Cutting-edge DNA technology and tireless detective work led to major breaks in a few San Diego cold cases this year. Here’s a look back at the unsolved cases that captivated us, and how they changed in 2018.
Case: Elizabeth Sullivan
Former Navy Service Member Arrested for Wife’s Murder
On Jan. 31, former U.S. Navy service member Matthew Sullivan, then 32, was arrested in Wyoming, Delaware, suspected in the 2014 cold case killing of his wife, Elizabeth Sullivan. Elizabeth’s body was found floating in the San Diego Bay on Oct. 6, 2016, after she had been missing for two years.
San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Lt. Mike Holden said the department had been committed to solving Elizabeth’s case since it began in October 2014. He was confident that Matthew’s arrest was the key to the answers detectives had long been seeking.
“We have the right person,” Holden told NBC 7.
Matthew was extradited to San Diego and booked into jail on Feb. 9. He is being held on $2 million bail. At his arraignment on Feb. 14, prosecutors alleged Matthew used a knife to kill his wife and said that knife was discovered by investigators in the home the couple shared in San Diego’s Liberty Station area. The home also held other clues, including suspicious flooding under the carpet.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said Elizabeth’s body was found in the San Diego Bay on the same day that Matthew was packing up his belongings and moving out of California. Stephan said investigators believe Elizabeth’s body was “hidden somewhere” before it was disposed of in the bay.
“We’re determined to bring justice for the victim, her family and loved ones,” Stephan said at a news conference in February. “Over three years have passed, but she hasn’t been forgotten.”
According to police reports obtained by NBC 7, there was a history of domestic violence in the couple’s marriage and they had been arguing over custody of their two young daughters and child support.
Matthew has pleaded not guilty. He is scheduled to appear in court again on Feb. 14, 2019.
Case: Richard Finney
Arrest in 1986 Escondido Homicide Tied to New Technology
In 1986, Richard Finney, 75, was stabbed 31 times in his apartment on East Mission Avenue in Escondido. A bloody handprint left on a wall became key evidence in the case but even after using state-of-the-art DNA testing to examine the print in 2007, the Escondido Police Department’s cold case team could not link the blood to anyone specific.
In 2016, a forensic fingerprint expert used newer equipment and advanced technology to re-examine fingerprints collected from Finney’s apartment. Finally, detectives got a match, zeroing in on Nathan Eugene Mathis, 62, of Ontario, California, as their suspect.
This past April, Mathis was arrested and booked into jail on one count of first-degree murder for the cold case killing of Finney. Mathis is being held on $3 million bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 7, 2019.
Escondido detectives who worked on this case kept in touch with Finney’s family over the decades, including the victim’s grandchildren. Mathis’ arrest brought relief to the victim’s loved ones. Details of the motive behind the murder have not yet been released.
Case: Golden State Killer
Man Accused in Serial Killings Lived in San Diego
DNA and genealogical technology led investigators to arrest Joseph James DeAngelo this past spring, a man suspected of being the notorious “Golden State Killer.”
DeAngelo – a former police officer and U.S. Navy service member – is accused of terrorizing California between 1975 and 1986, committing at least a dozen murders, nearly 50 rapes and dozens of burglaries across the state.
Following his arrest, NBC 7 learned DeAngelo was stationed in San Diego for several months as part of his service with the U.S. Navy. He graduated from basic training at the Naval Training Center in San Diego from October to December 1964.
Across the state, DeAngelo’s victims voiced relief over his arrest as his brutal crimes had haunted them for decades. The suspect faces 26 counts in six counties across California, 13 for murder and 13 tied to rapes. His trial could cost taxpayers more than $20 million.
[G] San Diego's Unsolved Cold Cases
Case: Grace Hayden
Single Fingerprint Leads Detectives to 1987 Slaying Suspect
On May 20, 1987, Grace Hayden, 79, was sexually assaulted and strangled to death at her Normal Heights-area home. The case grew cold and stayed that way for 30 years.
In May 2017, San Diego detective Tony Johnson was reviewing the decades-long cold case when he decided to run a piece of evidence across the database again: a single fingerprint from someone’s left ring finger discovered on the stove inside the victim’s home.
The fingerprint had never yielded a positive match before but, this time, things were different.
The fingerprint was matched to Kevin Thomas Ford, now 62, whose prints were in a police database in Robeson County, North Carolina, for a 2015 arrest for communicating threats. Ford was arrested at his home in St. Pauls, North Carolina, this past July on suspicion of killing Hayden.
He was extradited to San Diego and booked into jail on July 28. He is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 9, 2019.
Case: Willie Clark Jr.
Man’s Killer Sentenced 12 Years After Crime
Willie Clark Jr. was shot and killed outside a bar on Hollister Street in south San Diego on April 3, 2006. For 10 years, his killing was unsolved.
In May 2016, his suspected killer – Guillermo Gonzalez Nunez – was arrested in Mexico. In August of this year, Nunez, now 44, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. This past October, he was sentenced to 18 years behind bars for Clark’s killing.
In 2016, NBC 7 spoke with Clark’s family, including his son, Julius, who said not knowing who killed Clark had felt like a one big, hazy, “bad dream.”
“We still hear my dad’s voice – his laugh,” Julius told NBC 7.
Clark’s mother, Mary Lopez, said she considered Nunez “a monster,” saying he stole a huge part of her life when he killed her son.
Case: Jodine Serrin
DNA Technology Identifies Suspect in Woman’s Valentine’s Day 2007 Killing
On Feb. 14, 2007, Carlsbad resident Jodine Serrin, 39, was brutally murdered in her home on Swallow Lane. Unbeknownst to them, Serrin’s parents, Arthur and Lois Serrin, walked into their daughter’s apartment as the crime was in progress, making the details of the case even more chilling.
Serrin’s case grew cold but, in 2017, it finally began to unravel when investigators announced new information on the suspect based on the first use of new forensic technology in San Diego County.
This past February, investigators with the Carlsbad Police Department (CPD) and San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said they had been using the services of Virginia-based DNA-tech company, Parabon NanoLabs, to narrow down leads.
In November, the CPD announced they found their suspect in Serrin’s slaying: David Mabrito, linked to the case via DNA matching technology ad genealogical experts. Mabrito was a transient and died from suicide in 2011. He was 38 years old at the time Serrin was killed.
Arthur and Lois Serrin never stopped searching for their daughter’s killer and held out hope for answers. Over the years, they fondly remembered their daughter as a woman with a gentle heart who loved helping others.