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 that 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.
Not long after, the 42-year-old Nebraska man ended up charged with assisting in her suicide in what reads like a sad, twisted, made-for-TV tale of love and woe.
Friday afternoon, following three hours of deliberation, a jury of eight women and four men found him guilty of assisted suicide — a charge rarely filed in the state.
“First off, actually, Alicia’s death was not inevitable at all,” Cass County Attorney Colin Palm told the jury in closing arguments that morning. “He ensured it by his actions. At many points he could have stopped this. He should have stopped this.”
At the end of Stubbendieck's three-day trial, Palm said Wilemon-Sullivan may have slit her own wrist with a knife, but he was the one 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 on her stomach where she said doctors had removed a tumor.
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, 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 Wilemon-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 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, 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 an 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 Wilemon-Sullivan, who admittedly was a troubled woman, 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 the jury 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 got the case at 10 a.m. and returned with a guilty verdict at 1 p.m.
Stubbendieck faces up to two years in prison at his sentencing, which is set for June.
In the hallway after the verdict, and after Palm had called members of 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.
Asked if the verdict sends a message to others, Palm 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.