Lincoln, Nebraska - A Nebraska man accused of helping his Florida girlfriend kill herself after she told him she had cancer appears to have taken her story at face value and didn't push her to seek medical treatment or mental-health counseling, authorities said Tuesday.
Lt. Larry Burke of the Cass County sheriff's office said Matthew J. Stubbendieck was "pretty convincing in his interviews" that he believed his girlfriend, 38-year-old Alicia Wilemon-Sullivan, of Orange City, Florida, had stage-four cancer in her lymph nodes.
Nebraska authorities now suspect Wilemon-Sullivan didn't have cancer, based on an autopsy of her decomposed body that found no tumors. Wilemon-Sullivan killed herself in a wooded area near Weeping Water, Nebraska, on Aug. 1, with help from the 41-year-old Stubbendieck, who faces a felony assisted suicide charge.
Burke said authorities can't prove whether or not Wilemon-Sullivan actually had the disease, but noted that Stubbendieck never accompanied her to medical appointments and didn't contact authorities while they were planning or carrying out her death.
"He didn't bother to say, 'If she does have cancer, why don't we do something about it,'" Burke said. "If he's truly in love with her, as he says, there are times he could have sought help. He could have gotten her to a mental health professional."
Burke said Wilemon-Sullivan claimed to have cancer back when she and Stubbendieck were living in Florida. Stubbendieck moved to Florida about three years ago but returned to his native Nebraska after losing his job, he said.
Authorities said Stubbendieck reported that Wilemon-Sullivan had killed herself and led them to her body on Aug. 5 in a wooded area near his hometown of Weeping Water, which is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Omaha. The couple arranged for Wilemon-Sullivan to fly to Nebraska from her home near Orlando to kill herself.
Stubbendieck believed his girlfriend had cancer in the lymph nodes of her neck, armpit and stomach, according to court records. Authorities say the cause of death was inconclusive, but the autopsy found no sign of blunt force trauma and concluded that cuts on her forearms and wrists appeared to be self-inflicted. Wilemon-Sullivan also had alcohol, painkillers and cold medicine in her system, it found.
Stubbendieck told authorities that he had never accompanied his girlfriend of 1 ½ years to medical appointments, according to the records. He said he didn't think she had a regular doctor, but that she had been diagnosed and treated in emergency rooms.
The investigation "revealed Stubbendieck and Alicia Wilemon-Sullivan had been arranging for Alicia to come to Nebraska to die" and they were "talking about her death over text messages" for several weeks, authorities said in court records.
Wilemon-Sullivan left her children with a friend and said she was going on vacation to Key West, the records said. Authorities say she bought a one-way American Airlines ticket to Nebraska.
Kenny Johnson, the friend who watched over her children, said Wilemon-Sullivan texted him on July 31 that she would be away until Aug. 3. Johnson said he met her at the airport, and she gave him $200 and her truck keys.
"She loved her kids very much and everything, but I could tell there was a weird vibe coming from her," said Johnson, of Orange City, Florida. "She was bawling, just crying, crying, crying. I kind of thought she was running away."
Johnson said Wilemon-Sullivan never mentioned to him that she had been diagnosed with cancer, and only complained occasionally that her feet hurt. He said he met her through her son in March and was staying with the family after his recent move to Florida. Wilemon-Sullivan had four children.
"She was a hard-working single mom," Johnson said.
An attorney for Stubbendieck wasn't immediately available. Cass County Attorney Nathan Cox said he could not elaborate on any of the details listed in court records.
Authorities began investigating after one of Wilemon-Sullivan's children contacted Florida authorities on Aug. 5, according to a missing-person's report filed with the Volusia County, Florida, sheriff's office. The 15-year-old said his older brother in Mississippi had received a call from Stubbendieck notifying him that their mother had died after cutting her wrists.
Investigators said Stubbendieck accompanied Wilemon-Sullivan to Schramm State Park by the Platte River so she could kill herself, but returned to Weeping Water after they saw a park worker. They walked into the woods to an area called Acapulco Lake around 2 p.m. on Aug. 1, and he remained with her for several hours as she tried to end her life, according to the records.
Authorities said Stubbendieck tried to suffocate her twice while she was sleeping, but stopped because she appeared to be suffering. She was still able to whisper when he left her around 9:30 p.m.
Stubbendieck returned the next afternoon and found Wilemon-Sullivan dead, but he didn't call the sheriff's office until three days later, according to court records. Stubbendieck told authorities he initially promised not to tell anyone about her death until five or six months later but changed his mind because the secret was "destroying his family," court records show.
Stubbendieck has a history of minor drug and alcohol-related offenses in Nebraska but no violent crimes, according to online court records.
Assisting suicide is a felony in Nebraska punishable by as much as two years in prison, a year of post-release supervision and a $10,000 fine, although a judge could impose a lesser sentence.
Nebraska lawmakers considered a measure last year that would have allowed people with terminal illnesses to end their own lives with drugs prescribed by a doctor. The measure died in committee.