John Sheridan is either a murderer, or a victim twice over.
Ever since the day in September, 2014, when Sheridan, 72, was found dead in the burning bedroom of his Montgomery Township home next to the body of his wife, Joyce, questions have swirled about what exactly happened in the room that day. Investigations have given rise to two competing theories, one of which paints Sheridan, a former political advisor and CEO of Cooper Health System, as a criminal who murdered his wife and then committed suicide, the other as an innocent and upstanding community member who was murdered and whose name has since been dragged through the mud.
This week the truth became even more elusive, as the state medical examiner officially changed his cause of death from “suicide” to “undetermined” following pressure from the couple’s four sons who say their parents were killed by an intruder, and not in a murder-suicide perpetrated by John.
Andrew Falzon changed his original ruling in a brief statement while sticking to the majority of his findings.
“Following this review, it is my opinion that the cause of death remains unchanged, namely: ‘Sharp force injuries and smoke inhalation,’” he wrote in a statement. “Regarding the determination of the manner of death, it was determined that the wounds documented on the body of John P. Sheridan Jr. have the appearance of self-inflicted wounds. However, no weapon was recovered from the scene that could be conclusively associated with the wounds sustained by Mr. Sheridan. All this is unfortunately compounded by the extensive destruction of the scene by the fire. It is therefore my opinion that the manner of death is best classified as ‘undetermined.’ Should additional information regarding the case become available in the future, the case will be re-evaluated and amended if necessary.”
The ruling does not go so far as to clear John Sheridan’s name, but it was a victory for his sons, Tim, Dan, Matt, and Mark Sheridan, who hired celebrity forensic pathologist Michael Baden to review the case. Baden submitted a report that challenged Falzon’s findings.
The case had a high profile both for its bizarre details and because of the prominent stature of the family involved. In addition to his powerful position as CEO of Cooper Health, Sheridan held offices in state government over the years and was once an advisor to governor Tom Cahill. Joyce, 69, was a history teacher, and the couple had been married for 47 years. Governor Chris Christie, and former governors Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman gave eulogies for John and Joyce.
Of the four brothers, Mark Sheridan has followed a career most similar to that of his father. He was a top lawyer for the state Republican Party at the time of his parents’ deaths but stepped down to pursue efforts to clear his father’s name.
Over the next six months, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s offices examined the case, and in March, 2015, officials made public the results of their investigation, giving their version of the crime scene and of the events.
At 6:13 a.m. on September 28, 2014, a neighbor called 911 to report the Sheridan home was on fire. Police found the doors unlocked, and entered the home only to be driven back by heavy smoke. Firefighters in respirators made it farther into the house, finding their way through the smoke to its source: a fire in the master bedroom, where John and Joyce lay dead, both of them face up.
A heavy and heavily damaged armoire lay across John’s body. In the bedroom was a gas can, wooden matches, a fireplace poker, a carving knife and a bread knife. There was also $950 in cash on a nightstand along with John’s wallet, wristwatch, and cell phone. Joyce’s iPad lay on the floor nearby and she was still wearing her jewelry. With so many valuable items lying undisturbed in plain sight, investigators ruled out robbery as a motive for the killings.
Next came the autopsies: Joyce had died from being stabbed in the heart, and there were bruises on a hand and her shoulder — defensive wounds. There was no smoke in her lungs, meaning she had stopped breathing by the time the fire started.
John had been stabbed five times, but all the wounds were “superficial in nature, consistent with self infliction.” One of these superficial wounds, however, had struck the jugular vein — a fatal wound without medical attention, prosecutors said. He had three broken ribs, presumably from the armoire falling on him during the fire. The autopsy found no defensive wounds on John. He had smoke in his lungs, indicating he died after the fire was set. The examiner ruled that John died by suicide of self-inflicted “sharp force injuries and smoke inhalation.”
Joyce’s blood was on the carving knife, and the size and shape of her wounds matched that weapon. Blood was found in the master bedroom and on the staircase and the staircase walls but nowhere else, and no other room appeared to be disturbed.
To the prosecutor, Geoffrey D. Soriano, this evidence amounted to an unavoidable conclusion: “John Sheridan killed Joyce Sheridan and, thereafter, committed suicide.” At some point after stabbing Joyce to death, John stabbed his own jugular vein and set fire to the home.
But if he did this, the question remained: why? Prosecutors conducted over 180 interviews of potential witnesses including friends, neighbors, co-workers, and colleagues, and examined cell phone records, financial documents, and anything else that could shed light on the killings.
Co-workers told prosecutors John was behaving out of character, and was very upset and withdrawn and had “an attitude of resignation” in the days leading up to the crime, and that he was under work-related stress. The hospital was facing a negative report from an independent agency, and Sheridan appeared to be upset about it.
But could a relatively minor professional setback really have driven Sheridan to such an extreme and violent action? Sheridan’s sons found it impossible to believe. Before the prosecutors had compiled their report, they brought in Michael Baden to perform a second analysis of the evidence.
Baden, a former New York medical examiner, has worked on many high profile murder investigations. He testified at the O.J. Simpson trial, and was a witness for the defense in Phil Spector’s murder trial. Baden’s autopsy of Michael Brown, the teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was widely discussed in the media. Baden’s findings — that Brown had been shot six times including once on the top of the head — helped fuel outrage and protests.
Baden’s findings in the Brown case contradicted a report released later by authorities. Baden determined Brown had probably been shot from a distance, whereas the official report found he was shot at close range.
Last summer Baden filed an affidavit of his findings. His report noted several anomalies in the official story, and brought up some new ones, all of which cast doubt on the murder-suicide conclusion. First, there was the matter of Sheridan’s stab wounds. As Falzon noted in his report, none of the weapons found at the crime scene matched the wounds on John’s body. There was some molten metal — zinc and aluminum — found at the scene, but investigators couldn’t say for sure if it was even a sharp implement, or some other object such as a picture frame.
Secondly, Baden found that John had a chipped tooth, which he said could have been caused by a punch in the face. He also noted that none of Joyce’s blood was found on John, making it unlikely he was the one who stabbed her, and that John showed no signs of suicidal behavior before the incident.
Baden also disagreed with the character of the wounds to John’s neck as superficial, instead calling them “deep,” and uncommon in suicide attempts. He wrote that the broken ribs could have been caused by someone hitting him with a fireplace poker rather than the toppling armoire.
“In my opinion it is more likely a double homicide,” Baden told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a 2016 interview. “If it’s murder-suicide, it’s a very unusual murder-suicide.” Baden said the couple could have been killed in a “robbery gone wrong.”
However, Baden did not go so far as to call John’s death a homicide in his report. Instead, he said it was “undetermined.” This week, the state medical examiner changed his report to match Baden’s conclusion.
The controversy may have led to consequences for the Somerset County officials who handled the original investigation. In February Governor Christie removed the prosecutor, Soriano, from his post, without commenting whether the move was related to the Sheridan case.
While the “undetermined” cause of death raises the possibility that a third person was involved in the deaths of the Sheridans, authorities have not announced they are looking for a killer. Soriano’s replacement made a statement heavily implying that prosecutors do not believe the Sheridans’ murderer on the loose.
The new Somerset County Prosecutor, Michael Robertson told the New Jersey Star Ledger, “I want to assure the public and the residents of Somerset County that we have no reason to believe that they should be fearful of their safety.”