Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Deaths of Cooper CEO, wife ruled murder-suicide

Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. stabbed his wife to death, set their bedroom on fire, and then took his own life, authorities have concluded, closing a six-month investigation into the deaths that shocked New Jersey's political and civic communities.

Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce. (Jodi Samsel/AP Photo)
Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce. (Jodi Samsel/AP Photo)Read more

Prosecutor's Conclusions

John Sheridan had five wounds - including three stab wounds - to neck and torso area. One wound to the neck perforated the jugular. He also had five broken ribs, consistent with a piece of an armoire falling on top of him.

John Sheridan's cause and manner of death: "Sharp force injuries and smoke inhalation." Suicide. Carbon-monoxide levels in his blood indicated he was alive after starting the fire.

Joyce Sheridan's wounds: Eight stab wounds to the head - including three stab wounds - and a stab wound to the chest. Cuts on hands characterized as "defensive."

Joyce Sheridan's cause and manner of death: Stab wound to chest that punctured the aorta. Homicide. She was dead before the fire was set.

Two knives were recovered at the scene - large carving knife used on Joyce Sheridan and large serrated bread knife not used on either Sheridan.

No weapon identified in report as the one that caused John Sheridan's wounds. Authorities noted a piece of metal that melted was stuck in the floor.

Crime scene confined to the master bedroom. Both John and Joyce Sheridan were found face up on the bedroom floor, John with piece of armoire atop him.

Knives, gas can, and matches "all belonged to the Sheridans."

No evidence of forced entry or intruder. Most doors to house were unlocked, which was typical, according to interviews.

Items found at house: Jewelry, cash, computers, electronics, antiques, cars. On bedroom nightstand: John Sheridan's wallet, watch, and cellphone. $950 in cash in bedroom.

John Sheridan showed "uncharacteristic demeanor" in the days leading up to Sept. 28, 2014, which appears to have been work-related. His wife, Joyce, was "worried and upset" because of his "atypical" behavior, according to people close to couple. John Sheridan was supposed to meet coworkers the day of his death.

Blood believed related to John and Joyce Sheridan found on underpants of John Sheridan.

Clippings and scrapings from Joyce Sheridan's fingernails indicated a male's DNA. "John Sheridan could not be excluded as a possible contributor."

SOURCE: Somerset County Prosecutor's Office


The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office announced its results in a news release Friday, citing forensic evidence and a lengthy probe that included more than 180 interviews.

But it offered no conclusive motive to explain why Sheridan, described by family and friends as mild-mannered, would brutally stab his wife and kill himself.

"Many possible scenarios and theories were considered," the prosecutor's office said in a statement after months of virtual silence. The evidence "supports the conclusion that John Sheridan fatally stabbed Joyce Sheridan, set the fire, and committed suicide."

In the days leading up to the deaths, John Sheridan was "out of character," "very upset," and with "an attitude of resignation," the prosecutor's release said. His preoccupation appeared work-related, the office said but offered no further details.

The findings were immediately contested by the couple's four sons who cited conflicting evidence. They accused county prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano of "bungling" the investigation and promised a lawsuit challenging the conclusions. In particular, they said that neither of two weapons found at the scene was used to stab John Sheridan, which was confirmed by prosecutors. The prosecutor's report noted a piece of metal embedded in the bedroom floor, but stopped short of concluding that was the weapon that caused John Sheridan's wounds.

"This conclusion seeks to convict our father based on little more than rank speculation," the sons said in a statement. "We will not allow our father to be convicted based on guesswork resulting from an inadequate and incomplete investigation."

John Sheridan, 72, and his wife, Joyce, 69, were each found stabbed amid a fire in the bedroom of their Montgomery Township home early in the morning of Sept. 28. She was found lying face up on the floor to the left of the bed; he also was found on the floor at the foot of the bed lying face up underneath a charred armoire, authorities said, causing five broken ribs.

John Sheridan died of "sharp force injuries and smoke inhalation," the prosecutor concluded in a seven-page report. He also had five wounds to his torso and neck that "were consistent with self-infliction," the report said.

Carbon monoxide in his blood indicated that Sheridan was alive when the fire started. A wound to his neck perforated his jugular and "would be fatal without medical treatment."

Joyce Sheridan, a retired history teacher, died of a stab wound to her chest that punctured her aorta, officials have said. She was also stabbed eight times in the head and had defensive wounds on her hands, the report said. She was dead before the fire started, officials said.

Early in the investigation, authorities suspected the deaths were the result of a murder-suicide, but the confirmation Friday stunned those who knew the Sheridans.

"There is no good answer here, whether it is murder suicide or double homicide," said Lee Vartan, a former executive assistant state Attorney General when the deaths occurred and now in private practice in New York. "This is a tragic event and everyone feels for the family."

Rowan University president Ali Houshmand, who serves on the Cooper Trustee board, recalled John Sheridan as "a very calm and thoughtful man. A great man left this world in a tragic way."

"It's not something I can imagine," said Peter Driscoll, a Cooper Health System trustee emeritus and a senior member of the Haddonfield law firm Archer & Greiner. "It's almost worse than if some mad man broke in and killed them."

A Republican, John Sheridan long traveled in the state's elite circles, previously serving as a transportation secretary before leading one of Camden's most prominent institutions. He worked on transition teams for Gov. Christie and Gov. Christie Whitman.

Christie and others who knew the couple declined comment.

In a brief statement, Cooper University Health Care called the prosecutor's findings "unfathomable to us."

"We will continue to remember John as a compassionate leader of Cooper who was committed to making positive change in Camden," the statement said.

Friday night, Cooper held its annual Red Hot Gala in Philadelphia, attracting 800 guests, including political leaders and hospital executives.

John Sheridan joined Cooper as a senior vice president in 2005 and became CEO and president in 2008. He was expected to retire in 2015.

According to the report, Joyce Sheridan was "worried and upset" by her husband's "atypical behavior." The report said John was "disproportionately concerned," "genuinely worried" and overly worried" but offered no specifics on his work-related concerns.

But family and friends have long said they could not believe that John, noted for his easy-going demeanor, was responsible for the couple's brutal deaths.

Mark Sheridan, a prominent Republican attorney, said his father had been worried about a pending state Health Department report that could have been critical of Cooper. But the issue "was resolved days before" his parents' deaths, he said.

"To suggest that he was upset about a work issue and it resulted in him being violent in a way that he had never exhibited - not only to himself but his wife of 47 years - is absurd," Mark Sheridan said in an interview.

He said his father was anticipating a "bad report" but "he wasn't suicidal over it, he wasn't homicidal over it, he was upset."

The couple has three grandchildren.

The night before his death, John Sheridan face-timed with a grandson at 5:30 p.m. and sent work e-mails two hours later in preparation for a meeting with co-workers the next day about the pending state report, according to the family.

The Sheridans' sons also raised questions about how the investigation was conducted. They said that they do not know what happened, but that "based on the evidence, neither do the investigators."

The family hired nationally renowned forensic pathologist, Michael Baden to examine the deaths. It was Baden who discovered the existence of a third, unidentified weapon and the cut to John Sheridan's jugular, the family said.

In their statement, the Sheridans listed nine bullet points raising questions about the murder-suicide conclusion and the conduct of the probe.

The conclusion, they wrote, "is nothing more than an expedient way for the Prosecutor's Office to close its file and put an end to its embarrassing bungling of this murder investigation."

The brothers - Mark, Matt, Tim, and Dan - plan to sue under a state law that allows them to contest the manner of death filed on death certificates.

In a statement Friday night, Soriano said his office was mindful of the impact that the case would have on the Sheridan family. But said his office stands "behind the results of this investigation which was completed in a very methodical and comprehensive fashion."

In concluding that the deaths were a murder-suicide, the prosecutor noted that Joyce Sheridan had more extensive injuries and defensive wounds, while her husband had no defensive wounds and others were deemed "superficial."

The two knives recovered from the bed, a large carving knife used on Joyce Sheridan and a serrated bread knife that was not used on either, came from the home, as well as a gas can and matches used to start the fire, authorities said.

There were also no signs of forced entry and valuables, including $950 cash, a cell phone and watch, and jewelry on Joyce Sheridan were undisturbed, the report said.

Joyce Sheridan's brother, Peter Mitchko, a retired government bank examiner, said "there's a lot more questions that have to be answered."