Bolton's flurry of goals saw Sunderland fans leaving the ground early
Sunderland slipped into the bottom three on a miserable day for Roy Keane's side as Bolton ran riot at a disgruntled Stadium of Light.
The hosts had taken an early lead through Djibril Cisse's classy strike.
But Bolton soon equalised via Matthew Taylor's header and swiftly stole the lead through Gary Cahill's low drive.
Woeful defensive errors then let Johan Elmander put away clinical goals either side of half-time as Sunderland fell to their fifth defeat in six league games.
It was Keane's 100th game in charge of the Black Cats, but many Sunderland supporters left before full-time while boos rang out around the stadium at the final whistle following the club's third straight home defeat.
Sunderland were their own worst enemies as they let the game slip away from them after a promising start to the game, with Cisse's 10th-minute strike putting them into a deserved lead.
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Kieron Richardson snapped a pass through for Steed Malbranque, who, after waiting for Cisse to arrive in the box, played in the French striker to slot past Jussi Jaaskelainen for his sixth goal of the season, the ball finding the net off the far post.
Bolton, who moved up to seventh in the table following their fourth win in five Premier League matches, were unfazed by the setback and sought to cause problems of their own from dead-balls looped high into the Sunderland penalty box.
The visitors' equaliser came in the 18th minute, when Taylor rose higher than Pascal Chimbonda to meet Gretar Steinsson's deep cross.
The header looped over £9m Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon - just back from injury - and in off the underside of the bar.
Two minutes later, Bolton were ahead when Andy O'Brien drifted a free-kick into the heart of the Sunderland area.
With the hosts unable to cope with the bustling Kevin Davies, the ball dropped for Cahill, who hammered the ball through a crowd of defenders and into the goal from 12 yards.
Sunderland did have the ball in the net after half an hour, but Cisse's effort was disallowed after the linesman ruled that Kenwyne Jones had pushed Jlloyd Samuel as he crashed a header against the bar in the build-up.
Taylor then steered a pass beyond a Sunderland back-line completely void of confidence only for Elmander, after rounding keeper Gordon, to guide the ball wide with the goal gaping.
The Swede atoned in the 38th minute, when, following a 60-yard pass pumped forward by Cahill, Sunderland defender Collins totally missed the ball on the bounce - a hideous error - allowing the striker to pounce and slot the ball between Gordon's legs.
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Jones could have put Sunderland back in the game just before half-time when he went agonisingly close to nodding in Malbranque's driven cross.
No doubt Keane had some harsh words for his faltering players at the break - yet it was Bolton who came out brightest, with Gavin McCann's long-range shot forcing an athletic high stop from Gordon.
Elmander triggered a mini-exodus by Sunderland fans after 54 minutes when another shocking defensive mistake let Bolton add a fourth.
With time and space to clear, captain Dean Whitehead dallied to let Kevin Nolan pick up the ball, and, with Sunderland exposed, Nolan squared for Elmander to fire high into the net for his second goal of the game.
Keane made two substitutions in a bid to shake up his players, who, in truth, were working hard to make things happen, but Elmander should have claimed his hat-trick when he missed a simple chance in the 73rd minute.
The hosts did carve out the odd chance, but the game petered out as Bolton closed off possession and a shell-shocked Sunderland waited for the final whistle.
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