Sullivan murder trial enters second week

FORT DAVIS — In a trial that started last Wednesday, prosecutors are arguing that Daniel Sullivan, 32, killed his wife Sophia at their home in Fort Davis in March 2018.

Sophia, née Sabey, then 31, was an early college high school coordinator at Marfa ISD. Many in Marfa knew her as Sophie. When authorities responded to a 911 call to her house in 2018, they found her dead of multiple stab wounds.

Authorities quickly zeroed in on Daniel, arresting him on murder charges three days later, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.

At Jeff Davis County Courthouse, prosecutors are laying out their case. So far, the evidence has included: testimony from law enforcement, neighbors, friends, and the couple’s now-9-year-old son; hours of bodycam and interrogation videos; and information on Daniel’s work schedule and cellphone usage.

In her opening statement last Wednesday, District Attorney Sandy Wilson outlined her  evidence against Daniel, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.

“The burden is on the state to prove this case,” she said. “We’re here. We’re ready. We’re going to get this done.”

In his own opening statement, Jim Darnell, a criminal defense attorney from El Paso, said he agreed “there will be some tough moments” as jurors learned about the brutal crime. But he raised questions about the timeline as well as the interrogation of the son, who he suggested was pressured into fingering his father for the killing.

“I’m going to ask that as you listen and watch [Jeff Davis County Sheriff Bill Kitts] interview [the son], that you ask yourselves, was that the appropriate way to talk to a seven-year-old boy who just lost his mother?” he told the jury. “You will see that he chastises [him] when he doesn’t like the answer. You will have to decide if that is appropriate.”

Daniel has remained stone-faced for the trial. He turns around during breaks to talk to his mother and sister. They declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing case.

Seated on the other side of the courtroom are Sophia’s family members, at least five in total. They also declined to comment for the same reason.

Sophia and Daniel met in Illinois in their teens and later started dating. They eventually settled in Texas, where they have family ties, and bought a home in Fort Davis.

Sophie and the couple’s son lived there. But with the family “tight on money,” as Daniel later told investigators, he’d been living and working as an electrician in the Odessa area, where he rented a trailer. He returned on weekends to visit, typically getting home on Friday evening.

On March 16, 2018 — a Friday evening — James and Jeanne Hughson were relaxing at home in Fort Davis when James heard faint knocking at the door. He answered to find the child of his next door neighbors, the Sullivans.

He said his mother had been killed. James called 911.

“There’s a murder,” he says in that chaotic, 10-minute phone call, which jurors heard last week. “Send a sheriff.”

Behind the child was his father, Daniel. He was rocking and making “squeaking” noises, Jeanne told jurors. He told investigators that he’d returned home to discover the scene.

Jeanne took care of the young boy before investigators picked him up. During that time, Jeanne says, he pointed to his father and said he was the killer.

During her emotional testimony on Tuesday, Jeanne broke down.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” she said of that evening. “He asked me, ‘Can God save my mom and can he fix her and send her back alive?’”

Bodycam footage, which jurors watched last week, shows authorities as they arrive at the Sullivan house. They encounter Daniel outside, shaking and in a state of apparent shock.

“When did you get here, Danny?” Jerry Walker, chief deputy at the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office, asks him in one video.

“Not that long,” Daniel apparently mumbles as he sits or crouches on the ground. “I got here, I saw it.”

Inside, authorities find Sophia dead on her bedroom floor in a Marfa Shorthorns shirt. The house is a mess, but the bedroom seems to have signs of a struggle, as investigators note.

In the background of the videos, the couple’s two dogs can be heard barking. They eventually calm down a bit, with one reportedly licking Sheriff Bill Kitt’s hand.

The dogs offer one of the first signs that authorities are zeroing in on Daniel. When they ask Daniel to retrieve the dogs from inside, their barking picks up.

In testimony last week, Sheriff Bill Kitts said officers had asked Daniel to get his dogs “to see what the reaction of the dogs would be.”

“What I found interesting is that the dog didn’t want anything to do with the owner,” an officer says at one point in a bodycam video.

Jim Darnell, defense attorney, argues authorities settled on Sullivan too early in the case. During cross-examination of investigators, he has repeatedly questioned officers about “tunnel vision.”

Is it “a mistake sometimes made by law enforcement officers that they grab a theory early in the case and then get tunnel vision?” he asked Sheriff Kitts last week.

“That can happen,” Kitts said.

Although Darnell says threats were made against Sophia by people in Marfa — jurors are still apparently learning those details — Marfa witnesses were not interviewed until around a month before the trial. Law enforcement also did not attempt to search Daniel’s trailer in Odessa until this year, at which point they discovered it had already been sold by the owner — a fact Chief Deputy Jerry Walker described last week as “an oversight.”

In the bodycam videos — and in court — multiple authorities said they thought the murder had just happened when they discovered Sophia’s body in the evening.

“The crime scene looked so fresh,” Sheriff Bill Kitts told jurors last week, describing his initial impressions of the scene. Chief Deputy Walker likewise said there were “no signs of rigor mortis.”

The child’s testimony, on the other hand, places the killing at least 12 hours earlier. And Rhone Hughes, a medical examiner, testified Tuesday that the most accurate estimate of her time of death would be within “a window of 12 to 24 hours.”

Prosecutors have alluded to relationship issues. Some personal friends of Sophia, who DA Wilson has said will speak about “problems that [were] going on in this marriage,” are expected to testify this week.

On Monday, prosecutors published a text message conversation from November 2017, in which Sophia and Daniel were arguing about a mysterious note. Afterwards, prosecutors showed, the couple had a 28.79 percent drop in their amount of text communications.

Still, the couple was texting regularly. “Does 1400 texts over four and a half months seem like a lot to you?” Darnell asked Texas Ranger Jeff Vajdos, who was testifying at the time.

“I haven’t even analyzed my own text messages, so I don’t know what the norm is,” Vajdos said.

On Wednesday, jurors started hearing more from friends of Sophia. Josh Steinberg — a welding instructor at Marfa ISD at the time of the killing — testified he heard about the murder during a family vacation.

DA Wilson asked if they exchanged any “flirtatious” texts. “I wouldn’t put it in that category,” Steinberg said.

In one text, Steinberg reportedly said he was at a teacher’s conference and wished Sophia was there with him.

Britney Mann, an Odessa resident who described herself as Sophia’s best friend, described Sophia as “a very energetic and fun person” who “had really found her stride” living in Fort Davis and “was so proud to be a teacher in Marfa.”

But beginning around Christmas of 2017, Mann said, Sophia and Daniel’s marriage “started to unravel.” Daniel had told the family he needed to work but instead was arrested for trying to bring drugs from Colorado. Sophia “felt lied to and betrayed and deceived,” Mann said.

“It was a breaking point for her,” Mann said. “She was going to leave him. She was going to get teacher housing in Marfa.”

Describing Daniel as jealous, Mann said she worried about Sophia after Sophia showed her text message conversations with a Marfa teacher. She said she worried that Daniel would be upset over the conversation, which she said could be construed as “flirtatious.”

“I wanted her to be careful,” Mann said.

Daniel cooperated with the investigation, allowing officers to search the house and both cars and submitting to voluntary questioning. With his house a crime scene and no money for a motel, he even spent the night at the sheriff’s office.

In video of Daniel’s voluntary interrogation at the sheriff’s office, jurors watched as investigators ask Daniel about his work, background and family life. They tell him that his son has named him the killer and urge him to confess.

“It wasn’t a stranger,” an investigator says in one video. “It wasn’t somebody who magically appeared. It wasn’t the neighbor, okay? We know what happened. Tell me what happened so I can help you.”

Daniel maintains his innocence through the videos. “I don’t know what happened,” he says. “I came home and I saw my wife on the ground.”

On Tuesday afternoon, jurors got to hear from the son himself. Before his testimony, court workers rearranged the courtroom so the minor could sit in close quarters with Wilson, Darnell and Judge Roy Ferguson, who’s presiding over the case. A television screen was positioned to block the view of the audience.

Judge Ferguson brought the young boy into the courtroom. He sported cowboy boots, a white buttoned shirt, blue jeans and a tidy mop of light brown hair. He sat facing the jury and away from his father. A court employee gave him a tiny squeezable gavel.

After Ferguson questioned him about truths and falsehoods — what he described as an “age-appropriate understanding of the oath” — the questioning began.

The boy reiterated that his father was the killer and denied making statements doubting the killer’s identity. “He pretended not to be the killer,” he said of his father.

The killer was wearing a mask, according to Wednesday testimony from a child-welfare worker. In the son’s own testimony, he said he recognized the killer from “his thinness and his beard,” which was reportedly sticking out of the mask.

He further described what he remembered from before, after and during the killing in March 2018. At around 4 a.m., he recalled, he woke up and noticed his bathroom light was off. That was unusual, because the light was kept on at night, he said.

He went out to the living room, where his mother was struggling with a man. “I thought: Is my daddy wrestling my mommy?” he said.

The killer saw him and grabbed him, the boy recalled. In a deep voice the killer said he was “your worst nightmare” and asked the boy if he knew who he was.

“My daddy,” he recalled saying.

The man said no and asked him to try again. “I said the Golden State killer because that’s the only other killer I knew at the time,” he recalled.

The killer then removed the home phone and ran out the back door. The young boy spent some time talking to and trying to help his mother, who later died.

He went back to sleep in his parent’s room, he recalled. He then spent all of March 16 at the house before Daniel arrived home on Friday evening.

DA Wilson asked him why he didn’t want to go for help. “I was still scared,” he said. “I heard some noises. I thought someone was walking on my porch.”

Next, Darnell asked him about his alleged doubts about the killer’s identity. Didn’t you say the killer had white hair? But he said “no” or “I don’t remember” to almost all these questions.

Judge Ferguson at one point admonished Darnell for “fishing” for answers.

“You might ask him what he does remember,” he said. “This is just becoming a lengthy leading session.”

Later, Darnell asked what the boy planned to do after the trial.

“Maybe have a little celebration,” he said. “If we win.”

This story is up-to-date through part of Wednesday. See next week’s issue for more coverage of the trial. Although the son has been publicly identified in court, The Big Bend Sentinel is choosing not to publish his name because he is a minor.