On NBC's ‘Dateline': Case of Ex-Navy Man Who ‘Brutally Murdered' Wife in San Diego

Matthew Sullivan, now 36, killed his wife, Elizabeth Sullivan; her decomposing body was found floating in San Diego Bay in 2016 – two years after she vanished

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The 2014 disappearance and murder of a San Diego mother of two – Elizabeth Sullivan – gripped San Diego. Now, her case – and that of the man who killed her, husband Matthew Sullivan – will be the focus of a “Dateline” episode airing Friday night on NBC.

According to Dateline, the episode – which airs at 9 p.m. PT on NBC 7 – will feature an inside look at how the investigation and case unraveled over the past seven years, and what really happened to Elizabeth Sullivan.

The episode, titled "Secrets by the Bay," will feature an exclusive interview with Matthew Sullivan, as well as evidence from the case that the public has yet to see or hear. This includes 911 calls placed by Matthew Sullivan the day Elizabeth Sullivan was reported missing.

NBC 7's Catherine Garcia has the verdict, and details from Matthew Sullivan's sentencing.

Matthew Sullivan, Guilty

Matthew Sullivan, now 36, was found guilty on one count of second-degree murder in the killing of his wife on March 12, 2021. He was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.

Elizabeth Sullivan - the mother of the couple's two daughters -- was 32 at the time of her disappearance and death. She died of stab wounds.

At his March sentencing in San Diego, Matthew Sullivan sat expressionless while friends and family spoke about his wife who "was loved by many."

A masked Matthew Sullivan sat expressionless while friends and family spoke about his wife who "was loved by many" at his sentencing on March 12, 2021.

Elizabeth Sullivan's friend, Nathan Caracter, spoke directly to Matthew Sullivan when he said that his wife did not hate him.

"This man killed my dear friend and you can imagine how this affected me," Caracter said. "But a longer sentence won’t make the pain go away, nor will my recanting of sorrow I have gone through these past six years make this man feel differently than he does now.”  

Matthew Sullivan decided to make his own statement, but did not address the crime he's accused of or his wife and instead chose to call out what he felt were problems with his trial.

"The only issue I had about trial was I believe I was not allowed to call in relevant witnesses to my defense," he said. "I thoroughly believe their testimony would've thoroughly changed the verdict in this trial."

The prosecutor harshly criticized Matthew Sullivan's statement as she asked a judge to sentence him to 16 years to life in prison without the possibility of probation.

"There is clearly no remorse from the defendant," the prosecutor said. "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 prosecutors.

"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 said before handing down his sentence.

NBC 7's Claudette Stefanian was in the courtroom when the guilty verdict was read for Matthew Sullivan convicted of killing his wife.

The Disappearance & Killing of Elizabeth Sullivan

Elizabeth Sullivan was reported missing on Oct. 14, 2014.

She was last seen one day earlier near San Diego’s Liberty Station, where she lived with her family. A text message sent on Oct. 13, 2014, was the last contact Elizabeth Sullivan had with loved ones before her phone was turned off.

San Diego police searched for the missing Navy wife and mother for two years, to no avail. Day by day, week by week, the case grew cold as her family pleaded for her safe return.

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Elizabeth Sullivan.

But a grim breakthrough came on Oct. 6, 2016.

That day – nearly two years after she vanished – the body of Elizabeth Sullivan was found floating in San Diego Bay, about a half-mile from the home that the couple once shared with their daughters.

It was also the same day Matthew Sullivan was moving from San Diego to Maryland with his new girlfriend, a fact that prosecutors said was no coincidence.

Due to the decomposition of Elizabeth Sullivan’s body, it would be another week before SDPD investigators would be able to positively identify her – and another year-and-a-half before police could link Sullivan to her killing.

The San Diego District Attorney's Office believes Elizabeth Sullivan's body had been “hidden somewhere” before it was disposed of in the bay.

Matthew Sullivan was identified as the suspect in his wife's murder and was arrested outside his home in Wyoming, Delaware, on Jan. 31, 2018. He was extradited to San Diego and eventually booked into the George Bailey Detention Facility in early February 2018, where he remained through his court proceedings.

Significant court proceedings began one year later, with Matthew Sullivan’s preliminary hearing in February 2019. As details of Elizabeth Sullivan’s disappearance and death emerged, a judge ruled Matthew Sullivan would stand trial for her murder.

His trial began on Feb. 21, 2020, and, in March, a jury found him guilty of Elizabeth Sullivan’s murder.

The Murder Trial

Matthew Sullivan’s murder trial began on Feb. 21, 2020, with opening statements and testimony from the loved ones of Elizabeth Sullivan.

On that first day of trial, Matthew Sullivan sat silently, looking down at the desk in front of him as Deputy District Attorney Jill Lindberg described how his “whirlwind romance” with the victim quickly turned to domestic violence, and eventually, murder.

A potential motive, according to prosecutors during opening statements, was an extra-marital affair that Elizabeth Sullivan was having, and that Matthew Sullivan learned of about a month before his wife’s disappearance.

“He had lots of motives, he had the means, he had the opportunity,” Lindberg said. “The crime scene was in her bedroom. The murder weapon was in the attic over his bedroom.”

Lindberg showed jurors the knife that Matthew Sullivan used to stab his wife. She said he stabbed her at least five times, hitting several ribs and leaving a pool of blood on the floor of Elizabeth Sullivan’s bedroom.

The murder weapon was found in the attic of the home the couple shared in the Liberty Station area, after Matthew Sullivan moved out.

Matthew Sullivan’s defense attorney, Marcus Dubose, painted the defendant as a man attempting to hold on to a wife that was pulling away, turning towards a self-destructive lifestyle.

Dubose argued that blood found in Elizabeth Sullivan's bedroom was from a wound that the Navy wife inflicted on herself during a tumultuous time in the couple's lives. 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.

You can read all of the details of the disappearance of Elizabeth Sullivan in our timeline here.

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