EPISODE 2: Not Your “Typical” Murder Suicide
Nancy Solomon: A quick heads up, this episode describes a violent crime in graphic detail.
I've covered a lot of bad guys in my career, but I've never tried to actually solve a murder. Maybe I listen to too many detective stories, but I thought I might just be able to crack this one. It's not just a who-done-it. This story is like a Russian doll. Every question I ask leads to another. Why would this mild-mannered grandfather kill his wife of 47 years? And why weren't the mysterious deaths of a prominent couple investigated?
911 Dispatcher: 911. Where is your emergency?
Neighbor: Yes. Meadow Run Drive in Skillman, New Jersey.
Nancy: The call came in just before sunrise on Sunday, September 28th, 2014. On this quiet cul-de-sac, 911 calls were rare.
Neighbor: I believe my neighbor's house may be the beginnings of a fire in their house.
911 Dispatcher: Why do you think that?
Neighbor: I can smell smoke out in the air, and I went outside ran next to the house, and I hear a beeper going off inside, but I'm not positive, but I think I see some smoke coming out.
Nancy: White smoke was pouring out of the bedroom window on the second story of a large center hall colonial where John and Joyce Sheridan lived. Halloween decorations were in the front yard, but something much more sinister had happened inside.
911 Dispatcher: Can you go knock on the door?
Neighbor: Yes, I might go knock.
Nancy: The neighbor stayed on the line with the 911 dispatcher while he tried to alert the Sheridans.
911 Dispatcher: While you're talking to me, we already got the police and the fire department on the way out there, okay?
Neighbor: Thank you. I'm ringing the front door and nobody is responding.
Nancy: The firefighters arrived and quickly upgraded to a two-alarm fire at 6:31.
Firefighter: County, heavy smoke condition throughout the entire house, especially the second floor. PD searched the basement and first floor, no occupants. We do believe there's occupants on the second floor.
Nancy: More fire and rescue squads were on the way. They checked in and were told how to approach, where to park, which equipment to bring. The door to the master bedroom wouldn't budge. And when they finally got in, they find a large armoire had fallen over and blocked the entrance. And there's something else. This wasn't just a fire. There was blood everywhere.
Firefighter: County Meadowlark. I got one victim coming out. Can you advise the search squad to come through the front door?
Speaker 1: Squad, copy direct.
Nancy: They found John Sheridan's body under the armoire. He was stabbed and badly burned. The door blocked by the armoire would become a crucial detail for detectives because if there was an intruder, how did that person get out?
Firefighter: The second victim is being removed at this time. We're still working on the fire.
Speaker 1: Second victim removed, still working on the fire. 6:58.
Nancy: Then they removed the body of Joyce Sheridan who was found lying on the floor by the bed. The firefighter who carried her out was covered in blood.
This is Dead End, episode two, I'm Nancy Solomon.
Everything about that morning was utterly confusing to the four sons of John and Joyce Sheridan. Mark, the oldest, would eventually spend two years working late into the night to piece together every detail.
Mark Sheridan: So what we know about that week now is he bought new dress shirts. He had bought a couple of suits the week before. Dry cleaning was dropped off two days before they died. It was a pretty ordinary week. There were Halloween decorations being put out everywhere. There was a little town that my mother put together in one room.
Nancy: Joyce Sheridan was known throughout the neighborhood for going all out with her tchotchkes. Neighbors say they saw John helping her put them up just days before their deaths.
So I'm sorry to drag you through this, but tell me about that morning and getting the phone call and just walk me through the whole thing.
Mark: So, my wife and I were staying in Manhattan.
Nancy: It was their anniversary.
Mark: I get a call from my brother, Matt.
Nancy: That's his twin. They're the oldest of the four sons. Matt was away for the weekend, and he got a call from a neighbor that there was a fire at their parents' house.
Mark: Matt had enough information to say you know, the house was still standing, it doesn't look like it was a horrible fire, but can't reach Mom and Dad.
Nancy: That starts off a chain of calls and texts.
Mark: Maybe they're just being checked out in the ambulance, and you know, they don't have their phones, they're in the house. God only knows. We'll see if we can--
Nancy: Mark and his wife, Jen, pack up and head back to New Jersey.
Mark: We literally put our bags in the car at the hotel, drove about 50 feet to the stoplight, and Matt called and uh, and said that my parents had died. Um, I am the most horrific, I remember Jen, my wife, screaming.
Nancy: Mark speeds back to New Jersey. He wants to talk to the person who investigates major crimes in the county. Now, remember, Mark is the lawyer for the governor's election campaign, and he has the cell number for the guy who runs legal affairs for the whole state. He tells him he's trying to reach the county prosecutor.
Mark: I pull up to the police tape that's blocking the whole road, and I haven't turned the car off yet and Soriano calls.
Nancy: Geoff Soriano, the Somerset county prosecutor. This is the guy he was looking for.
Nancy: What did he say?
Mark: He offered his condolences. He said, "I need you to know that this looks like it's more than a fire. Looks like the fire was intentionally set, and it looks like both your parents were stabbed."
Nancy: That must have been an incredible shock. I mean, obviously, you're dealing with the death of your parents, but to hear that they had been murdered.
Mark: Yes, I will tell you, I don't know that I even processed it at the time. I mean, I, pretty numb at that moment. I think I said, "Thank you," and ended the phone call. Like I know I didn't ask him any questions. I remember him telling me that and just sort of, going through the motions of getting off the phone. It didn't process, not at all.
Barry Jansen: I was one of the first from the crime scene unit there.
Nancy: Barry Jansen is retired now. At the time, he was a forensic technician for the Somerset County Prosecutor's office. When he arrived, he was told to photograph the crime scene starting with John Sheridan's body in the back of the ambulance.
Barry: I did a lot of close-up photographs of what appeared to be stab wounds. There was a fair amount of blood and charring. You know, he was pretty severely burned. I then went and started photographing the scene. I went into the house.
Nancy: Jansen has 45 years' experience, much of it collecting evidence at crime scenes. By the time he got there, this one was a mess. Firefighters had completely doused the bedroom with water and removed the bodies. Even so, Jansen could see this was more than a house fire.
Barry: The number and type of wounds that Mrs. Sheridan suffered were consistent with a rage type of attack. She was mutilated for lack of a better word.
Nancy: Eight knife wounds to the head and a fatal one to the heart. John was stabbed too, but the wounds were smaller. An autopsy would find that Joyce died before the fire, but John had soot in his throat and lungs. That means he was still alive when the fire started. He died from a knife wound to his jugular. In the bedroom, detectives found a bread knife and a carving knife.
Barry: Like a chef's knife had actually fallen into the springs. The mattress had basically burned away. The knife was, ah, appeared to be heavily bloodstained.
Nancy: Joyce had cuts on her hands indicating she had tried to protect herself, and John's hands didn't have any cuts. And there was a gas can, and gas had been poured onto the floor. The armoire was laying on its side, on fire, and on top of John Sheridan.
Nancy: This is how detectives saw it: no forced entry, bedroom door blocked from the inside, $950 in cash on the bedside table, so it wasn't for the money. And very different stab wounds on each victim. Joyce had large deep gashes and defensive wounds on her hands. She died before she could inhale any smoke. John had smaller wounds, no sign he fought back, and he had smoke in his throat.
Nancy: The detectives wanted to talk with the four Sheridan brothers. That day was a blur for Mark; he was in shock.
Mark: And I got to the police station, and I received a call from Governor Christie, offering his condolences. I'm sure I was not as polite as I should've been. I remember getting off the phone rather quickly.
Nancy: Then things started to go badly between the detectives and the Sheridan brothers.
Mark: Matt was the last one to arrive. He had been in Rhode Island fishing and came down. When we got to the police station, they started the interviews, and then halfway through the interviews asked to search his car out of nowhere. No explanation, no statement as to why, just asked to search his car at that time.
Nancy: And why was that surprising?
Mark: I was surprised because, A, my parents had just died, we were in the middle of giving voluntary statements to everybody, everybody was cooperative, and there was no justification for it.
Nancy: The detectives found drug paraphernalia in the car and filed charges against Matt. This caused a huge rift between the Sheridan family and the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office. Ultimately, the charges were dropped because it was an illegal search. Matt lived at home with his parents, and news coverage of his arrest led some people to speculate that the violence seen at the house was the result of a drug deal gone bad. But Mark believes this drug deal theory -- has no merit.
Mark: To the extent that it was somebody coming to the house looking for Matt, his car wasn't there. He was never there on weekends. To the extent it was somebody looking for drugs or looking for money, they left roughly $1,000 sitting out in the open on the, my father's nightstand, more money in my mother's nightstand. And my mother was on pretty significant pain pills, oxycodone, things of that—
Nancy: Joyce had serious chronic back pain.
Matt: So people looking for drugs or money that don't take drugs or money seems a little odd to me.
Nancy: The detectives didn’t think it was someone looking for drugs or money, either. That’s what made the search so crazy to the Sheridan brothers. The relationship between the Prosecutor’s Office and the family got even worse just a couple of days later.
Mark: So my parents died Saturday night, Sunday morning. Um, we met with the prosecutor's office on Tuesday. And that's when things started to go off the rails.
Nancy: The Somerset County prosecutor, Geoff Soriano, spent some time detailing the autopsy. Mark tried to take notes, but he was struggling to take it all in. Then Soriano said something that didn't make sense to the brothers. He said, their father had quote, "Hesitation wounds."
Mark: Danny asked somebody to explain that, and Geoff was doing a pretty poor job of explaining it. He was trying to be very gentle about it.
Nancy: So Soriano's assistant prosecutor stepped in and was more blunt.
Mark: "Look, guys," he said, "they're hesitation wounds, your dad tried to stab himself and couldn't do it."
Nancy: What they were telling them was, your dad killed your mother and then, after several attempts, killed himself.
Mark: And that sort of set off a tinderbox.
Nancy: His brothers were outraged. At this point, Mark was the only one who hadn't given up on the prosecutor.
Mark: They were all immediately saying, "No, bullshit, not true." But uh, you know, I walked out of there saying, "I don't see how that could be the case, but why would these guys be telling us that?" Surprisingly, I was probably the most naive of all about that stuff.
Nancy: I hadn’t ever thought about this, but you're the establishment guy in the family, right? Of the brothers, you're the guy who believes that the system works?
Mark: Oh, yes. I'm part of the system. I'm the guy that believes it works 100%, and I'm sitting there and they're all sitting there saying, "Bullshit on this." I'm saying, "Guys, police don't just make this stuff up. They're going to give you something at the end of the day. This is a pretty bold statement. People don't make those bold statements without having proof or evidence."
Nancy: But that's actually in the end what happened, right?
Mark: Yeah. Well, what we know--
Nancy: When did you begin to lose faith in the prosecutor's office?
Mark: Um, I would say the second we walked in the door, the next day.
Nancy: That's the first time the brothers entered their parents' home. That's coming up in a minute.
Nancy: The detectives have finished with the house, and they turn it over to the Sheridan brothers. They're told the crime scene was contained to their parents' bedroom.
Mark: So you walk into this saying, "Okay, I've got time until I get to the bedroom to be prepared for this."
Nancy: Then he walked around the corner from the back door.
Mark: And the front hallway is covered in blood. There is blood everywhere. The entire foyer, up the stairs.
Nancy: He waited for Matt, his twin brother, before going up to the bedroom.
Mark: And it is a mess. I mean, a mess that you can't even begin to fathom. There are feathers everywhere. Everything is out of every space in the room and is all over the floor. And the bathroom is full of stuff, I guess when the fire happens, they're putting it out and once it's out, they're throwing stuff into the bathroom.
Nancy: The brothers also noticed there's no fingerprint dust anywhere, and the blood-soaked rug where their father died, was rolled up in the hallway, raising questions about whether blood or DNA samples were taken. Mark's faith in the investigation was beginning to crumble. And there's one other thing that his brothers were upset about, something the county prosecutor told them the day before.
Mark: The most remarkable thing was Geoff Soriano saying to us at that meeting, "There was an autopsy performed, but you might want to have your own because that office is not very good." He actually said that to us. And that's sort of what set us down the road on everything.
Nancy: The detectives assured the Sheridan brothers they'd interview everyone who knew their parents. They'd figure out why their dad had killed their mom. But people who were close to the Sheridans told me they never heard from investigators. Mary Kay Roberts, who had worked with John and considered him a father figure, had been emailing with him a little more than 24 hours before his death.
Mary Kay Roberts: How do you not talk to a person to say, you were emailing with him Friday night, and he's dead on Sunday and no one called me. No one reached out to me. "You worked with him for decades. Had you ever, you know, seen him in anger?"
Nancy: On Meadow Run Drive, neighbors also questioned the investigation. Marsha Stencel, who lived at the end, on the cul-de-sac, also wasn't interviewed by detectives. She says they were told early on that there was no need to worry.
Marsha Stencel: They didn't call it a murder-suicide at that point in time, but basically more or less, it's an in-home family conflict situation, and there's no need for any neighbors or anybody to have any concern, period.
Nancy: I had heard Stencel's next-door neighbor had seen something suspicious, but in the intervening years, he had moved away.
Tom Draper: Hi, Nancy Solomon?
Nancy: Then I found an email address for his wife. I'm very happy to hear from you.
Tom: Oh, I'm happy to ...
Nancy: Tom Draper had been backing out of his driveway at 5:45 AM on the Sunday before. So, exactly the hour of the Sheridan deaths, but a week earlier. Draper was leaving at the crack of dawn to go to a church meeting.
Tom: A car was just stopped dead in the center of the cul-de-sac looking up the street towards the direction where you go out, which is also towards the Sheridans' house. And I was surprised because I feel like I almost hit this car, like I think I caught the drivers by surprise, and they start the car up right away, took off quickly down the road. There's a road that turns right, but it just goes back into a dead-end area. And I just thought that was very strange. Someone who would be unfamiliar with our area probably just didn't know that they were moving quickly into what was a dead-end street. And it was so suspicious at the time that I was thinking of potentially following the car, but I didn't.
Nancy: The incident came to Draper's mind a week later. Even though detectives told the neighbors that there was no intruder, the talk on the cul-de-sac was all about murder.
Tom: This attack, I guess, was ending around 6:00 AM in the morning. The timing of it stuck out to me, it's like it was right around the time when I'd seen this suspicious car the week before.
Nancy: Draper told the police about the dark sedan, how it peeled out of the cul-de-sac and turned down a dead-end street. He can't remember more details about the car now, but he did back when he gave his report.
Nancy: So, the neighbors were doubting the investigation and so were the Sheridan brothers. They'd been told the medical examiner's office is no good and they should get their own autopsy. They decided to hire Michael Baden. He's an independent medical examiner with 50 years of experience. His resume is 18 pages long. He investigated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. So Baden conducted a second autopsy on John Sheridan's body.
Nancy: We're going to the building next door to the Museum of Modern Art.
Nancy: I went to see this legendary medical examiner at his apartment building in Midtown Manhattan.
Speaker: The conference room is right to the left side.
Nancy: We met in his building's conference room. He had kept detailed notes from the autopsy.
Michael: What I found is one of the wounds that struck the jugular vein, that was a fatal wound, was made by a, uh, what I describe as a stiletto-like instrument and went into the body for about two inches or so.
Nancy: A thin stiletto, not a large carving knife with a wide blade, not the same knife that killed Joyce, and two inches deep. That's the height of a credit card. Baden's assessment is that's not a hesitation wound -- that's a wound made by a very different kind of knife. But the detectives think John's wounds were inflicted with one of the knives they found in the bedroom. There were two: a big carving knife and a serrated bread knife, nothing the shape or size of a stiletto.
Michael: And the problem with that is that that instrument was never, was not recovered, which is one of the concerns that I had that another person might have been there because, usually when people commit suicide using a sharp weapon, the weapon is found at the scene.
Nancy: I can't imagine a circumstance in which someone kills themselves with a knife and the knife is not there. So, is there any circumstance where that could happen?
Michael: Yes, you know, one can find all kinds of odd things. I had one situation where a person attached a knife to some kind of a bungee-like cord that stabbed himself on the bungee cord then tossed it out of the window, so odd things can happen.
Nancy: Okay, so odd things can happen, but suffice to say the knife matching the wounds to John Sheridan was never found. And there are other problems with the detective's theory. Dr. Baden says people who commit suicide rarely start a fire. This wasn't self immolation. This was gas poured on the floor and then lit.
Michael: When fires are started, it's usually started by an individual who wants to destroy evidence, fingerprints, DNA, whatever. So those are features that struck me as indicating that this was not at all a typical suicide or suicide-homicide.
Nancy: And if it wasn't a suicide, then someone else entered that house and killed John and Joyce Sheridan.
Nancy: On the next episode of Dead End, we find out about the evidence that could have helped solve the case and the way it was ignored.
Mark: There's no fingerprint dust in the house, the rug that they were killed on is still rolled up upstairs. How could you have done any DNA testing? You didn't do shit.
Barbara Boyer: On the front door, there was what appeared to be a partial bloody fingerprint. Again, significant piece of evidence.
Barry Jansen: I didn't document that blood staining on the wall. That was something that I should have done even though I was told not to.
That’s coming up in Episode 3. This is Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery. I’m Nancy Solomon.