Nancy Solomon: We were putting the final touches on this series when a news story went viral.
News Clip: The Jersey political world is still in a state of shock after a political consultant admitted his role in a murder-for-hire plot this week. Sean Caddle used two hitmen to murder former Jersey City Council candidate Michael Galdieri in 2014. And that bombshell--
Nancy Solomon: So a guy who worked on campaigns for some of the biggest names in the state hired two hitmen to murder a rival political consultant. Hitmen, politics, and a pay-off at a diner. While everyone was pointing out just how Jersey this was, my mind went to something quite different. This sounded a hell of a lot like the podcast I'm working on.
News Clip: This morning, the mystery deepens over the death of John and Joyce Sheridan, a prominent New Jersey couple with powerful connections and close friends of Governor Chris Christie.
News Clip: The first responders who came into the door of the Sheridan home early the morning of September 28th, found what could only be described as a house of horror.
Nancy Solomon: In both cases, people involved in politics were stabbed to death, and the room set on fire. And both crimes happened just four months apart in 2014. Suddenly, people are interested again in a case I've been focused on for two years. I've done little else but try to figure out what happened to John and Joyce Sheridan, and why a case involving such a prominent figure was ignored by the highest levels of law enforcement and government.
Nancy Solomon: The Sheridan's funeral was held on a blustery overcast day in October 2014. The line to enter the building snaked down the block. And the most powerful people in New Jersey came to pay their respects. The governor at the time, Chris Christie, was there and so were three former governors, including the only woman ever elected Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman.
Christine Todd Whitman: It was not a small turnout. It was almost all of the Assembly and the Senate and they all paid their respects. Here was to a guy who had never the highest, never held elective office, and yet you had all these political people there to stand up for them and for the family.
Nancy Solomon: At the Sheridan’s memorial, there was an unsettling vibe. Because very few people knew how the Sheridans had died.
Speaker 1: 911, where's your emergency?
Speaker 2: Yes, Meadow Run Drive in Skillman, New Jersey,
Nancy Solomon: Nine days before, just before sunrise on a Sunday morning, a neighbor had noticed smoke coming from the Sheridan's house. The first news report said they died in the fire. Then local detectives announced the fire had been deliberately set. Former Governor Whitman told me rumors were spreading and people didn't know what to think.
Christine Todd Whitman: Because we were still in those throes of this is just impossible, the theories they're putting out there of what happened. This was just not the John and Joyce any of us knew.
Nancy Solomon: John Sheridan had worked at the highest levels of government for 40 years. First as a cabinet member and then as an advisor to several governors. And he'd been a lobbyist for one of the most prominent law firms in the state. Some 1,800 people attended the memorial.
Christine Todd Whitman: What was interesting, what was fascinating about it was the breadth of people who spoke, Republicans, Democrats, from their private life and they were all personal. Those who spoke, they were very personal. And they were both sides of the aisle. They were a testament to the kind of people that John and Joyce were.
Nancy Solomon: This is Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery. Episode one. I'm Nancy Solomon. I live here and cover the state for WNYC. And that's almost a full-time political corruption beat. John Sheridan was connected to some of the most powerful politicians – and mover and shakers – in the state. And that was enough to make me follow every detail of this story. The news reports became more and more confusing. First, it was a fire, then it was intentionally set. Almost two months later, we learned they had actually died from a brutal knife attack. Then, came the official conclusion.
News clip: Developing now, it's six o'clock, it has taken six months in all but now the Somerset County prosecutor says the Cooper Health CEO John Sheridan did in fact kill his wife Joyce before stabbing himself and setting the couple's bedroom on fire.
Nancy Solomon: This news left me with more questions than it answered. What could have been going on in their lives that would have caused this highly regarded 72-year-old to kill his wife of 47 years? I'm going to try to answer that over the next seven episodes. And I'll follow a trail that raises questions about New Jersey's top law enforcement agencies and some of the most powerful people in the state.
To start, I needed to know more about the Sheridans so I drove down to the Jersey Shore to meet Joyce's best friend, Chris Stevens. She was waiting outside for me, standing on the corner so I wouldn't miss her street. Inside, she'd laid out pastries and coffee.
Chris Stevens: Ice water and then I got you some-
Nancy Solomon: Thank you. It's very nice. That's very sweet.
Chris Stevens: We moved down in 2016. It's just the two of us and our new dog, Angus, who is a handful, but-
Nancy Solomon: The last time Chris saw Joyce was only a day and a half before she died.
Chris Stevens: She would call and she'd say, "Chris, call me. Let's go to lunch."
Nancy Solomon: They had lunch at the Tiger's Tale, a pub about five minutes from their homes.
Chris Stevens: Just had a nice usual lunch with Joyce. Laughed. That was fun. I always looked forward to going to see her. I didn't ever want to have to cancel on something because I enjoyed her so much. She was like a sister. You know what, I have two sisters. Well, she was another sister.
Nancy Solomon: Chris was a social worker. Joyce, a public school teacher and both husbands were lawyers who were involved in government. Both couples had four kids about the same age. The two families lived in the suburbs not far from Princeton. Joyce in Skillman and Chris just down the road in Belle Mead.
Chris Stevens: I really appreciated her humor. She was very independent, but such a good friend. She would knit me scarves and hats and I couldn't do anything with my fingers. I'm a mess. So she sort of took care of me in that way.
Nancy Solomon: Joyce was also tough.
Chris Stevens: She always got the troublesome kids. They always put them in her class because she was so good and could handle anybody. She didn't take any guff.
Nancy Solomon: Chris was just back from church on that Sunday morning when her husband came in to tell her, the Sheridans had died. She was stunned. And then the detectives decided it was a murder-suicide.
Chris Stevens: I don't feel comfortable talking about this because I don't believe it, and neither does Bob and neither do any of our kids or our friends. Anybody I know does not believe that, that happened.
Nancy Solomon: What about it makes you feel uncomfortable? And you don't need to say but-
Chris Stevens: Because I don't believe it. I think it's false accusation and that this family has to suffer like this, and then to bring it back up again. Why'd you bring it back up again? Because something came up and you have to investigate it. And I understand that, but - I don't have anything else to say except that I miss her and I miss John.
Nancy Solomon: And you mentioned that you talked about kids and grandkids. Was there anything on her mind that was bothering her?
Chris Stevens: I know where you're going, but no. Definitely not. I know you have to ask the question, but no. She, I think she would have said it to me.
Nancy Solomon: Detectives think John Sheridan murdered his wife and set their bedroom on fire before taking his own life, apparently to cover up what he had done. But Chris and Joyce were close, and Joyce never mentioned a single problem about her marriage to Chris. I heard this a lot from neighbors, friends, colleagues, family members. I couldn't find a single person who could tell me about a problem in their marriage.
Rebeca Ibarra: She's on Meadow Run?
Nancy Solomon: Yes, I have a lot of interest in this street.
The Sheridans lived on Meadow Run Drive in Skillman, New Jersey. It's a suburban neighborhood that was carved out of farmland in the 1970s. The house was a center hall colonial, you know those rectangular houses that have the front door in the center and the slotted wooden shutters framing each window. And it was on a large lot that was set back from the street.
I love the cul-de-sac. It's just so Jersey.
I drove out to Skillman with producer, Rebeca Ibarra.
Rebeca Ibarra: Why? Why is it classic Jersey?
Nancy Solomon: There are so many, it's just a suburban thing that was built in the--
First, we went to a neighbor who lived three houses down from the Sheridans.
I wonder if people felt a lot less safe here.
Rebeca Ibarra: After that happened?
Nancy Solomon: Marsha Stencel and her husband are some of the first people who moved here when the street was first built.
[door bell ringing]
Marsha Stencel: Hi.
Nancy Solomon: Hi, I'm Nancy Solomon.
Rebeca Ibarra: Hi.
Marsha Stencel: We came in 1977 and they were two houses besides ours. The Sheridans came the end of that summer. They had two children at that point and I think one on the way
Nancy Solomon: By all accounts, it was an idyllic time and place to grow up.
Marsha Stencel: You wouldn't have even thought anything of just stepping in and saying, "Joyce, you here?" and going in the house.
Nancy Solomon: The kids roamed free.
Marsha Stencel: It was always called the Sheridan boys. This neighborhood was very active with bicycles and children going down to--
Charles DiDominico: Loads of kids--
Marsha Stencel: About 40 children between the ages of one, under one and 15.
Nancy Solomon: This is Judy and Charles DiDominico.
Judy DiDominico: We moved in May 30th, 1980.
Nancy Solomon: They lived across the street from the Sheridans.
Judy DiDominico: The little boys would come over and want to exchange smelly stickers with my daughters, which was a big fad with children at the time. They would be like bees in a hoard on their bikes up and down the street. It was a lovely neighborhood for children.
Nancy Solomon: No one can remember there ever being so much as a burglary on Meadow Run Drive. Local police records show they were only called to the Sheridan house once in 37 years when Joyce fell down and injured her hip. In fact, until their horrible deaths, Marsha Stencel told me most people in the neighborhood didn't even lock their doors. And that detail would ultimately be a problem for the investigation. Because there were no signs of forced entry, the detectives assumed there was no intruder.
We'll be right back.
Nancy Solomon: When did you move?
Mark Sheridan: I moved in about three weeks ago.
Nancy Solomon: What are your memories of your parents and their relationship with each other at that time when you were a kid, growing up in the house?
Mark Sheridan: They were always together.
Nancy Solomon: Mark Sheridan is the oldest of their four sons. At the time of his parents’ death, he was the lawyer for Chris Christie's campaign for governor. He also represented the state Republican party.
Mark Sheridan: When we weren't involved in sports and they weren't running us from one thing to the next, they would be out looking at antiques, going to auctions, going to flea markets. They loved to antique and spend time together.
Nancy Solomon: For a couple of years, Mark and I would talk on the phone about the case. He had tried to solve it, but forced himself to walk away.
Mark Sheridan: I had a busy litigation practice. And for the better part of two years, I spent 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM doing my day job and then 8:00 to 3:00 in the morning doing this. At some point in time, my wife stepped in and said, "You can't do this stuff, first of all you can't be sitting up down here with crime scene photos out, your kids around. It's not very smart and it's not healthy. You can't live like this." So she kind of really brought me around to, you got to move on, you got to give up a little bit otherwise you're going to be all consumed by this.
Nancy Solomon: I'm not helping with that very much, am I?
Mark Sheridan: No--
Nancy Solomon: Mark lives about an hour from where he grew up. You can't even see the neighbors where he lives. It's a big house on a large piece of property.
This is a beautiful room. Is this house old or built to look old, but new?
Mark Sheridan: 1840s it was built.
Nancy Solomon: I love the -- I forget what those are called the windows that open like that.
Mark Sheridan: Casements. The guy who remodeled-
Nancy Solomon: I had brought something I wanted to show Mark.
Mark Sheridan: Oh, Jeez, where did you find that?
Nancy Solomon: An audio recording of his father I had dug up on YouTube. So John had served in the cabinet to Governor Tom Kean. In the tape I found, John is telling a story about applying for a job when he's ready to leave the administration. And he talks about Joyce. I brought it along and played the tape for Mark. Here's his dad, John.
John Sheridan:So long story short after several interviews with Riker Danzig and I remember one where I was going up to meet Pete Perretti who was a senior partner, one of the named partners, on a Sunday afternoon. This was about my sixth or seventh interview and Joyce, wise guy that she is, she says, "Who are you going to meet with -- the cleaning lady today?"
Mark Sheridan: That sounds exactly like my mother. Right? That was exactly the type of thing that she would've said. She was the no-nonsense tough one in the family, smart, bit of a smart ass. She was fantastic.
Nancy Solomon: And then how would you describe your dad, in terms of his personality and the way he was?
Mark Sheridan: He was always the easygoing one. Not one to get angry a lot, really laid back. You know, serious. If there was something that he wanted to know about he would spend weeks on end getting to know it until he felt like he was an expert on it. Look, in every relationship, there's one boring person and one crazy person and my father was the boring person, my mother was the crazy person. [chuckles]
Nancy Solomon: And then, I mean, you pretty much followed in your father's footsteps, is that fair to say?
Mark Sheridan: I don't think that's fair to say. I'm not even close. I'm more like my mother in some respects, I have a little more fight in me than he did.
Nancy Solomon: But his dad was really the one who got him into politics.
Mark Sheridan: I was 29 years old. My father called me and said, "Nobody else is dumb enough to do this, you might be dumb enough to do it."
Nancy Solomon: Republicans were looking for a lawyer to stop the Democratic governor from borrowing from the state budget. Mark won the case and became the Republican go-to guy for a decade. His father's political roots were very different.
John Sheridan: When I was very young, six years old, we lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Nancy Solomon: This is from the same interview I had played for Mark. It's from an oral history series about New Jersey governors at Rutgers University. John Sheridan was born in 1942 and his first memory of politics often surprised fellow Republicans.
John Sheridan: I remember handing out leaflets for Tip O'Neill's first campaign.
Nancy Solomon: Tip O'Neill was the Democratic speaker of the house who was a larger than life character and hated by Republicans.
John Sheridan: I guess the next thing I remember is I remember listening to both the Democrat and Republican conventions almost in total on the radio in 1952.
Nancy Solomon: This was at the age of ten. He was the oldest of six and moved to New Jersey before high school.
John Sheridan: My father got transferred down to Carney. He was in the meat packing business. I grew up in Bloomfield, went to Catholic school and then I went to Seton Hall High School and then I went to St. Peter's College and then stayed in New Jersey for law school.
Nancy Solomon: Sheridan was a big influence on his younger brother Peter, who's been a federal judge in Trenton since 2005.
Peter Sheridan: John was always my big brother. Whenever I needed, had an issue, I'd always talk to John about it.
Nancy Solomon: Tell me a little bit about that, your upbringing. Was it more blue collar or…?
Peter Sheridan: We had six kids so it was not a lot of money around. We all worked our way through college and I don't know if we'd consider us blue collar or middle class or whatever it is, but we got by every day that's all I know.
Nancy Solomon: John Sheridan worked at the Attorney General's office. Then for the governor, and eventually he was appointed the Transportation Commissioner in the 1980s. He's credited with turning industrial rail lines into one of the largest commuter rail systems in the country, New Jersey Transit. More than 300,000 people commute from New Jersey into New York and many take the train system that John helped create. In the Rutgers oral history, Sheridan is asked about another victory, how he convinced Democratic legislators to create a gas tax, even if it meant Republicans would get the credit for fixing the state's highways.
John Sheridan: I got on a road and I went and I actually saw 117 of the 120 legislators, all in their offices. And in the end, while I think there was a lot of wringing of the hands, really didn't want to turn over $3 billion to this Republican governor to start spending on transportation projects. In the end, it passed both houses unanimously. Nobody could not be for it.
Nancy Solomon: He was persuasive, but nothing like the kind of people who usually rise up in the rough and tumble world of Jersey politics.
Mary Kay Roberts: I don't think he ever raised his voice to me in all my years of knowing John.
Nancy Solomon: Mary Kay Roberts was hired by John Sheridan at Riker Danzig, the New Jersey law firm. She worked with him closely for a decade in the Trenton office.
Mary Kay Roberts: And we had some very stressful situations and he taught me that. It's, almost like what's the point in yelling, where does it get you?
Nancy Solomon: They talked or emailed almost every day. Even after he left the firm.
Mary Kay Roberts: I considered John to be my second father. And when ultimately I got this news, you know, it's one of those situations where I can see where I was, teaching my daughter how to ride a bike and I collapsed. And I couldn't get over that this had happened to John and Joyce.
Nancy Solomon: It's not that John Sheridan didn't ever get his hands dirty. He was a lobbyist. And what is that business if not influence-peddling? Sheridan worked for and among the powerful and wealthy. Government connections made him a valuable asset and he wasn't above using those connections. In the late '90s, after leading Governor Christine Todd Whitman's transition team, he got hired to lobby her. But in political circles on both sides of the aisle, Sheridan maintained a sterling reputation. There were never any hints of corruption around him, which is saying something in a state known for its political scandals.
John Farmer: I would say he was in, but not of, the Trenton milieu in the sense that, he worked in it and he understood it, but he never became captive to it.
Nancy Solomon: John Farmer was an old friend of John Sheridan. He runs a political research center at Rutgers University.
Tell me a little bit about your background because it is illustrious in the world of New Jersey politics.
John Farmer: So, yes, I'm a has been in every sense of the word. I have been Dean of the law school. I served as a senior council to the 9.11 commission. I was New Jersey attorney general, prior to that and, chief council to Governor Whitman and--
Nancy Solomon: Farmer and Sheridan crossed paths working in Trenton and they struck up a friendship.
John Farmer: I think one of the reasons people liked him was that he was so unassuming in his demeanor. At the same time really smart.
Nancy Solomon: Sheridan was a Republican from the days when New Jersey was a swing state and Republicans were centrists and really not all that different from their Democratic counterparts.
John Farmer: Frankly, we'd have breakfast at the Princetonian Diner. We would laugh at what was going on. It was very entertaining because there is a lot about politics that's just comical. I think we both found the same things funny, and that's one of the reasons we stayed in touch.
Nancy Solomon: John Farmer was a bit mystified when at the age of 63, John Sheridan took his reputation and a very large Rolodex and became the CEO of Cooper University Hospital in Camden. This meant he was joining forces with a powerful political figure in New Jersey, George E Norcross III. He's a silver-haired wealthy insurance executive who's never been elected to office. But he runs a political operation that helps candidates get elected, which means he has a lot of influence. That’s gotten him into trouble a number of times.
In fact, when John Farmer was the state attorney general, his prosecutors set up a small-town city councilman to wear a wire and capture Norcross threatening that official.
Nancy Solomon: Were you surprised when he went to work for George Norcross?
John Farmer: Well, he never asked my advice about that. I was surprised, but you know, he didn't ask my advice so I never gave it. I think the people at Riker were surprised.
Nancy Solomon: Riker Danzig, the law firm where Sheridan was a partner.
John Farmer: I know his mindset was that -- Camden's a small enough city that they could actually accomplish a lot.
Nancy Solomon: Camden is directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and it’s one of the poorest cities in America.
John Farmer: I know John, he wanted to do something like that, as he closed out his career. So the last time I had breakfast with him was I think about a month before he died and what he said to me was that he and George were not getting along. He didn't go into specifics about what the issues were. He just said, "We really aren't talking that much," and he thought that was an odd situation. He didn't really, didn't really confide, and I never really pushed.
Nancy Solomon: So John Sheridan, the CEO of Cooper Hospital, wasn't talking much to his boss, the chairman of the board. And whatever that conflict was about, it was happening right before the Sheridans died.
George Norcross spoke at the Sheridans' memorial. Bob Stevens, the husband of Joyce's close friend, Chris, was taken aback.
Bob Stevens: That was the first time I saw Norcross and that was the first time I said, Geez, John was dealing with Norcross there, I didn't know that. I knew Norcross, his name, and probably not in a good sense.
Nancy Solomon: Bob watched as his wife offered a eulogy for Joyce Sheridan. He had been an assistant attorney general so he knew what to expect when his wife told everyone at the memorial that she'd had a three-hour lunch at the Tiger's Tale with Joyce just a day and a half before her death.
Bob Stevens: And I thought so I'm sitting there right behind her because she needed my support. Especially when she saw Kean, Christie and everybody there and Christie Whitman.
Nancy Solomon: Two former governors and the current one.
Bob Stevens: She was sitting next to Christie Whitman, they got along great, but as soon as she said, "When I had lunch with Joyce two days before she was killed,” I don't know if I even remembered what she said after that. I said, "Well, she just sealed your fate. You're going to be brought down and questioned, not as a suspect, but for information."
Nancy Solomon: So, after the memorial, Bob canceled the rest of his workday and drove his wife home. He was certain that detectives would be waiting for them on their doorstep.
Bob Stevens: And nobody was there, and I would think that they would want to see what Joyce said. Did she complain about John's, that they weren't getting along? With a three-hour lunch, Joyce probably wouldn't have said much, but she might have said something. They didn't know. Joyce could have said, "Oh, John's been crazy. He's on medication. He's nuts. Maybe he's not feeling well and he's hallucinating." You don't know it, so you follow the leads. Never did it. And right away, from the lack of contact by the prosecutor's office, I knew right away that they didn't do a good investigation.
Nancy Solomon: On the next episode of Dead End, we'll try to find out what happened.
Barry Jansen: The number and type of wounds that Mrs Sheridan suffered were consistent with a rage type of attack.
Mark Sheridan: So my parents died Saturday night, Sunday morning. We met with the prosecutor's office on Tuesday and that's when things started to go off the rails.
Nancy Solomon: That's coming up in Episode Two. This is Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery. I'm Nancy Solomon.
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