A former U.S. Navy service member accused in the mysterious 2014 disappearance and slaying of his wife allegedly used a knife to kill her, prosecutors revealed Wednesday.
Matthew Sullivan, 32, made his first court appearance in San Diego on Valentine's Day.
Sullivan was arrested on Jan. 31 outside his home in Wyoming, Delaware, for the murder of his wife and mother of his children, Elizabeth Sullivan, 31. He was extradited to San Diego on Feb. 9 and booked into San Diego Central Jail on one count of first-degree murder.
Matthew pleaded not guilty at his arraignment; his bail was set at $2 million. His defense attorney, Marcus DeBose, said his client is also facing one allegation of using a knife in the course of the killing.
DeBose said Matthew has no prior criminal record. He was involved in domestic violence incidents during his marriage but Matthew was never arrested or charged with a crime, his attorney said.
Prosecutors said a knife allegedly tied to the crime was discovered in the attic of the home the couple had shared in San Diego's Liberty Station area. The knife was found by investigators after Elizabeth had disappeared and after the family had moved out, San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Capt. Mike Hastings said.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said the knife had been hidden in the attic and contained "key evidence" linking Matthew to the murder.
There was also flooding under the carpet in the home the couple shared. The home was searched several times throughout the investigation, Hastings said.
Elizabeth was reported missing on Oct. 14, 2014. She was last seen one day earlier near the Liberty Station area where she lived. A text message sent on Oct. 13, 2014, was the last contact Elizabeth had with loved ones. Her phone was then turned off. Detectives found her car at home, but no trace of Elizabeth.
A few days later, Elizabeth was reportedly spotted near soccer fields at Liberty Station and again near the San Diego International Airport. Those leads, however, were nothing more than reported sightings and never panned out for detectives.
Police searched for the missing Navy wife and mother of two for two years. The mysterious case grew cold as her family pleaded for her safe return.
On Oct. 6, 2016, the case experienced a major break when Elizabeth’s decomposed body was found floating in the San Diego Bay near Farragut Road, about a half-mile from where she had last been seen alive years earlier.
The SDPD determined she had been a victim of a homicide.
Stephan said Elizabeth's body was found on the very day that Matthew was packing up his belongings and moving out of state.
After Matthew's arrest two weeks ago, SDPD Lt. Mike Holden said investigators believe Elizabeth was murdered around the time of her disappearance in 2014. When Elizabeth’s body was discovered, it was in an advanced stage of decomposition but investigators believe it had not been in the bay since her death.
At this point, it is unclear where her body was from the time she was killed until the time she was found in the water.
Stephan said Wednesday investigators believe Elizabeth's body was "hidden somewhere" before it was disposed of in the bay, but she couldn't disclose further details, citing the ongoing investigation.
Stephan said Elizabeth had been stabbed to death but details of where she was killed were not released. Hastings said more information would emerge at Matthew's preliminary hearing.
Holden said last month that San Diego detectives long on this case are confident they have their suspect.
“We have the right person,” Holden told NBC 7 on Jan. 31.
After Matthew's arraignment, Stephan said the "painstaking," 3-year and 4-month-long investigation into Elizabeth's murder will finally see justice.
"We’re determined to deliver justice for the victim, her family and loved ones," the DA said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. "Over three years have passed, but she hasn’t been forgotten."
Prosecutors said the motive behind Elizabeth's murder allegedly stemmed from ongoing domestic violence in the couple's marriage.
Stephan said Elizabeth was in the process of leaving Matthew at the time of her killing, "but didn't get the chance."
In February 2017, police reports obtained by NBC 7 showed that Matthew had called 911 on the same day Elizabeth vanished in October 2014. He reported his wife was “going to frame him and have him arrested,” and also claimed she had made a mess at their home.
NBC 7 also discovered records from another 911 call made by Elizabeth in March 2014. In that call, she told authorities there was a history of domestic violence in her marriage and that she and Matthew had been arguing over custody of their two young daughters and child support.
As documented in that police report, Elizabeth told officers she was concerned that their fighting might escalate. At that time, Matthew told the SDPD that his wife had drained their shared bank account.
A final call to 911 was made on Oct. 14, 2014, from the Sullivans’ home by a friend concerned over Elizabeth’s whereabouts. The friend told police Sullivan was “very afraid” of her husband.
Following the release of those police reports, the SDPD said Matthew, at that point, was not yet considered a suspect in his wife’s murder. A lieutenant said investigators on the case still had “more questions than answers.”
Over the course of the lengthy investigation, however, detectives ultimately identified Matthew as the suspect in his wife's slaying.
In late January, detectives obtained a homicide warrant for Matthew's arrest.
The Sullivans had two daughters together.
DeBose said Matthew had been taking care of the girls – who are now 5 and 7 years old – up until the time of his arrest. Elizabeth’s father, who lives in Virginia, now has custody of the children.
Hastings said Matthew had started a relationship with another woman after Elizabeth's death and had another child with that woman.
DeBose said Matthew “spent time serving his country” as a Navy service member and intends to now fight for his freedom in this case.
Following Matthew’s arraignment, Stephan held a news conference to talk about Elizabeth's case and an increased focus by local law enforcement to reduce domestic violence and prevent intimate partner homicide in San Diego County.
The DA urged victims of domestic violence to seek help.
"Being in an intimate relationship should not hurt," Stephan said. "Too often that violence escalates into murder."
Stephan was joined by SDPD investigators who have long been on this case, including Capt. Mike Hastings and Assistant Chief David Nisleit.
Nisleit said there are many resources available in San Diego that victims can utilize to break the circle of domestic violence.
Stephan said domestic violence is one of the "top motives" for homicide in San Diego County. In 2016, the DA said there were close to 17,000 reports of domestic violence in the county and 12 domestic violence-related homicides.
For a timeline of the disappearance and death of Elizabeth Sullivan, click here.