In Fort Davis trial, man stands accused of killing wife

FORT DAVIS — In a trial that started last month in the Jeff Davis County Courthouse, authorities accused Daniel Sullivan, now 32, of his killing his wife at their Fort Davis home in March 2018.

At the time of the murder, Daniel Sullivan was an electrician who lived and worked in Odessa. He returned home to visit his family on weekends. His wife Sophia, née Sabey, 31, was an early college high school coordinator at Marfa ISD. The couple’s then-seven-year-old son witnessed the killing.

But the Sullivan murder trial ended Monday evening in a mistrial after jurors deliberated for around 17 hours but couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict. The murder charge is still pending, and prosecutors say they’ll try Sullivan again.

If evidence requested by jurors during deliberation is any indication, they were particularly interested in the couple’s young son, now nine. (Although the child has been publicly identified in court, The International is choosing to redact his name because he is a minor.)

The son allegedly told a neighbor and authorities that Daniel had killed Sophia. He repeated those assertions in court last week, telling jurors that his father “pretended not to be the killer.”

In earlier interviews with investigators, though, the young child had also blamed the Golden State killer — a serial killer who was active in California in the 1970s and 1980s — for killing his mother. In his closing arguments Friday, defense attorney Darnell said the boy was “coached” into fingering his father for the crime.

The Sullivan trial started last month and ran for eight days. In her opening statement, District Attorney Sandy Wilson outlined her evidence against Daniel, which included bodycam videos, cell phone records and testimony from friends, family and the couple’s son.

In his own opening statement, 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.

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,” James says in that chaotic, 10-minute phone call, which jurors heard. “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.

Bodycam footage, which jurors watched, shows authorities as they arrive at the Sullivan house. Inside, authorities find Sophia dead on her bedroom floor in a Marfa Shorthorns shirt.

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

Prosecutors alluded to relationship issues throughout the trial. 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.”

Eliza Barton, a Marfa school teacher, described Sophia “very kind, funny [and] extremely shy.” She also taught Sullivans’ young child at the time of the murder and was asked about the relationship the boy had with Daniel.

Daniel “was the world to [the young boy]. He was his favorite person,” Barton said. “He absolutely adored him.”

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, investigators 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.”

During closing arguments on Friday, Sandy Wilson, District Attorney for Jeff Davis County and lead prosecutor for the case, summarized the evidence against Daniel. That of course included testimony from the couple’s child.

“[The child] told you his truth,” she said, her voice breaking slightly. “He’s the only one. Nobody else in this courtroom other than Danny Sullivan was a witness to that murder. Nobody else but [the boy].”

For eight days, jurors heard testimony and evidence like this. But for at least one of the jurors — and possibly as many as 11 of them — it wasn’t enough to find Daniel guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.