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Lingering Questions

by Erica Bauwens-Young

Every weekend John and Joyce Sheridan could be found in Mullica Hill pursuing their mutual love of antiquing. The husband and wife duo owned The Great Cooperstown Trading Company, an antique shop in the multi-dealer space known as The Yellow Garage. Their corner of the shop—which offered antique furniture and art handpicked by the couple— was named for the family’s vacation home in Cooperstown, N.Y., where they would bring their adult children and grandchildren for trips away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.

When the day was over, the couple would get into the car for an hour-and- change drive back up 295 to their home in Montgomery Township. There they would settle in for a night together in their cream-colored Colonial with blue shutters and a salmon pink door, their bedroom windows facing out to the street where they lived.

That home, which was scattered with antiques that the couple couldn’t part with, now sits vacant. The furniture has been cleared out and photos removed. The only thing that remains is John and Joyce Sheridan’s blood, splattered across the walls.

It’s in that home that the horrific and mysterious final moments of John and Joyce’s lives took place. Early in the morning on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, police and firefighters responded to a 9-1-1 call about smoke coming from the Sheridan’s second floor. They arrived to find a fire burning in the bedroom where John and Joyce’s lifeless bodies lay.

As neighbors began to gather at the scene, Mark Sheridan was in a Manhattan hotel with his wife celebrating their wed- ding anniversary. He received a call from his twin brother Matt informing him that neighbors had called to say their parents’ house was on fire. As Mark scurried to get himself together to head that way he soon after received another, much more chilling call: his parents were dead.

Mark frantically made his way across the bridge and to the home and joined by his other two brothers Dan and Tim, they searched with little luck for answers. Matt, who had been living at the home, had left the day before to go on a fishing trip in Long Island Sound. When he finally arrived to join his siblings, the smell of smoke still lingering in the air, he was greeted by authorities who searched his vehicle for clues that may or may not have ruled him out as a possible suspect. Instead they found cocaine, a digital scale and baggies with white residue. He was arrested for drug possession and the family was faced with another bizarre turn in what had already become a surreal moment.

From there a twisted tale of police incompetence—or was it corruption?— began to unwind, according to the Sheri- dan brothers. What has since followed that fateful night has evolved into a two- and-a-half-year drama, as the family and colleagues who came to know this couple so well fought to bring justice to their tarnished name.

Meet the Sheridans
John P. Sheridan Jr. had long been known as a prominent figure in the New Jersey Republican Party as well as in South Jersey as the CEO of Cooper University Health Care System. A graduate of Rutgers University-Camden and a U.S. Army veteran, Sheridan got his start in state government, serving as deputy attorney general and assistant counsel to former Governor William Cahill before taking on the role of transportation commissioner for Governor Thomas Kean in the early ’80s.

From there, he went on to help Chris- tine Todd Whitman, the first female governor of New Jersey, run her successful campaign and co-chaired her transition committee.

“I remember him first as a very steady, reliable person. Tom [Kean] trusted him completely, and while I wasn’t working with him directly I found him to be trustworthy as well,” recalls Whitman. “I had great respect for his judgment, and had known his work with the Kean administration. Nothing seemed to ruffle him and I liked that. Plus, I just liked him as a person and as a friend, which is important when you work so closely with people.”

Sheridan then served as a partner with the lobbying firm Riker Danzig, where he captivated co-workers and Trenton with his appeal. “I revered John in my time in Trenton before he hired me,” says Mary Kathryn Roberts, a partner with the firm and Sheridan’s mentee of 20 years. “John hired me and taught me everything I know about the lobbying business in Trenton. He was like a second father to me.”

In February 2008, Sheridan would become president and CEO of Cooper in Camden, a position he held until the time of his death. His focus was on the revitalization of the city, as he was instrumental in the redevelopment of the Cooper Plaza and Lanning Square neighborhood, the founding of Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and the construction of the Roberts Pavilion Tower, among other things.

Gary Lesnecki, senior executive vice president and general counsel at Cooper. “His background and understanding of the political and regulatory process enabled him to turn this vision into reality. He also had a unique commitment to community outreach and development for the betterment of the residents in those neighborhoods adjoining the Cooper campus and the city of Camden as a whole.”

Joyce, meanwhile, was a retired teacher. It was her work as an educator that contributed to the light-hearted, playful personality that many recall through various political and professional functions.

“While I spent most of my time with John, I always appreciated Joyce,” says Whitman, with a laugh. “She didn’t take politics too seriously, and she didn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Through their 47 years of marriage the couple had come to be known for their back-and-forth. “[ Joyce] knew that politics were John’s game and so she never took any of it too seriously,” recalls Whitman. “They were a true team and I liked the back-and-forth of their relationship. They weren’t afraid to challenge each other and talked about everything in a respectful way.”

“And my father was my hero, [that’s] never been a secret. He was incredibly smart and hardworking. He was all about the community. He served as a basketball coach, baseball coach, he was an honorary chairman of the Special Olympics and served on the board of the mental health facility the Carrier Clinic for over 30 years.”

Mark thinks back to memories on family vacations that evolved as the family continued to grow. “We had a farm in upstate Pennsylvania that’s been in my family for 50-plus years, and we’d go up there every summer as kids and spend the summer there,” he says. “My father would drive up on the weekends and we’d just spend time together as a family.”

Eventually the Sheridans purchased a time-share in Barbados, and that became the annual retreat for the couple, their sons and their three grandchildren. “Everyone looked forward to those few weeks every April when we could just get away,” says Mark.

Mark followed in his hero’s footsteps, pursuing a career in law that led him to community work outside the office as well. But he doesn’t quite know if he’ll share his father’s political aspirations. “This has left a pretty bad taste in my mouth,” he says. “I’m not sure if I’m ready to re-engage, both with the state and with the county.”

Botched and battered
News of the deaths broke quickly and spread rapidly. Over the course of six months the prosecutor’s report came out, reading more like a cheap crime novel than a case study: John, then 72 years old and frustrated with the stress of work, snapped, stabbing his 69-year-old wife 12 times in their bedroom before pouring gasoline all over their room, igniting it, stabbing himself five times in the neck and possibly throwing their armoire over himself as the flames engulfed the room.

All four sons were quickly dismissed as suspects, and Matt Sheridan’s cocaine arrest that day was ruled out as having any relation to the crime. Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey D. Soriano presented the findings in March, ruling the case a murder-suicide. But over those six months a band of supporters from the outside— including family, public figures, former coworkers and neighbors—could sense that something just wasn’t right.

“The first inkling we got that things weren’t being done right was [the] morning after my parents died. On Tuesday we met with the prosecutor’s office and on Thursday we walked into the house for the first time,” says Sheridan. “It was clear that they hadn’t done anything. There was no finger print dust any- where, no luminol spray to test for blood, things that should have been collected weren’t. And they had told us at that point that it was a concluded murder-suicide, that they were pretty much done.”

“When there were mumblings that they did it themselves, I thought: ‘It would take a complete brain transplant for John to do something like that.’ It was so out of context,” says Whitman. “Of course you hear that you never really know someone, but the circumstances didn’t make sense in any way. He was too smart to do what they said he did. To commit the act in the way they accused him of doing it, I couldn’t believe that people were even thinking that. If nothing else, give him credit that he was smarter than this.”

As the story became more public it became clear that this was more than a family complaint: The crime scene was grossly mishandled.

“We were told by the prosecutor’s office the first day that we met them that there was no blood outside the bedroom,” Mark recalls. “When you walk into the house, there was blood all over the stairs and they told us that was simply [from] having our parents’ bodies taken out. But when you look in the hallway there is blood splatter, which likely means that violence took place outside of the bedroom.”

The family mounted pressure on the prosecutor’s office, bringing in their own medical examiner to conduct additional autopsies on the couple shortly after the original reports were finished. The original autopsies were conducted through the state attorney general’s office, at the Northern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office, which had not earned reaccreditation around the time of the Sheridans’ deaths. The state itself did not have a medical examiner active at the time of the investigation, as the previous medical examiner, Dr. Victor Weedn, resigned in 2009 in frustration over the lack of state support.

Dr. Michael Baden, the Sheridans’ appointed pathologist, has investigated such high-profile cases as the deaths of comedian John Belushi and rock star Sid Vicious, and gave testimony at the O.J. Simpson trial. Through his work, he uncovered a tangled web of inconsistencies.

“Dr. Baden called an hour into the autopsy and said, ‘They don’t have the weapon that killed your father.’ So I called the attorney general’s office and asked them to get involved,” says Mark. “We knew within a week that they hadn’t done the proper investigation and we couldn’t get the Somerset [County] Prosecutor’s Office to speak with us.”

Mark Sheridan says he had to convince the prosecutor’s office to investigate a wrought iron fire poker found in the couple’s bedroom, which had previously sat downstairs by the fireplace, as a potential murder weapon. He wrote a lengthy letter to acting Attorney General John Jay Hoff- man asking for further investigation with little results, and the fight continued.

The group Friends of John & Joyce Sheridan stepped forward in solidarity with the family, releasing a letter on Feb. 17, 2016 calling for the state to change John’s cause of death from suicide to undetermined. Among the almost-200 signers there was Whitman, Kean and former Governor James Florio as well as Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, two former New Jersey attorney generals and 40 attorneys from Riker Danzig, including Roberts.

“I think that the original intent was to show the family that they had support for their efforts from a broad community of individuals who tremendously liked and respected their father and believed that the conclusions reached were wrong,” says Roberts.

Just one day later, the governor’s office announced that Geoffrey Soriano would be “departing the position of Somerset County Prosecutor.” Attorney General John Jay Hoffman had resigned less than two weeks before. Neither the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office nor the Attorney General’s office responded to interview requests for this story.

Then came the Scozzafava lawsuit. Filed in April 2016, Det. Jeffrey Scozzafava of the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit claiming that he was transferred from his post as a member of the forensic team to the county’s fugitive division after calling into question the mishandling of evidence from the Sheridan case. The lawsuit was thrown out in court at the start of 2017, but the detective is already filing an appeal.

“It certainly makes you question everything even more,” Mark Sheridan says. “Whether it’s incompetence or a coverup, they didn’t do what they were supposed to.”

On Jan. 13 of this year, State Medical Examiner Andrew Falzon—who was nominated by Gov. Christie in June of 2015— amended the final report, changing the manner of death from murder- suicide to undetermined. But that didn’t mean that there would be a new investigation, and new county prosecutor Michael Robertson and new Attorney General Christopher Porrino have shown little initiative to re-open this cold case.

“They screwed up and were caught in that screwup and they refuse to fix it,” Mark says, adding the family’s next step is to formally request a meeting with the prosecutor’s office to investigate the findings. If the office denies the request, he plans to take them to court.

Staying active
With an unsolved case and a prosecutor’s office that Mark Sheridan says has gone “radio silent,” grieving is difficult. “I feel anger. Absolute anger,” he says. “We’ve emptied the home of belongings, but blood is still on the floor. It’s still on the walls. The windows are still boarded up and all of the materials that were in the bedroom are still shoved in a pile in the bathroom where investigators left them. With the exception of the items they took as evidence, which was about half of what they should have taken, we have not touched the home.

“It’s bad enough that we never got to say goodbye and that we lost them way too early. But the fact that we have to fight the system [and] deal with the false and disparaging statements that the prosecutors made to cover up their tracks, it’s maddening.”

The family and friends believe a killer is still on the loose, someone ruthless and unforgiving. And that fear resonates. “It’s certainly something that my family thinks about, no doubt about it,” Mark says. “There have been more than a few sleepless nights for all of us. It’s something that all of us have worried about, especially with the very public fight between the prosecutor’s office.”

Meanwhile, family and friends are not relinquishing any ground. “Right now our resources go completely toward find- ing out what happened to them,” says Mark, citing the hundreds of thousands of dollars the four brothers have poured into investigators, attorneys and answers.

“I’m afraid that this is going to be an unsatisfying ending, a cold case,” says Whitman. “So many mistakes were made in the original investigation and so much was missed, that to go back now is going to be incredibly difficult. It’s enormously unsatisfying and it’s awful for the family. It tears at them. We all want closure, we want justice.”

While the time for closure has yet to come, one thing remains clear: John Sheridan’s presence is still felt by many.

“John Sheridan had a major influence on Cooper’s success. He had a meaningful impact on this organization in so many ways and he is still missed,” says Adrienne Kirby, the current president and CEO of Cooper University Health Care. In late February, Cooper’s Three Cooper Plaza building was renamed The John and Joyce Sheridan Health Center.

“John was one of the most respected persons I have ever come across,” recalls Norcross. “He was a friend, a mentor and a role model. There is no one else who has had as big an impact on me as John did, except my father. I miss him very much.”

“When I walk into our Trenton office and I see all of the wonderful political antiques that John and Joyce found together, it reminds me of how lucky I was to have known these two special people who loved each other and their family and friends,” says Roberts. “I miss John every day.”

Mark Sheridan says the family stays close, sticking together for holidays and family events and always keeping that trademark Sheridan humor—inherited by Joyce—at the forefront. “We have several traditions that we would do when our parents were still alive. We still laugh and joke about our parents, because you can’t lose that. But when [I] stop and have a moment to think about what happened to them, all I can feel is anger.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 12 (March, 2017).
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