and friends about leaving Sullivan and their two children.
On the night of Oct. 13, 2014, DeBose alleged she simply left the home and never returned.
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, she 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 alleged Sullivan also feared she might take his children in the impending divorce.
The marriage was “speeding toward a conclusion that (Sullivan) did not like” and “his back was against the wall. He had to do something to stop her, so he did,” Lindberg told the jury.
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.
“Unable to communicate through science and through their doctors that her body was frozen, the People are asking you to take a leap of faith,” DeBose told the jury.
The prosecutor said a police cadaver dog alerted officers to the presence of a dead 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, where he’s being held on $2 million bail.
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