Nancy Solomon: When I was a kid, I loved doing jigsaw puzzles with my Mom. And that’s how I see this story – figuring out what was happening to John Sheridan at the time of his death. It’s like a puzzle I've pieced together. In one corner, there’s a picture of Camden: blocks and blocks of boarded up homes, broken sewers. But in one neighborhood, there are shiny new buildings, paid for with more than a billion dollars in tax breaks.
Keith Benson: But it doesn't get to the people it's intended for.
Nancy: Another corner is a portrait of John and Joyce Sheridan. Joyce is a bit circumspect.
Chris Stevens: She was such a good friend.
Nancy: John smiles straight at the camera.
John Farmer: He was so unassuming.
Nancy: Of course there’s the crime scene – it’s in the opposite corner. And there are plenty of details. But it just doesn’t add up: the blood spatter, the missing knife and a fire poker that belonged downstairs.
Eddie Rocks: I'm sure it was never fingerprinted.
Nancy: The last corner is in black and white.The documents that were left on the Sheridan’s dining room table.
Nancy: Do you think it's fair to characterize it as a paper trail?
Mark Sheridan: It definitely looks like a paper trail. Absolutely.
Nancy: There are a few gaping holes in the middle: I still don't know who killed the Sheridans. And why did New Jersey’s top law enforcement agency ignore this case for so long?
This is the final episode of Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery. I'm Nancy Solomon. We're going to look at how a case like the Sheridans could be ignored, and what that tells us about why New Jersey is broken.
The idea that there are problems at the Office of the Attorney General isn't new. I went through court documents, dug up old news clips and talked to former staff at the AG's office. The clues that there were issues, shall we say, were hiding in plain sight -- 20 years of dropped cases, missed cases, and quashed cases.
Nancy: We finally meet…
Ben Barlyn: We finally meet, nice to meet you, But come on in.
Ben Barlyn: I'm sorry about the menagerie.
Nancy: The dog
Nancy: One of those quashed cases involved Ben Barlyn.
Ben Barlyn: This is Stella.
Nancy: Hi – oh my dog's name is Stella.
Nancy: He was an assistant prosecutor in Hunterdon County. It's a mostly rural county. Barlyn lives with his wife just over the border in Pennsylvania.
Ben Barlyn: This is a photograph of my son, Paul and me, when, uh, I've been a volunteer fireman.
Nancy: Barlyn started his legal career at the Attorney General's office. And then, because the money was better and he had three kids headed to college, he left to work for the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office.
Ben Barlyn: Public interest has always been very important to me.
Nancy: And he was doing well in Hunterdon County, until 2010. It was just after Chris Christie became governor, and Barlyn’s office indicted the county sheriff. It was a classic small town corruption case. It involved a donor to the Chris Christie campaign and fake police badges. But what happened next was even more interesting. The Attorney General installed a Deputy AG to run the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, and they took over the corruption case.
Ben Barlyn: That was to me and to the other prosecutors and detectives, highly unusual. All the counts, it was a multi-count indictment, uh, were dismissed by the state, which is again unprecedented. We bring charges; we secure indictments. In this particular instance, the Attorney General superseded our office, and for lack of a better word, killed the case.
Nancy: Barlyn complained. The next day …
Ben Barlyn: Yeah, I was told to turn in my badge and it was escorted out in front of the entire office by two very burly state investigators.
Nancy: And three weeks later, a letter arrived informing Barlyn he was fired. He ended up filing a whistleblower lawsuit against the Christie Administration. The state spent almost five years and $3 million dollars of taxpayer money to fight the case. Then it settled with Barlyn and paid him $1.5 million. The idea that the Attorney General – the highest law enforcement official in New Jersey – was making decisions based on politics rather than law, was actually not that surprising to Barlyn. He had started his career at the AG’s office and he knew about the problems that were happening there in the early 2000s, when Jim McGreevey was governor.
One of the cases Barlyn points to involved John Gregorio, mayor of Linden. It’s a small industrial town near the Newark Airport. Gregorio was giving a garbage contract to his son-in-law. And yes, there were alleged mob connections. According to press reports at the time, state investigators at the AG’s office believed they had enough to bring charges.
Ben Barlyn: Prosecutors were on the eve of securing indictments when the case was abruptly halted.
Nancy: One of my favorite details about the Gregorio story is that the Division of Criminal Justice was about to announce their indictments…
Ben Barlyn: Exactly.
Nancy: That they planned a press conference
Ben Barlyn: That’s correct.
Nancy: On the steps of city hall
Ben Barlyn: That’s absolutely correct.
Nancy: And that’s how the story got out: after the press conference was abruptly canceled and reporters started asking questions.
Ben Barlyn: Evidently the prosecutor, state prosecutor tried to convince the Attorney General's Office to reinstate the case, wrote a four page memo which presumably was leaked to the public and, uh, nonetheless, the case never went forward.
Nancy: A couple weeks later, Barlyn was at the gym when he ran into a colleague from the AG’s office who had worked the Gregorio case.
Ben Barlyn: And I went up to her. She was on the elliptical machine. I remember it very clearly. And I said, ‘What's going on with the Gregorio? Is it true?’ She stopped. And this look of real concern came across her face, she says, ‘Look, you know, this is what I know, um, the case was about to go forward. There were about to be indictments when, uh, the Attorney General's Office received a call from the Governor's Office, uh, asking that the case go away.’
Nancy: And it did.
Ben Barlyn: You know, at the same time, the Palmyra case was also dismissed.
George Norcross: You have to understand something…
Nancy: That’s the one where George Norcross was caught on tape intimidating a small-town city councilman.
George Norcross: The McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me.
Nancy: It never got to the indictment stage, and might never have.
George Norcross: Not because they like me, but because they have no choice.
Nancy: We’ll never know. The investigation was dropped. So political cases were not being prosecuted at the AG’s office. It wasn’t just rumors at the gym. This was documented in the transition reports. Each incoming governor receives these reports. Expert recommendations that bring the new administration up to speed.
Ben Barlyn: The report states that prosecutors are subject to retaliation in high profile political cases. And that struck me at the time. This was before my experience with Hunterdon and I was thinking, ‘Who's imposing the pressure? And who's allowing prosecutors to be intimidated?’ It was something that I think called for serious investigation. And that didn't happen obviously.
Nancy: So why do you think it is that – like, is this particular to New Jersey that, um, we see this level of, I mean, I think it's fair to call it corruption at the Attorney General's office? Like why do you think that's happening here?
Ben Barlyn: Well, my experience, uh, was very indicative of a circumstance where the Governor's office was in effect the de facto Attorney General for New Jersey.
Nancy: The governor’s office is not supposed to interfere with criminal investigations. Especially not political corruption cases. But here are two cases that Barlyn knows about. His own in Hunterdon County and the Gregorio case years before, each involving a different governor. In both instances, Ben Barlyn believes the Governor’s office made a call to quash the case.
Ed Stier: So, how about a cup of coffee?
Nancy: When I visited Ed Stier at his home in Princeton, I brought those transition reports that called out corruption in the Attorney General’s office. He was the guy who helped create the Division of Criminal Justice there.
Nancy: To that point, um, I wanted to read you something.
Nancy: I read him excerpts from two transition reports. One for Jon Corzine, a Democrat. And the other for Chris Christie, a Republican.
Nancy: “It's been reported that the corruption unit has been unable to undertake certain high profile and complex corruption prosecutions because allegedly attorneys and investigators have feared political reprisal and breaches in confidentiality.” That's in 2009. So these incoming administrations say, hey, political corruption is running rampant. And our Division of Criminal Justice, the very agency established to deal with this, is not dealing with.
Ed Stier: Well, all I can tell you is that in both administrations I met with the Attorneys General and did everything I could to convince them to revitalize the Division of Criminal Justice, particularly with respect to corruption investigations.
Nancy: He even brought them copies of that 1967 Life Magazine issue that detailed the way the mafia had infiltrated government.
Ed Stier: And it fell on deaf ears. Um, I got the impression that nobody that I gave these Life Magazine articles to ever looked at them.
Matt Katz: New Jersey is an outlier compared to most states in the country in that voters don't select the Attorney General. It's chosen by the governor.
Nancy: My WNYC colleague, Matt Katz, taught me a lot about how politics works in New Jersey. New Jersey is one of only seven states that doesn’t elect its Attorney General. On paper, the Attorney General is independent.
Matt Katz: But the Attorney General also sits in the cabinet of the governor. And they're essentially political actors,
Nancy: Their independence is more like a movie set in a western. The old saloon with the swinging door looks real, but it's a facade. And the best example of that is a scandal known around here as "Bridgegate."
News Clip: It's Morning Edition on WNYC, I'm Richard Hake. As the second week of the bridge gate trial draws to an end, the circle of close Chris Christie advisers, who allegedly knew about the plot, is widening.
Nancy: The Christie Administration was accused of punishing a Democratic mayor for not endorsing the re-election of Christie, the Republican governor. By blocking traffic on the George Washington Bridge. For a week. Which backed up into the town of that mayor.
Mayor: I was calling people's cell phones, the cell phones that I had, sending text-mails, because it was maddening. Who would close down lanes to the busiest bridge in the world to get to me?
Nancy: This crazy scheme was almost unbelievable. A lengthy investigation into the Christie Administration ensued. But it wasn't by the New Jersey Attorney General, it was by the Feds. That's because there were questions about whether John Hoffman, Christie's AG, was independent enough to actually investigate. Hoffman had worked for Christie before he became governor.
And there was another wrinkle. Christie never formally nominated Hoffman, so that meant he was the “acting” attorney general. The governor could fire him at any time.
John Hoffman was acting AG for 3 years. From 2013 to 2016.
So, during the Christie tenure, the AG’s office intervened in a corruption case in Hunterdon County, sat on its hands during Bridgegate and refused to get involved in the Sheridan investigation.
You can imagine why Attorney General Hoffman didn't investigate Bridgegate. It's harder, to understand why the AG -- under the thumb of Chris Christie -- wouldn't investigate the Sheridan murders. After all, Christie had called Mark Sheridan the day his parents died to offer his condolences. And Mark was the lawyer for the Governor’s campaign at the time. Mark says he didn't ask the Governor for help because it would have presented a conflict of interest. He did, however, ask Attorney General Hoffman for help.
Mark Sheridan: But there was no upside for anybody from taking over.
Nancy: Somerset County had done such a bad job investigating, there was only downside.
Mark Sheridan: At the time, John Hoffman was the acting Attorney General, he had hopes of being named Attorney General. Uh, and I, I don't think he wanted to step on any landmines and this was certainly a landmine that he could have stepped on.
Nancy: Chris Christie had extra power over Hoffman by keeping him acting for three years -- the longest in state history. But even without that, the Governor of New Jersey is one of the most, if not the most powerful governorship in the country. Most states have between four and 10 statewide elected officials. New Jersey has one.
I reached out to Christie with some questions, but didn’t hear back. Another former Governor, Christine Todd Whitman, did speak with me. She served two terms from 1994 to 2001. And she told me just how much power a Governor has over the Attorney General.
Christine Todd Whitman: Because you appoint them, you have some influence. I mean, they're supposed to be independent and you're supposed to leave them alone, which most governors do. But there is obviously that potential
Nancy: The Governor also has line-item veto power. That means anything in the budget, down to the smallest detail, even in the AG’s office, can be cut.
Whitman: That's always the tell at the end of the day. That's the big issue because you control the budget so that you can hamstring any, any department, if you wanted to. Sort of stupid to do, but I mean, you could do it. And that if you want it to influence the outcome of something, um, I guess that'd be a way to do it.
Nancy: It’s debatable whether New Jersey would be better off with an elected Attorney General, but it’s also not easy to change a state’s constitution. There are other, smaller, changes that could be made. Ben Barlyn, the whistleblower, says the revolving door of attorneys general is a problem.
Barlyn: There have been 17 attorneys general for seven governors, and that really needs to end. Attorneys general need to commit to serving their terms, co-extensively with the governors who appoint them. .
Nancy: There is also a need for another statewide elected official, someone who can watchdog corruption and protect prosecutors who go after politicians. An official not beholden to the Governor, but working in the public interest.
Coming up: pursuing Justice for John and Joyce Sheridan.
Nancy: The part of this story that disturbs me most, is something quite separate from the political and financial shenanigans that go on in my state. John Sheridan was effectively convicted of murdering his wife without judge or jury.
John Farmer: You can't just do this. You know, you, you basically are ruining this man's reputation without any kind of hearing and without any kind of evidentiary standard.
Nancy: John Farmer was John Sheridan's longtime friend who served a term as Attorney General under Christine Todd Whitman.
John Farmer: When you have a situation like this, there's a right to some kind of hearing, like they have in other jurisdictions where you, you know, the medical examiner has an inquest and they present what the evidence is and you have a chance to challenge it. Um, that that doesn't exist. And that's a big, big gap, I think, in our law,
Nancy: Many states hold an inquest when a person dies from anything other than natural causes. That’s a legal proceeding in front of a judge that would have required the Somerset County detectives to present evidence. With that requirement, the detectives might not have been able to get away with never fully investigating the crime.
Now, the Attorney General's office is investigating what happened early on the morning of September 28th, 2014. But it's going to be a very difficult case to solve. Eddie Rocks, the retired Philadelphia homicide detective, who visited the crime scene, told me that last year.
Eddie Rocks: You're going to be at a disadvantage because of all the mistakes were made on the scene and, uh, it has, it has to be reinvestigated to clear up all these questions
Nancy: Is it impossible at this point?
Eddie Rocks: No, it definitely is not.
Nancy: What what would be some of the things that you could do now? Seven years later to try to solve the case?
Eddie Rocks: First thing I would do is get the complete case file, and go over everything in the case file. Starting with the scene , the evidence collected, uh, interviews of the fireman, first officers on the scene, uh, neighbors, and there should be somebody with fresh eyes looking at it, with no preconceived notion, and, uh, see if any of these questions are answered.
Nancy: The Sheridan brothers preserved some evidence, so maybe some DNA can be found. Whether or not the new investigation can break open this cold case, there is something else that can be done. For two years, John Sheridan’s death certificate listed his manner of death as suicide. It took a lawsuit and a letter signed by 200 people, including three former governors, two former Attorneys General and a former state supreme court judge to get the state to change it to "undetermined."
Nancy: Did this experience change how you feel about the government and you know, did it change you at all in terms of your politics or your career choices?
Mark: My politics.(laughs) Um, I, you know, I certainly don't think the system is nearly as reliable, as I was, you know, naive enough to believe beforehand. Um, those among us that don't have the wherewithal to deal with it, I don't know how they ever get justice. I mean, and, uh, you know, the average family that has something like this happen to them. If, if they're not, if it's not right, there's no way for them to fix it. And that's brutal. I mean, I, you know, having to live with that stuff and not have the ability to fight back about it is just gotta be awful. Um, and so you look at these, these people that have dedicated their lives to being public defenders and handling pro bono work. Quite candidly, I used to scoff at all that stuff and now view it as invaluable.
Nancy: And do you feel like everyone in the family is doing okay and moving on, or have there been lasting effects?
Mark: I think everybody's got lasting effects from it, right? Um, you know, you can't go through something like this and not have some scars from it.
Peter Sheridan: When, um, the prosecutor's office tells you that it was a murder suicide, that's like a gut punch.
Nancy: Peter Sheridan is John's younger brother, and a federal judge in New Jersey.
Peter: It's worse than a gut punch though, because a gut punch, the pain goes away after a short period of time. And this is more like, more like a scar. It just it's there every day and you can't, uh, you can't get around it. You're confronted by it, uh, for me just about every morning,
Nancy: He’s been inspired by the four Sheridan sons, how they’ve hung together and continued to seek justice.
Peter: They're fighting for the reputation of their parents, every day and they they fight not just for themselves, for their kids and for their parents. And, sorry. They just do a great job at that.
Nancy: And that's what's left to do. Fight for John Sheridan's reputation. At the funeral service at the Trenton War Memorial, Mark Sheridan turned to his children. He told them to look around at the 1,800 people who were there: "This is what it means to earn your last name.”
Mark Sheridan: The toughest thing for us has been the kids. My kids were young when this happened. Um, they knew their grandparents well, but they were so young, we couldn't discuss with them what happened. Uh, and they've found out about it in pretty horrible ways. So, uh, you know, it's been, that's been the toughest thing about this.
Nancy: I think you told me that your son Googles his name, this is, this is what comes up.
Mark Sheridan: So my, my son, uh, in sixth or seventh grade was given an assignment. They were supposed to Google their name and, um, write something about what they saw and, um, you know, he's got my father's name. So you type in John Patrick Sheridan, and he gets every one of these stories and, um, you know, he was seven when this happened. so we hadn't, he knew grandma and grandpa died, but he didn't know anything about how, what, and we had never shared with them the how or what. And so he found out in the most horrible way and didn't say anything to anybody until, you know, he was kind of overcome by it. So it was pretty bad. That was, that was about as bad as it gets.
Nancy: Mark Sheridan is hopeful that the new state investigation will clear his father’s name. But even if the trail has gone too cold, there is something that can be done. The evidence in that bedroom makes a clear case for double homicide. The death certificate for John Sheridan can be changed. His manner of death should no longer be listed as undetermined.
That change, and a proper investigation into the deaths of John and Joyce Sheridan, would bring some semblance of justice for one family. But if I leave you with anything, it’s this: the failed investigation into their deaths is about more than one family. The Division of Criminal Justice was formed when the state was embarrassed that mobsters had infiltrated government, unions and business in New Jersey. This division is meant to take on the hardest cases, be it corruption, tax fraud or murder.
The lawyers who ran criminal justice had access to much of the same information I've told you. They certainly had the authority to ask questions and dig into the case. But for reasons that are still unknown, they did not.
If you look at the Sheridan investigation as only one part of a much larger puzzle, it points to a bigger problem. A corruption problem at the very core of how politics is played in New Jersey.
To be sure, it can’t be fixed by the AG alone. But a good first step would be a law enforcement agency that’s free from interference by the politically powerful. Otherwise, New Jersey won’t have the kind of investigations we need: that are conducted without fear or favor.
I’m Nancy Solomon.
Dead End was reported and produced by me with Emily Botein and Karen Frillmann. Music and sound design by Jared Paul. Additional engineering by Andrew Dunn and Bill Moss.
And it takes a lot of other people to make a podcast – here goes.
Special thanks to:
Jennifer Houlihan Roussel
This is WNYC Studios; learn more at deadendpodcast.org. Even though this is the end, continue to follow our feed. We just might come back with another episode if something happens
Michael Critchley: I got to give credit to production. You have Jared Paul, who's your musician. And mix engineer. He sets up the appropriate mood music.
Nancy: Thanks for listening.
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