Aston Villa striker Kevin Phillips returned to haunt Sunderland as the visitors ran out comfortable winners.
The ex-Sunderland favourite headed in Aaron Hughes' cross early in the second half, although the ball looked to have gone out of play in the build-up.
Gareth Barry tapped in for a second and a minute later Luke Moore's delightful backheel set up Milan Baros to score.
Sunderland got a late consolation when Liam Ridgewell felled Jon Stead and Dean Whitehead scored from the spot.
The home side had chances but were let down by a lack of quality in front of goal and some good saves by another ex-Black Cat Thomas Sorensen.
Both sides went into the game on the back of poor runs in the league but the victory will see the pressure eased on Villa boss David O'Leary.
It was chances aplenty in an entertaining first 45 minutes, with both keepers having to be at their best to keep the game goalless.
Stead seemed to possess the sort of confidence not normally shown in a striker without a goal in 10 games for the club.
He twice tested Sorensen with ambitious low shots from outside the area and once with a glancing header.
Phillips and Gavin McCann - a third ex-Sunderland player - combined to set-up Villa's first chance of the half only for Barry to screw his shot well wide.
Sorensen then denied Alan Stubbs with a great low save.
At the other end Phillips produced the sort of curling effort once seen in a red-and-white shirt which Ben Alnwick kept out one-handed.
Alnwick was at the centre of some controversy when he collected a harmless looking Milner shot and appeared to carry it over the line.
Barry then missed a simple chance in front of goal and Alnwick bravely denied Baros when he was clean through.
The pace of the game increased further after the break and Le Tallec missed from close range and Milner fired inches wide before Phillips broke the deadlock.
Phillips will get the headlines but it owed much to the persistency of Baros.
The Czech forward hustled Andy Welsh off the ball, although it looked like it may have gone out for a goalkick, before cleverly backheeling for Hughes to cross and Phillips only needed to add the final touch.
Sunderland could have equalised immediately when Christian Bassila drove into the box and crashed a shot that hit the underside of the bar before bouncing down to hit the line and out to safety.
Phillips went off injured midway through the second half to a warm reception from the fans on Wearside.
His replacement Moore could have secured the win when he burst clear but again Alnwick came swiftly out his goal to save his side.
Instead it was Barry who secured the win when he sidefooted in after some dazzling footwork from Milner.
A minute later Moore cleverly set up Baros and he gave the home side a lesson in clinical finishing.
The Sunderland supporters poured out of the stadium and few were left when Ridgewell was adjudged to have brought down Stead.
The former Blackburn forward was desperate to take the penalty but Whitehead stepped up.
It was barely a consolation as Sunderland broke a 92-year record for going 17 games without a home win.
Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy:
"There was nothing in it in the first half but it is becoming an annoyingly familiar outcome.
"There was a slight question mark about whether the ball was out for their first goal but anyway we should have defended better.
"When you hit the crossbar and it hits the line and goes out maybe lady luck was not on our side."
Aston Villa striker Kevin Phillips:
"I had a fantastic time here at Sunderland and there was no need for me to go mad when I scored. But that¿s what I'm paid to do.
"From our point of view it was a fantastic result because we have had a tough time this year.
"We have run out quite comfortable winners in the end."
Sunderland: Alnwick, Nosworthy (Woods 60), Breen, Stubbs, Hoyte, Whitehead, Bassila, Miller, Welsh (Murphy 73), Stead, Le Tallec.
Subs Not Used: Davis, Caldwell, Gray.
Booked: Nosworthy, Woods.
Goals: Whitehead 90 pen.
Aston Villa: Sorensen, Hughes, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Bouma, Milner, Davis (Bakke 89), McCann, Barry, Baros (Hendrie 90), Phillips (Moore 68).
Subs Not Used: Taylor, De la Cruz.
Goals: Phillips 55, Barry 82, Baros 83.
Ref: C Foy (Merseyside).