Nancy Solomon: This episode describes a violent crime.
Nancy Solomon: Mark Sheridan was watching his daughter compete in a horse show when he got the call. It was from Dr. Michael Baden, the medical examiner who had performed a second autopsy on the body of John Sheridan a few days after his death and he had news for Mark. There was no knife found at the crime scene that matched his father's stab wounds.
Mark Sheridan: I said, "Well, how can that be?" He says, "Mark, I'm telling you, Dr. Lilavois agrees. We don't have the murder weapon for your father."
Nancy Solomon: Baden said he spoke with Eddy Lilavois, the State Assistant Medical Examiner. He's the guy who did the first autopsy and Lilavois came up with the same result and Baden said, "This information shouldn't be a surprise to the detectives because apparently Lilavois told this to the investigators right after he did his autopsy.
Mark Sheridan: He told the prosecutor's office about this and they told him not to worry about it. This is a murder suicide.
Nancy Solomon: That means the first autopsy did find that there was no knife matching John Sheridan's wounds and the detectives appear to have blown it off. So Mark immediately hops on the phone. Remember he's the lawyer for the Governor's election campaign. He's connected. So he calls the attorney general, John Hoffman, and tells him he wants the AG's office involved with the investigation. Then Mark calls the County Prosecutor, Geoff Soriano, and tells him to get his detectives back to the house, to re-examine the crime scene.
Mark Sheridan: They told us, we're going to find out that mom has a boyfriend. Dad has a girlfriend. There's money problems, there's health problems and we're going to find something out that'll explain all of this and when we do, we'll tell you, and you'll have an answer as to why this happened. So, when Baden calls me back, part of the reason I'm calling Soriano and Hoffman right away is I've got egg all over my face with my brothers, and everybody in the family, I'm telling them, these guys are professionals, they know what they're doing, back off a little bit and let's see what they find. And now I've got to do a 180 on this whole thing."
Nancy Solomon: This is episode three of Dead End: a New Jersey Political Murder Mystery. I'm Nancy Solomon. A week after his parents died, Mark Sheridan pressured the county prosecutor to send his lead detective, Captain Lee Niles, to meet with the brothers at their parents' house.
Mark Sheridan: I get into a bit of a yelling match with Lee Niles about the fact that there's no fingerprint dust in the house, that 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 and you didn't take any evidence out of the house, you gave the house back to us, and your doctor is telling us that he told you he didn't have the murder weapon and told you day one and your answer was, it's a murder-suicide we don't need to look for the weapon. So, I lose my mind in the driveway with Lee Niles and they still don't do anything.
Nancy Solomon: Over the next month, the brothers continue to find evidence that undermines the murder suicide theory.
Mark Sheridan: When I was walking up the stairs one day I just happened to notice that there was blood all over the wall on the right, and it was high. It cast in a certain direction and it was dripping down. I sent that, photo of that I think to Baden.
Nancy Solomon: And the family's medical examiner sends the photo to a blood analysis lab.
Mark Sheridan: And they came back more like that's blood splatter. That is evidence of where the stabbings took place, and then when you measured it out, it matched pretty closely with where wounds were on the left side of my father's body. So it at least suggests that he was stabbed at the very top of the stairs.
Nancy Solomon: What if this happened? It's the middle of the night and John Sheridan hears a noise coming from downstairs. He goes to the top of the stairs. There's someone there and what if before he can react, he gets stabbed in the chest. When detectives first arrived at the Sheridan house, they thought the blood in the stairwell was from firefighters carrying Joyce's body down the stairs. But the blood splatter is different from those stains. It's higher and not smeared.
Nancy Solomon: So, I put this theory to Barry Jansen, one of the first forensic technicians on the scene.
Nancy Solomon: He could have been partially incapacitated from the start.
Barry Jansen: I don't think so. With the type of blood splatter that I saw there, if it was one of the wounds that Mr. Sheridan had received, even it was the neck wound, there were no handprints. It was more consistent with like bloody hair, that kind of thing. Maybe some clothing. I don't remember seeing anything that made me think different than what I was told. There was nothing that jumped out at me and said, "Hey, wait a minute. This isn't right. This doesn't add up."
Nancy Solomon: The Sheridan family had the blood tested, and the splatter on the wall was their father's blood. Even so Barry Jansen's mind was made up.
Barry Jansen: There was just nothing that fit the criteria for being a double homicide, everything pointed to Sheridan, Mr. Sheridan, John being the actor in this, uh, killing his wife and because there's a very good chance, a matter of fact, I would say it's almost a certainty that at some point he did leave the bedroom and go down into the garage, get a gas can and go back upstairs.
Nancy Solomon: There's a lot of blood and it's all over the lower parts of the wall. There's also soot on the walls from the fire. The question is, was the soot on top of the blood or the other way around. Those smoke stains are like a timestamp telling detectives the order of how things went down. Soot on top would mean the blood was there before the fire happened. Blood on top of the soot would mean it got on the walls when the bodies were carried out after the fire. But the detectives didn't carefully photograph the stairwell. They assumed they knew what had happened.
Barry Jansen: If I make a mistake, I'll own the mistake and I'll own the mistake that 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. If I had to do it over, I would definitely do it.
Nancy Solomon: Jansen had been told by his captain to disregard the bloodstains. Evidently, the firefighters had reported to detectives that there were no bloodstains on the wall until they carried Joyce's body out. After finding the blood splatter, Mark Sheridan decided to become his own detective. He poured over the crime scene photos and the autopsy reports. Jansen dismissed the blood, Mark dug in. He focused on the two distinct types of bloodstains in the stairwell. The smeared blood lower on the wall and the splatter.
Mark Sheridan: This blood is different. It's very much higher on the wall. It's four or five feet higher on the wall.
Nancy Solomon: So, you noticed it. Were you the first one to notice it?
Mark Sheridan: I don't know if I was the first one to notice it. I think I might have been, I will tell you who noticed it immediately though, without having said anything to it, was Barbara Boyer a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was one of the few people that we let into the house.
Barbara Boyer: So, walking into the house, it was actually very orderly, everything was in place.
Nancy Solomon: Boyer was the crime reporter at the Philly Inquirer. She brought with her a veteran homicide detective Eddie Rocks. When they went upstairs, they saw the blood splatter.
Barbara Boyer: Eddie Rocks immediately pointed that out. And he said, "This is indicative of someone who was stabbed here."
Eddie Rocks: When you see a blood splatter that shows direction. In other words, it’s hard to explain over the phone.
Nancy Solomon: Rocks is retired from the Philadelphia police. Now he's a private investigator. A splatter shows not just direction, but also velocity. It's different from the blood that dripped and the blood that was smeared.
Eddie Rocks: Usually, you see the splatters where there's a confrontation, where there's movement.
Nancy Solomon: What did it look like to you, the blood splatter and the stairwell?
Eddie Rocks: I can't say, I have no idea how that happened. I don't know was the confrontation at one point at the top of the stairs? Then it went back into the bedroom.
Nancy Solomon: We don't know, but the blood splatter is part of the story of what happened that night. At the very least, it cast doubt on the official theory.
Coming up one Somerset County detective voices concern about this crime scene … we’ll be right back.
Nancy Solomon: Another detail about the crime scene was something quite simple. Frankly, it was obvious, but it went unnoticed by the first detectives to arrive.
Barbara Boyer: This is the front door to the house.
Nancy Solomon: When I sat down with the newspaper reporter, Barb Boyer, before I could ask her a single question, she drew me a diagram on the back of an envelope.
Barbara Boyer: There's a back door over here. The dining room is like over here. This is the family room.
Nancy Solomon: This is the mudroom right here with the back stairs that come down.
Barbara Boyer: Right. So, there's steps that come down here from the second floor. And then there’s, the bedroom has two doors, one in the rear and one in the front.
Nancy Solomon: So, the bedroom where the bodies were found has two ways out. Each one leads to a different staircase. There's the front stairs and there's the back stairs. And those bring you to the back door of the house. Remember what the detectives think. The bedroom doors’ blocked from the inside by the armoire. So, John Sheridan must have killed his wife and then himself. Not only is there a second staircase to this bedroom, but the bedroom itself tells a story. There's blood and soot on the back door. Mark explains to me that the back door of the bedroom had suits hanging on it. And those suits blocked the soot from staining the wall, leaving an outline.
That outline shows the bedroom door was closed during the fire, but there was blood in the doorway.
Mark Sheridan: There is blood across that threshold, which means that door was open at some point in time and closed because it was clearly closed when the fire was there based on how the marks on the wall. You just have to paying attention to see it. It's not that need any special--
Nancy Solomon: In fact, attention wasn't paid to a bunch of clues.
Barbara Boyer: On the front door, there was what appeared to be a partial bloody fingerprint. Again, significant piece of evidence.
Nancy Solomon: I'm starting to see how Mark Sheridan could work late into the night over a period of two years trying to understand every piece of evidence. He poured over the autopsies, the crime scene photos and he studied DNA. Now he can reel off facts about missing alleles and Y-STR testing. This is a language I do not understand. So, I went looking for help. I called Lawrence Kobilinsky. He's a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Well, you know, I've been around the block a few times. It's been like more than four decades I've been working in the field.
Nancy Solomon: His expertise is DNA analysis.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: The DNA stuff is really the crucial piece of all of this.
Nancy Solomon: Before I called, I had emailed the professor copies of the DNA and bloodstain analysis from both the New Jersey state lab and the lab that worked with Michael Baden. In pages and pages of numbers, there was one curious item.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: We're talking about item 1-6, the second knife. We're talking about the knife handle.
Nancy Solomon: That's the handle of the knife that killed Joyce Sheridan. And Kobilinsky explains this kind of test can only read male DNA.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: You cannot see female DNA when you do this analysis. Y-STRs, it's a different kind of approach. Let me tell you, hold on a second. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 when you're looking at the second knife and you're looking at 1-6, okay.
Nancy Solomon: There's DNA consistent with John.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Okay, but the other one has an extra gene not consistent with John. So this is interesting because it indicates the presence of another male individual.
Nancy Solomon: Kobilinsky is saying a man who is not John Sheridan touched the knife that killed Joyce. So here's what we know. There's the missing knife. The stiletto that killed John Sheridan; an unexamined blood splatter in the stairwell; an explanation of how an intruder could have easily exited the bedroom through the back door even though the front door was blocked; and a tiny piece of mystery DNA on the knife handle that killed Joyce.
But there's another piece of evidence that I find frankly stunning. When an insurance investigator inspected the crime scene weeks later, he found a bent fire poker. It's lying in the heap of stuff that firefighters had thrown from the bedroom into the bathroom. The Sheridans were avid antique collectors and this was a vintage four foot long rod iron fire poker.
Barry Jansen: We did find a fireplace poker upstairs.
Nancy Solomon: Barry Jansen, the forensic technican.
Barry Jansen: I know there was some question about the fireplace poker brought up down the road that the family felt that may have been used as a weapon. Again, I don't see the logic in that.
Nancy Solomon: But the autopsy did say John Sheridan had a chipped front tooth, long thin bruises on his chest and four broken ribs.
Barry Jansen: If somebody's going to hit him with a fire poker, they're going to finish the job. Number one, did he bring the fire poker upstairs, this ''assailant'' bring the fire poker upstairs with him. And was he going to use that to beat them to death with? Then why the knife? Did he say stop, wait a minute, run downstairs, get a fire poker come up because he lost his knife and then come back and beat him. None of that makes any sense
Nancy Solomon: Not to Barry Jansen, at least. Barbara Boyer, the gumshoe reporter, has a different take. When she walked from the back door into the kitchen, it took her right in front of the fireplace mantle. And there was an empty spot where the first tool would've been hanging.
Barbara Boyer: It was almost like they were weapons of opportunity. When you see that that fire poker had been hanging on the mantle that was right next to the door.
Nancy Solomon: The back door.
Barbara Boyer: It makes sense that someone came in that door and that was the first thing there.
Nancy Solomon: Eddie Rocks, the Philly detective, isn't all that surprised that the fire poker wasn't taken into evidence because everything he's seen at the house is just wrong.
Eddie Rocks: Now that fireplace poker may have been used on John to break his ribs. I'm sure it was never fingerprinted. It was just in the pile in the bathroom.
Nancy Solomon: Right. Is that normal?
Eddie Rocks: No. It is not. It definitely is not normal. We would direct the crime lab what to take for evidence and they would photograph it, bag it and do a proper receipt on it. But apparently these investigators, when they went on a scene, they had this preconceived notion that it was a murder suicide and the case was over. So apparently, they just went through things in the bedroom and just threw them in the bathroom to get them out of the way.
Nancy Solomon: There are so many questions about this investigation. I need to hear from more than just one Somerset County Detective. The prosecutor Geoff Soriano, the other detectives, even the firefighters all turned down my requests. Then my producer is compiling a file of news clips and she discovered something. A detective named Jeffrey Scozzafava filed a whistle blower lawsuit. And in it, he claims to have been demoted for complaining about shoddy investigations. He even mentioned the Sheridan's case in his complaint.
Nancy Solomon: The case is settled. Scozzafava signed a nondisclosure agreement, so neither he, nor his lawyer can speak with me, but I was able to get my hands on several depositions in the case.
Rebeca Ibarra: Holy crap.
Nancy Solomon: Yes. Let me tell you about a few of these. Basically, it explains-
Nancy Solomon: I called producer Rebeca Ibarra.
Nancy Solomon:: -and it's incredibly detailed and he tells a much larger story about dysfunction in that department. He was at a conference, like a forensic science conference in Rhode Island.
Nancy Solomon: This was the week of the crime, when all the evidence was processed.
Nancy Solomon: And, one of the first things he notices when he comes back – hang on, let me get to the right piece of paper.
Nancy Solomon: Scozzafava details in a sworn statement that when he returned from his conference, he walked into the office and saw evidence from the Sheridan crime scene. There was a piece of bedding lying out in the open in a garage where detectives inspect cars for evidence. I read some of his statement to Rebeca.
Rebeca Ibarra: When I came in I asked, "What's this?" They said, "It's from the Sheridans." So, basically, he sees the bedding is laying out. It hasn't been logged. It hasn't been put in the evidence closet.
Nancy Solomon: There's another story from the Sheridans case in the Scozzafava deposition. The detective leading the investigation, Captain Lee Niles, shows the crime scene to a prosecutor from Somerset County. The prosecutor notices there's no fingerprint dust. He asked the captain whether they dusted for prints on the doorknobs and window sills. And Niles tells him they used the flashlight technique.
Rebeca Ibarra: What? I don't even-- Is that a real-- Sorry, continue.
Nancy Solomon: Yes, it is not real. I haven't been able to find a detective to tell me that that's a real thing.
Rebeca Ibarra: Got it.
Nancy Solomon: It's interesting that it shows that here is a prosecutor at the Somerset County prosecutor's office who clearly has concerns about the way this investigation was done. Yet they proceed with this murder-suicide theory. And Scozzafava in his deposition talks about all these other cases where Lee Niles would pick up stuff and just like pick it up with his hands and say, "Oh, look at this." Scozzafava would say to him, "You can't pick that up with your hands." In fact one of the other pieces that he has in the deposition of wrongdoing is that he saw Lee Niles, take – the bedding sat out at the vehicle bay for a long time, and Scozzafava keeps wondering, "What are they going to do with that?" Like, if you haven't logged it, how are you going to explain that it was not there for two weeks or three weeks before you put it away? Then he sees him one day, walking by his window, and he turns to look and he sees he's got the brown paper evidence bag in his hands and he goes over to the dumpster and he tosses it out.
Rebeca Ibarra: What?
Nancy Solomon: Yes.
Rebeca Ibarra: What does Niles have to say about this?
Nancy Solomon: Captain Nile's wouldn't speak with me, but in his deposition, he said the bedding was left in the vehicle bay because it needed to dry out, and that was a secure area for evidence. He says the piece of bedding he threw out was not evidence because it came from a different bedroom and was used to conduct a test burn. That's when arson investigators burn similar material found at the scene to see how it reacts to fire. And I learned about yet another piece of evidence from the whistleblower lawsuit. Two months after his death, John Sheridan's driver's license was found on the ground at a college campus about an hour north of his home.
The student who found it, mailed it to Sheridan's address on Meadow Run Drive. It was in pristine condition. Scozzafava was asked to check for fingerprints and he finds a few, but he's demoted to the fugitive unit before he finishes. It's not clear whether those fingerprints were ever analyzed. Somerset County settled with Scozzafava, paying him $175,000, but still, I wanted to check my reading of these depositions. I mean, does this stuff sound as damning to someone who understands police work? So I returned to the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. Professor Keith Taylor, a former NYPD detective found Scozzafava's descriptions of what went on, well, disturbing.
Keith Taylor: I think that he was witnessing a crime occurring. Destruction of evidence and also not even logging it in, it's just a number of different problems cascading into a major crime. Destruction of evidence related to a homicide, a possible homicide.
Nancy Solomon: Taylor confirmed that he'd never heard of the flashlight technique as an alternative to dusting for fingerprints, and he raised an issue I hadn't thought about. If a Somerset County prosecutor expressed doubts about the decision not to dust for fingerprints, then it was his duty to bring in a higher authority, either the New Jersey Attorney General or a review by an independent agency.
Keith Taylor: Review everything from top to bottom, determine if it's a pattern and practice for these types of mistakes to be made. And they are alleged – this is what this investigator is stating occurred, but they are very, very concerning.
Nancy Solomon: Taylor is talking about patterns at the Somerset County prosecutor's office, but that gets me to thinking about other patterns that were missed. After years of no news in the Sheridan case, suddenly it's being talked about in New Jersey again. That's because a political consultant named Sean Caddle pled guilty to hiring two Hitman to kill another political operative. When I heard that I called Mark Sheridan.
Mark Sheridan: So within hours of the plea, I think I received eight, ten, text messages with either Twitter responses or news feeds about the Caddle case and the similarities with my parents' case from friends around the state urging us to take a look at it.
Nancy Solomon: This other murder happened just four months before the Sheridan deaths. In May 2014, the hitmen stabbed a guy to death and set his apartment on fire. Fast forward to September, 2014, on the day after the Sheridan's deaths, one of those hitmen George Bratsenis was arrested in Connecticut for a bank robbery. When they searched his car, they found a kitchen knife.
Mark Sheridan: We know that there is a missing kitchen knife from my parents' house which would be a large kitchen knife. We also know that there's a murder weapon missing from my parents' house, the knife that was used to stab my father, but we have no further information about whether anybody actually looked into that, whether anybody did any DNA testing. We again have not heard from anybody related to this.
Phone message: You have reached the Trimble Police Department.
Nancy Solomon: I tried to get answers from the police department in Connecticut that arrested the hitman. The guy with the kitchen knife in his car. They told me that because it was a bank robbery they had turned over the evidence to the FBI and that's where I hit a wall. The Caddle case gave Mark hope, but it also made him angry because shortly after his parent's deaths, he had raised the possibility of a scenario just like this one.
Mark Sheridan: Somerset County prosecutor's office flat-out laughed at us when we suggested that this could have been a hit, somebody paid for it. We were told we were just grieving children who had seen too many movies.
Nancy Solomon: A couple months after his parents' deaths, Mark needed to submit their taxes. Turned out, the detectives had taken a pile of paperwork that was on the dining room table. Mark asked for copies and received a large stack.
Mark Sheridan: And I start looking at that and I'm trying to get my arms around it.
Nancy Solomon: Mixed in with the tax documents is a pile of papers from his father's work: printed emails, handwritten accounts of phone conversations and records documenting meetings. Mark read the documents again and again. In piecing it together, he could see it was about a real estate deal on the Camden waterfront. And it clearly involved powerful political interests–and large amounts of money. Mark remembered that his dad had told him about this deal in the months before his death. He was having a disagreement about it with his boss, George Norcross.
Mark Sheridan: And I know that this is what my father was upset about, and I know that this was what was bothering him and the fact that he's still working on it.
Nancy Solomon: Mark figured the deal might be relevant to the investigation. So he took the stack of documents to the Attorney General. But it didn’t go anywhere. Mark Sheridan asked for help from the AG’s office three times. First, he asked them to intervene when he found out that the knife that killed his father had not been found. Then he brought the stack of documents he went through when he was doing his parents’ taxes. And the third time was just recently, in early 2022. With details of the Sean Caddle case bearing an eerie resemblance to what happened to his parents, Mark returned to the Attorney General.
Mark Sheridan: We decided that we were going to write to them and see if we can get anybody to answer.
Nancy Solomon: He wanted the state to look at the pattern. Two crimes committed the same way around the same time and two victims who worked in New Jersey politics.
Nancy Solomon: On the next episode, I try to figure out why the Attorney General didn't take the case. That takes me on a journey that goes back 60 years, involving Jimmy Hoffa and the days when mobsters in New Jersey had the head of the state police on their payroll.
Ed Stier: When Jimmy Hoffa disappeared it wasn't just a murder. The question is why? What's behind it? And under the surface there's a massive problem. What you're seeing is the tip of a gigantic iceberg. Maybe the same is true with respect to John Sheridan.
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