Ryan Michael Sullivan enlisted in the United States Army soon after graduating from Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2002. He would twice be deployed to Iraq, where he survived snipers, roadside bombs and other attacks. He earned the respect of his fellow soldiers for his bravery and leadership, rising through the ranks and becoming a Staff Sergeant. During his six years of service, he earned numerous medals, including the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Bronze Star.
All that military training, however, didn’t prepare him for the manipulation, deceit and betrayal of his onetime-fiancée, Katie Briggs, who would recruit one of his Army buddies to murder him so they could cash in on his life insurance policy.
In 2005, while stationed overseas, Sullivan began an online correspondence with a woman claiming to be “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit model named Marisa Miller. In actuality, it was a woman from Kentucky named Kathryn Nellie Briggs, according to the Killeen Daily Herald. Soon, they were chatting nonstop, and Briggs sent him modeling shots and claimed they were hers.
While Sullivan was home on leave, they arranged to meet in person, but Briggs stood him up. She later claimed she had been ill, and had several of the vertebrae in her back removed. This had dramatically altered her appearance, making her 3 inches shorter; she had also put on more than 100 pounds during her convalescence, Briggs said. Briggs told Sullivan she no longer went by the name Marisa Miller, which was a pseudonym she used for her modelling career, and that her real name was Katie Briggs, according to court documents.
Despite the inconsistencies in her story, Sullivan began a relationship with Briggs. His mother, Dennah Sullivan, was surprised when she met her son’s new girlfriend, saying she was “very obese,” according to court documents. Whoever she was, Dennah knew she wasn’t Marissa Miller, but family members chose not to press the issue since Sullivan was about to be deployed for his second tour of duty in Iraq, an assignment that would last 15 months.
On patrol south of Baghdad, Sullivan’s company saw combat several times. The young Mid-Westerner impressed his fellow soldiers, keeping his cool under fire and leading by example. In July 2007, a Humvee carrying members of his unit hit a roadside bomb.
“Ryan just kept completely calm,” fellow serviceman Matt Goodwin told the Michigan news website MLive. “He was the best squad leader I ever had."
Among his brothers in arms from his second Iraq tour were two medics — Kyle James Moesch and John Anthony Valdez, Jr.
Sullivan returned from Iraq in January 2008, and was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. Soon afterward, he and Briggs moved into an apartment together in the nearby town of Killeen. The relationship, however, quickly soured. Dennah Sullivan later testified that by spring, "Things weren't going that well. They were fighting a lot,” according to court documents. By summer 2008, Dennah said, the couple had broken up.
Briggs would later move in with friend Michael Peterson and his girlfriend, Kerri Keane, in Austin, Texas. Peterson said John Valdez was a “fairly regular guest” at their apartment and was sometimes accompanied by Kyle Moesch. Peterson and Keane later testified that Briggs told them she was a beneficiary on Sullivan's life insurance policy and entitled to receive $100,000, according to court documents.
In late August 2008, Sullivan and some of his Army buddies were in Austin for a night of drinking. Among them were Valdez, Moesch and Jeremy Jacobs. That night, Valdez and Sullivan got into an argument. Jacobs later testified that Sullivan became “real upset” and stormed out of the bar they were in, according to court documents. A drunken Valdez had to be carried out of the bar and down the street, where he met up with Briggs.
Approximately a month after the dispute in Austin, Valdez told Jacobs someone had put a “hit” out on Sullivan, according to court documents. Valdez reportedly said "[Sullivan] was pissing the wrong people off,” and implied that people in government wanted him dead. Valdez claimed he had been paid $100,000 to do the job, and then offered Moesch and Jacobs $2,000 each to help him dispose of the body. Jacobs claimed he did not take Valdez seriously, even after he began sharing his plans to incapacitate Sullivan with a stun gun or chemical agent before killing him.
On the night of Oct. 10, 2008, Sullivan and Moesch were out drinking in Killeen with friends. They ended up back to Sullivan’s apartment, where they continued drinking and eventually fell asleep. Moesch later told police he awoke in the middle of the night and saw Valdez wearing a ski mask and standing over Sullivan’s body, according to Texas newspaper the Waxahachie Daily Light. When Moesch asked if he had killed him, Valdez kicked Sullivan’s feet and said, “Yes.” The following day, Moesch and Valdez went to Austin, where they disposed of their bloody clothes.
When Ryan Sullivan didn’t show up for training on the morning of Oct. 14, his fellow soldiers were immediately suspicious.
“Company leadership had a gut instinct something was not right," Lt. Col. Philip Smith told MLive. “It was out of character for this soldier. He shows up for work. He does his job.”
Killeen police were dispatched to Sullivan’s apartment, where they found his dead body in a corner of the living room. It had been laying there for three days and lost so much blood that the coroner had to do a toxicology report using tissue, according to local newspaper the Temple Daily Telegram. It was ultimately determined he had been stabbed 34 times. He was 24 years old.
The day after Sullivan's body was discovered, Briggs applied for benefits under his life insurance policy. Sullivan had signed the policy in 2006 and made Briggs one of his beneficiaries, although he was planning on amending the policy the week after he was murdered, according to court documents. Briggs was eligible for a $100,00 payout and two weeks later, she withdrew almost $20,000 from the account.
When Jeremy Jacobs learned of Sullivan’s murder, he asked Valdez if he was responsible. Valdez said, “What do you think?” and smirked, according to court documents. In early November 2008, Jacobs left an anonymous message with the Killeen police, who tracked him down; he agreed to speak with them. Valdez was taken into custody soon thereafter and charged with Ryan Sullivan’s murder, according to Houston’s ABC13.
At the time of his arrest, Valdez was in possession of over $4,000 in cash, money which was later linked to Katie Briggs, according to court records. Cell phone data also linked the two, and Valdez’s phone was found to be in the vicinity of Sullivan’s apartment on the night of the murder.
In an effort to throw police off her trail, Briggs pretended to be a woman named “Airianna Benitez,” who Valdez told people was his fiancée. Briggs called Valdez in prison using a separate cell phone, according to court records. The phone was later traced to her, as were numerous payments to Valdez’s prison account.
Briggs, Valdez and Moesch were arrested and charged with capital murder went on trial in April 2011. After a two-week trial and less than three hours of deliberation, the jury found all three guilty, according to the Temple Daily Telegram. With their conviction, they were automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole.
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