Six Months Of Stonewalling

The Inquirer and others have asked only for basic information in the investigation into the deaths of John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce.

Six months later, excessive secrecy has compounded

a family's loss with a disservice to the public. A18

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 Behind the scenes of the six-month investigation into the deaths of Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce, a bitter disagreement has unfolded between the couple's family and investigators handling the case, sources say.

Several sources close to the investigation said the Sheridans' four sons, aided by nationally renowned forensic pathologist Michael Baden and lawyers, have disputed findings by the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office, as well as how some aspects of the case have been handled.

"The family has been fighting to get the Prosecutor's Office to view this as anything other than murder-suicide from day one," one source familiar with the family's concerns said. "The boys believe the Prosecutor's Office botched the investigation from the outset when they failed to identify all of John's stab wounds and then couldn't find the weapon used to stab their father, among other issues."

The disagreement between the Sheridans' sons - Mark, Matt, Dan, and Tim - and investigators has centered on whether John Sheridan killed Joyce and then himself, as authorities have long suspected, or whether their deaths were a double-murder by a third party, as the family believes.

The source with knowledge of the family's concerns, who asked for anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, contended that investigators did not process doors to the house for fingerprints and "left weapons at the scene for more than a month" - specifically a fire poker in the couple's bedroom.

And it was Baden who told the family that a weapon not recovered was used to stab John Sheridan in the neck, multiple sources said. Because that weapon has not been located, it has raised the possibility that another person was involved.

"The family has no faith in the Prosecutor's Office and the medical examiner and actively distrusts them at this point," the source familiar with the family's concerns said.

Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey D. Soriano, whose office has repeatedly refused to discuss the case, declined to comment when reached at home Thursday night.

A source familiar with the investigation said that John Sheridan, 72, had several stab wounds, including one to the chest, but that the state Medical Examiner's Office has not issued a final determination on his cause of death. The source also said one of two knives found in the couple's bedroom inflicted the chest wound.

Authorities with the Prosecutor's Office, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office, and the Medical Examiner's Office have refused to say whether they know what caused his death. The Prosecutor's Office has said it will not conclude its investigation until a final determination is made.

Last month, the Attorney General's Office, which is assisting in the case along with state police, said Joyce Sheridan, 69, was killed by a stab wound to the chest that punctured her aorta. Her death was ruled a homicide.

The Sheridans were found unresponsive amid flames in the second-floor master bedroom of their home in Montgomery Township early Sept. 28. Authorities said the fire was deliberately set.

Case 'complexities'

In a public statement in November, the Prosecutor's Office said that the case had "complexities" that warranted an "exhaustive review."

Investigators have noted there was no forced entry to the house and a can of gas used to start the fire was taken from the garage, said two sources familiar with the investigation.

Officials have not said whether any doors had been left unlocked. Relatives have said there were no signs of discord between the Sheridans after 47 years of marriage.

The day of the Sheridans' deaths, one of their sons, Matt, was taken into custody after police allegedly found cocaine, baggies, and a scale in his car at the family's Montgomery Township home.

On Wednesday, Capt. Jack Bennett, spokesman for the Prosecutor's Office, said no charges have been filed against Matt Sheridan. Authorities have up to five years to do so. Bennett has said that the drug arrest is unrelated to the deaths and that none of the sons are suspects in their parents' deaths.

Those who knew the couple have expressed disbelief at the prospect of a murder-suicide.

"That's just ridiculous," said Steve Lipman, co-owner of the Yellow Garage in Mullica Hill, an antiques store where the Sheridans rented space to sell antiques for at least six years. "Whoever killed Joyce killed John."

"John was so mild-mannered," he said. He "made a living with his head, not his hands." Lipman's wife and co-owner, Tracy Dodge, remembered the couple - who visited on Sunday mornings every few weeks, sometimes over breakfast - as "doting."

"Whenever he wasn't at work, they would be antiquing," Dodge said. "They would show up and show us all the treasures they got."

Lipman said news reports detailing the arson and noting that John Sheridan was under an armoire made a murder-suicide seem implausible.

Last month, the Sheridan sons removed what remained of their parents' antiques from the Yellow Garage with plans to enter the collection, including country furniture and folk art, into an auction. One tavern sign from perhaps the late 1700s or early 1800s, Lipman said, had an asking price of about $26,000.

'Utmost respect'

Richard Sarle, who was CEO and president of the Carrier Clinic in Montgomery Township through 2012, said the behavioral health-care facility was able to transition from a for-profit center to a nonprofit organization with the help of John Sheridan, who served as a trustee and counsel. "He's one of the most honest people I ever met," Sarle said. "I had the utmost respect for him. You could trust him."

Asked about the lack of a determination in the case, Sarle said: "To rush to judgment in all that kind of stuff, I don't think serves any purpose."

"It's just a terrible situation," he said. "I miss him."

Born in Cambridge, Mass., John Sheridan was a former New Jersey Department of Transportation commissioner who early in his career served as a state deputy attorney general. A Republican, he was on transition teams for Gov. Christie and former Gov. Christie Whitman. In 2005, he joined the Camden-based Cooper health system.

Joyce Sheridan, who graduated from East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, grew up in Lincoln Park in North Jersey. She retired as a history teacher from the South Brunswick School District, and took immense pride in becoming a grandmother to three.

The couple met as John attended Rutgers Law School in Newark and he was bartending at a bar in East Orange, recalled Peter Mitchko, 72, Joyce Sheridan's brother.

The Sheridans wed in 1967 and, 10 years later, purchased their Somerset County home. As their sons grew up, they spent time in the summer at a home owned by Joyce's parents - George and Olga Mitchko - in Wayne County, Pa. There, the husband and wife and other family members developed an affinity for antiquing.

"There was a really strong relationship with John in the family," said Mitchko, a retired government bank examiner. "He fit into the family."

Mitchko is frustrated that so little has been disclosed about the deaths. He, too, questions the suggestion of a domestic dispute.

"If you're going to tell me John did it, it was murder-suicide, then tell me why," Mitchko said. "No one has even come up with a scintilla of anything that would lead to that."

 
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