The stage was set Friday for an emotional trial for a former U.S. Navy service member whose wife's body was discovered on the edge of the San Diego Bay in 2016, two years after her mysterious disappearance.
The first day of the murder trial for Matthew Sullivan, now 35, began with opening statements and testimony from the loved ones of Elizabeth Sullivan, his 32-year-old wife whose badly decomposed body was found in 2016 about a half-mile from the home the couple shared with their two children.
In court on Friday, Matthew Sullivan sat silently, looking down at the desk in front of him as Deputy Defense Attorney Jill Lindberg described how a "whirlwind romance" quickly turned to domestic violence and eventually a slaying.
A potential motive, according to prosecutors, was an extra-marital affair Matthew Sullivan was made aware 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 she argues Matthew Sullivan used to stab his wife at least five times, striking several ribs and leaving a pool of blood on the floor of her third-floor bedroom.
She said forensic evidence would prove to a jury that Matthew Sullivan's DNA was on the knife's handle while Elizabeth Sullivan's DNA was on the blade.
Matthew Sullivan showed no reaction at the sight of the potential murder weapon, which prosecutors say was found hidden within insulation in the attic of their home.
Defense attorney, Marcus 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.
Dubose painted the defendant as a man attempting to hold on to a wife that was pulling away, turning towards a self-destructive lifestyle.
"What started out as a glass of wine, became bottles of whiskey," Dubose said. "What started out as marijuana became cocaine. What started out as amphetamine abuse turned into methamphetamine, progressed to fentanyl.”
But Elizabeth Sullivan's best friend, Calandra Harris, said in the days before her disappearance, the Navy wife was afraid. She described a video chat phone call from her frantic friend where she witnessed Matthew Sullivan get aggressive.
"I did see him hit her with a burrito," Harris said. "He said something, threw it at her, and it hit her in the back of her head."
Elizabeth was reported missing on Oct. 14, 2014. She was last seen one day earlier near San Diego’s Liberty Station. A text message sent on Oct. 13, 2014, was the last contact Elizabeth had with loved ones before her phone was turned off.
Police searched for the missing Navy wife and mother of two for two years, to no avail. The mysterious case grew cold as her family pleaded for her safe return.
But a break in the case came on Oct. 6, 2016 when her body was found; it was the same day Matthew Sullivan was moving from San Diego to Maryland with his new girlfriend -- a fact Lindberg says was no coincidence.
Due to severe deterioration, it would be another week until San Diego police could identify her body, and another year-and-a-half until San Diego police could link Matthew Sullivan to her death.
The District Attorney's Office believes Elizabeth Sullivan's body had been “hidden somewhere” before it was disposed of in the bay.
The former Navy man was taken into custody on Jan. 31, 2018. About a week later he was extradited to San Diego and was booked into the George Bailey Detention Facility, where he remained until he could face a first-degree murder charge.
If convicted, Matthew Sullivan could face a sentence of life-in-prison.