A veteran detective has filed a lawsuit against the Somerset County (N.J.) Prosecutor's Office alleging that he was removed from the forensic unit because he reported that his supervisor destroyed evidence taken from the house where Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife were found dead in 2014.
According to a civil lawsuit filed April 20, Detective Jeffrey Scozzafava, who has 31 years of experience in law enforcement and is an expert in forensics, alleged that evidence collected from the Sheridan home had not been properly stored and tested. He also alleged that supervisors in the unit, including the captain, Lee Niles, lacked adequate forensic training.
The Sheridans' four sons have challenged the findings of the Prosecutor's Office, which concluded in March 2015 that John Sheridan, 72, fatally stabbed his wife, Joyce, 69, then set their bedroom on fire and committed suicide on Sept. 28, 2014. The sons say their parents were murdered, and have taken legal action to overturn the suicide ruling.
A dispute between the Prosecutor's Office and the Sheridan sons turned public in March 2015 when the family accused investigators of concluding that their father was responsible for the crimes in order to cover up a "botched" investigation by the county and state medical examiner.
Scozzafava's lawsuit alleges not only that evidence in the Sheridan case was destroyed, but also that blood swabs were improperly packaged, and that facts were fabricated regarding fingerprinting in the house.
Mark Sheridan, one of the couple's sons and a lawyer, said Wednesday night that his family was "shocked" by the lawsuit.
"It seems to confirm the worst of what we suspected. In fact, it goes further than what we ever conceived," he said. "If these allegations are true, the individuals involved should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Somerset County Prosecutor Michael Robertson, who was appointed in March, said Wednesday night that he could not comment on the lawsuit.
Scozzafava alleges that on Jan. 30, 2015 - four months after the Sheridans died - he saw Niles remove from the fingerprint lab at the Prosecutor's Office a paper bag containing charred bedding from the Sheridan home. The suit alleges that Scozzafava then saw Niles "walking to a garbage dumpster located in the parking lot and disposing of the bag containing the Sheridan evidence."
"It was common knowledge and a topic of conversation among detectives assigned to the forensic unit that the Sheridan evidence was improperly collected, improperly preserved and subsequently destroyed," the suit says.
After months of reporting his concerns about evidence in the Sheridan deaths, as well as evidence in another 2014 murder and arson case, and questioning the qualifications of the forensic unit, Scozzafava was transferred from the forensic unit to the fugitive unit in March 2015.
Even before the Sheridans' deaths, in February 2014, Scozzafava alleges, he raised his concerns about the forensic team with Somerset's chief of detectives, Tim Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald responded, "You're killing me," according to the lawsuit.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit, Scozzafava says Niles asked him in 2014 to lie about how money had been recovered from a bank robbery suspect's car after another investigator found cash under the passenger seat and gave it to Niles. The recovery was never properly reported, according to the lawsuit, and when Scozzafava refused to testify that he found the money, Niles retaliated, it says.
Much of the lawsuit focuses on the Sheridan case and is similar to concerns raised by the Sheridan sons, who alleged that officials performed a sloppy investigation and failed to dust for fingerprints or check for blood throughout the house.
Scozzafava, who was out of town on the day of the Sheridan deaths, alleges that detectives and technicians failed to follow proper protocol at the scene. When he returned to work, he said, he noticed a large piece of charred bedding "laying exposed" in a vehicle bay, and charred bedding stored in an open bag in the fingerprint lab at the prosecutor's offices. Scozzafava raised concerns, but the evidence still was not properly stored, according to the suit.
Additionally, Scozzafava alleges that in October 2014, Niles advised an assistant prosecutor that the Sheridan home was checked for fingerprints using the "flashlight technique," the suit says.
"Mr. Scozzafava knew that no such 'flashlight technique' existed in the forensic or scientific community, and was an obvious excuse for nonfeasance during the scene processing," the suit says.
When the assistant prosecutor ordered Niles to purchase a doorknob and demonstrate the technique, Niles allegedly took the day off.
The lawsuit alleges that in December 2014, Scozzafava raised concerns to a supervisor about blood collection swabs that were improperly stored.
On Feb. 19, Scozzafava requested more information to analyze fingerprint evidence. The next day, he was transferred to the fugitive unit, and when he asked why, the lieutenant responded, "Everybody does time in the penalty box," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Scozzafava, a forensics expert with the New Jersey State Police before joining the Prosecutor's Office in 2007, was surprised that he had been transferred because he had been hired for his forensic experience.
In October 2015, the suit alleges, Scozzafava met with the chief of detectives and then-Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano. According to the suit, Scozzafava was upset that he was transferred after complaining about Sheridan evidence being destroyed, improper evidence storage, the lack of arson investigation training among deficiencies, and refusing to lie for Niles.
Soriano said he "needed time to digest" the information, advising he would get back to him soon, the suit said.
Scozzafava never heard back from Soriano, the suit alleges. Soriano, who led the Sheridan investigation, was replaced on Feb. 18, 2016, one day after a group of political leaders criticized the county's investigation of the Sheridans' deaths.
Soriano, who had served as prosecutor since 2010, was succeeded by Robertson, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J.
Gov. Christie said he had lost confidence in Soriano.