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Battle looms between family and prosecutor after report Cooper CEO killed wife, self

A prosecutor's finding that Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. killed his wife, set their bedroom on fire, and took his own life added significant new details to the circumstances surrounding the couple's mysterious deaths.

Cooper University Health System CEO and President, John P. Sheridan, and his wife, Joyce, at a fundraiser in 2011. (FILE)
Cooper University Health System CEO and President, John P. Sheridan, and his wife, Joyce, at a fundraiser in 2011. (FILE)Read more

A prosecutor's finding that Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. killed his wife, set their bedroom on fire, and took his own life added significant new details to the circumstances surrounding the couple's mysterious deaths.

It won't be the final word.

Instead, the detailed seven-page report by the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office and the scathing response from the couple's four sons - itself full of new information - set up what promises to be an emotionally charged fight over the handling of the case and authorities' conclusion in the deaths of two people long tied to New Jersey's elite political and civic circles.

The two competing documents, released Friday after six months of near-silence since the Sheridans' deaths, split opinions among experts interviewed by The Inquirer.

As well, the prosecutor's finding that John Sheridan, described as level-headed, could have brutally and fatally stabbed his wife of 47 years and himself stunned people who knew him.

John Sheridan was said to be upset, in the days before his death, about a critical state evaluation of Cooper's coronary-bypass-surgery death rates, but people who knew him said they could not imagine it would cause him to kill his wife and himself.

The family, which described the investigation as "bungling," plans to sue over the prosecutor's conclusion, setting the stage for a tense public airing of the facts and questions.

Mark Sheridan, one of the couple's sons and an aggressive attorney and general counsel for the state Republican Party, is skilled at argument - in court and in the media. He challenges the findings of Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano, a respected attorney appointed by Gov. Christie in 2010.

The prosecutor did not offer a conclusive motive to explain the murder-suicide theory but did say that John Sheridan was acting "withdrawn" and "out of character," seemingly because of work issues, in the days prior.

On Sept. 28, the day of the predawn deaths, John Sheridan was scheduled that Sunday afternoon to meet with Cooper staff to discuss a response to a pending report on the hospital from the state Health Department, according to Mark Sheridan. In the sons' eyes, the planned meeting - and work-related e-mails sent out the night before - were signs that their father was handling his affairs as he normally would.

Mark Sheridan said that his father was "upset" about the surgery report - which was expected to be in part critical of Cooper - but that it was "absurd" to think he would turn violent over it.

The report in question, by the New Jersey Health Department, evaluated coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgeries and outcomes for 2009-10 in each of New Jersey's 18 hospitals. Cooper, the report found, had among the highest mortality rates, adjusting for such patient risk factors as age, health condition, and socioeconomic factors - although it was not determined to be a statistically significant difference from the state average.

Most of the Cooper deaths - 10 of its 14 - were attributed to one surgeon, who performed 316 of the hospital's 450 CABG surgeries in that year. The number for that surgeon was statistically significant and also was the highest in the state, although other surgeons elsewhere had performed more procedures. The report indicated that Cooper "refused to sign-off on its data," for the report.

A Cooper statement provided Saturday said Sheridan was worried that the report "would not accurately reflect the high quality care" in the hospital's cardiac unit.

"On the day of his death John was due to meet with Cooper employees to discuss the pending release of this report," the statement from spokeswoman Lori Shaffer said. "Cooper is not aware of anything contained in this report that could have conceivably led to this tragedy."

The Sheridan sons said they could not allow the prosecutor to "convict our father based on little more than rank speculation."

Ex-Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said the sons face a "very difficult burden" in trying to overturn officials' findings.

"There certainly seems to be more than sufficient probable cause to indict him, had he survived," Faulk said, based on the results of the investigation released Friday. He has no involvement in the case.

Soriano said that his office considered many possible scenarios, but that the evidence pointed to murder-suicide.

The office concluded that Sheridan, 72, stabbed his wife, Joyce, 69, multiple times in the head and inflicted one fatal chest wound. He then set the room on fire, using a gas can from his garage, and apparently stabbed himself.

The sons have raised questions about several key details, though, most notably the fact that authorities have not identified the weapon that caused John Sheridan's wounds. Two knives were recovered in the bedroom, but neither was used on John Sheridan, the family and prosecutor said.

The sons also asked how a man who committed suicide could end up in the burning bedroom under an armoire, with five broken ribs.

Faulk, of Camden County, said some of the sons' questions were to be expected. "I would say more than 60 or 70 percent of the cases that are prosecuted have issues," he said, "things that you can't prove conclusively but you can certainly make inferences from."

A forensic pathologist hired by the Sheridan sons, Michael Baden, found that none of John Sheridan's wounds came from the two weapons recovered. Authorities then returned to the scene, days after the deaths, and said they found a "resolidified" piece of metal.

If it was a third weapon - the weapon suspected of killing John Sheridan - any DNA evidence on it could have been destroyed in the fire, Faulk said. Authorities have not said if they believe that the mysterious item is the weapon.

Lee Vartan, who was an executive assistant state attorney general when the deaths occurred, said law enforcement officials believed early on that the incident was a murder-suicide. The state Attorney General's Office assisted in the investigation.

The points of contention and questions may never be answered, Vartan said. "You're talking about a scene that was devastated by a fire."

Vartan, now in private practice in New York, said the Prosecutor's Office and investigators "took painstaking measures over several months to be thorough."

Still, Robert Bianchi, who was the Morris County prosecutor until 2013 and not involved in the Sheridan case, said some aspects of the scenario reported seemed "peculiar."

"I would need to know a lot more about the psychological profile here," Bianchi said, who called the findings "shocking."

Bianchi said he did not question Soriano's "exhaustive" investigation, noting that the Prosecutor's Office has access to documents the public does not.

But he said Sheridan "didn't fit the profile in my 26 years of experience of someone who commits a murder-suicide." He said that he has seen cases where a murder had been made to look like a suicide and that should have been considered in the Sheridan case in the beginning. "There's all sorts of people who would have motivations to extort him for money and power."

Two sources familiar with the investigation said that mistakes were made. But one of those sources said that the scene was complex because of the fire and that mistakes would not be uncommon. The other source said authorities had concluded early on that the deaths were murder-suicide and did not initially appear open to the possibility that both had been murdered.

In reaching a conclusion of murder-suicide, prosecutors noted that there were no defensive wounds on John Sheridan, no signs of forced entry into the home, and that jewelry, cash, and electronics were left undisturbed, among other factors. In addition, the two recovered knives had come from inside the home.

The Sheridan sons - Mark, Matt, Dan, and Tim - believe there are major holes in the prosecutor's findings and little explanation of what motive would lead to such a brutal crime.

In a statement Friday they said they "do not have answers to what happened to our parents. Based on the evidence, neither do the investigators."

One forensic psychologist agreed that there is "a gap that needs to be explored."

Elliot Atkins, who has conducted psychological autopsies and is not affiliated with the case, said the uncertainties and lack of a clear-cut motive merit the need for a psychological autopsy on John Sheridan.

"People act strangely for a number of reasons, but very rarely do they kill their wives and commit suicide," Atkins said.

The Somerset County prosecutor's spokesman, Capt. Jack Bennett, said Soriano would not be available to interview Friday. Bennett would not answer questions Friday or Saturday about the still-unidentified weapon used on John Sheridan or other details.

Hours after authorities declared the case a murder-suicide, people who knew John Sheridan spoke warmly of him as they gathered for Cooper's annual Red Hot Gala.

Several guests at the Philadelphia event noted the timing of the announcement on the day of one of the hospital's biggest fund-raisers.

Few wanted to speak about the ruling in the Sheridans' deaths, though one guest recalled sitting with the couple several years ago at the gala and seeing no signs in their relationship that would indicate anything awry.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd said Sheridan "was a big supporter of Camden," adding that he was "greatly missed."

Chuck Grimley, CEO of Grimley Financial, a Haddonfield-based collection company, said Sheridan was "someone everyone learned something from."

"A proper conclusion is key," he said, noting he met John Sheridan through Cooper associates and fund-raisers. "I'm not sure that's what we heard today. It's very difficult for me to rationalize."