PLATTSMOUTH — Matthew Stubbendieck’s girlfriend told him she was dying of cancer, in pain and wanted to die. He bought her a one-way plane ticket to Nebraska from her home in Florida. They met in person for the first time, and she met his parents.
They watched the sunset at the Swinging Bridge one summer night last year and went swimming the next day at Acapulco Lake, made love and laid together in the sun.
By morning, Alicia Wilemon-Sullivan would be dead in the woods near Weeping Water.
Now, in a sad, twisted, made-for-TV tale of love and woe, the 42-year-old Nebraska man has been convicted of assisting in her suicide.
“First off, actually, Alicia’s death was not inevitable at all,” Cass County Attorney Colin Palm told the jury Friday morning in closing arguments. “He ensured it by his actions. At many points he could have stopped this. He should have stopped this.”
On Friday, at the end of a three-day trial, Palm said Alicia may have slit her own wrist with a knife, but it was Stubbendieck who decided not to get her help.
“He didn’t call 911. He didn’t render first aid. He chose to let her lay there and bleed for hours and hours. And ultimately after hours and hours, he left her alone, mortally wounded, at nightfall in the woods in an area that she didn’t know and chose to leave,” Palm said, as Wilemon-Sullivan’s mother quietly cried a few rows back.
But defense attorney Angela Minahan painted a different picture, one in which Wilemon-Sullivan had manipulated Stubbendieck with a web of deceit. She sent him pictures of her with IVs, with a hospital bracelet on and a bandage that was supposed to be where a tumor had been removed.
Minahan said Wilemon-Sullivan texted Stubbendieck 29 times to say she was sick, dying of stage-4 cancer and in pain. If he loved her, he would be there for her, she told him.
What the state described as scouting a location to die on Aug. 1, the defense described as Stubbendieck taking the love of his life, who he believed was dying, to all the places he liked growing up.
“None of these pieces, that the state wants you to believe was part of this plan, contributed to her death,” Minahan said.
She said Stubbendieck turned around and found Sullivan bleeding with a knife she had taken from his house. She had cut her own wrist.
For five hours he stayed with her, holding her, comforting her, yelling at God that she had suffered enough. Twice, he even tried to cover her nose and mouth to suffocate her, but he couldn’t do it, and ultimately left her without calling for help.
That isn’t a crime, his lawyer said. He was carrying out her wishes, something people can do.
“Alicia Sullivan alone is responsible for this act of selfishness,” Minahan told the jury, calling it an an unforgettable story of manipulation and deceit and of a man trying to pick up the pieces and wondering why.
She said the case is hard to understand or to swallow. It’s dark and has left a weight of pain that’s touched upon everyone involved.
When Stubbendieck learned his girlfriend didn’t have cancer, he told the investigator he was going to puke.
“His crime is that he loved her too much and he let her manipulate him with that love,” Minahan said.
But, Palm said, this case isn’t about whether Sullivan lied about having cancer. The law doesn’t provide exceptions for that.
“If this constellation of facts is not aiding and abetting another person either in suicide or attempted suicide then what is?” he asked rhetorically.
Wilemon-Sullivan has sadly paid the ultimate price for her choices and actions, Palm said, and now the defendant needs to be held accountable for his.
The jury of eight women and four men got the case at 10 a.m. They returned their verdict at 1 p.m.
Stubbendieck now faces up to two years in prison at his sentencing, which will be held at a later date.
In the hallway after the verdict, and after Palm had called Wilemon-Sullivan’s family with the news, the prosecutor said the whole experience has been trying for them. But he was pleased with the outcome.
“It’s the just verdict in this case. The evidence supported it, and it’s good the defendant will be held responsible for this,” he said.
Luckily, Palm said, this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. He found no case law on it in Nebraska. Asked if the verdict sends a message to others, he said he didn’t know.
“I certainly think we as a society don’t want people taking these life-and-death decisions into their own hands. That’s why the statute is there,” he said.
Stubbendieck left the courthouse with his family without comment. He is out of jail on bond.