John Sheridan knew how to get complicated things done. He knew the order to go in. If it was a negotiation, he knew what the other side needed. His face was square and solid, like that of a Chamber of Commerce president or small-town banker. It was impassive. Thomas Kean, when NJ Transit, then only a bus service, took over all the passenger railroad routes from Conrail.
He spent years in Trenton, running the lobbying practice of Riker Danzig, a law firm based in Morristown, N. His world was one of relationships, connections, persuasion. But he was more often found there at lunch than in the boozy after-hours. Sheridan took naturally to the role of wise man and mentor. What should I do? The position was a departure from previous jobs, but his dexterity in the overlapping spaces of government and commerce proved to be no less useful.
Cooper had ambitious plans but needed regulatory approvals and public financing. Joyce Sheridan was feistier than her husband, whom she met when he was tending bar in West Orange to pay his law-school tuition at Rutgers. She volunteered for the classes with the most-challenged students, those who struggled academically or had trouble in their backgrounds. On Sept. A neighbor, Marsha Stencel, walked by with her granddaughter and saw both Sheridans outside, decorating the home for Halloween.
Joyce made the kind of fuss over Halloween that some people do for Christmas. She invited Stencel and her granddaughter inside and showed them displays set out on tables: lit-up houses, ghoulish figurines. They spent almost all their free time together, either with their sons and grandchildren or buying antiques for their New Jersey home and for the Federal-period house near Cooperstown, N. Some years back, John delighted his wife with a gift that he fetched for the Cooperstown property on a drive up to New Hampshire: a double-seated outhouse from the s.
They had someone cut the grass, do repairs. He worked, and he worked a lot. But he did what good husbands do. When Joyce needed him, he was there. Stencel had no sense that day that anything was amiss. The next day, a nephew of the Sheridans who had a lawn-care business came by to work on the yard and gently chastised Joyce when he saw her carrying grocery bags in from the car.
Near the end of her teaching days, she took a serious fall at school that precipitated a cascade of orthopedic problems and over the last 15 years underwent more operations than her family could count — on her back, shoulders and neck. She rarely complained, but she took a mix of painkillers. John was back at work at Cooper Hospital.
John Sheridan bought a couple of new dress shirts earlier in the week. He picked up his dry cleaning. He had a meeting scheduled at Cooper on Sunday afternoon. On Saturday evening at , less than 12 hours before the fire, he sent an email from his iPhone in response to a question from Norcross about whether Cooper was eligible for some post-Hurricane Sandy disaster-preparation grants. His answer went on for a couple of hundred words. It still reads like a cogent and clearheaded piece of writing.
It was like a criminal indictment, except there was no one to put on trial. About whether, for instance, they had gone to sleep that night, and John at some point crept out of the bedroom to gather the knives and other materials, or if he instead hid the knives in advance. Or if, perhaps, there had been some kind of all-night row that culminated in blood and fire. In writing about the knife wounds on each of the Sheridans, Soriano emphasized the contrasts in their location and severity.
Joyce had cuts on her hands, which were considered defensive in nature; John had no hand wounds. However, one wound to the neck caused a small perforation to the right jugular vein and would be fatal without medical treatment. The toxicology reports revealed no surprises. DNA evidence was not conclusive. But the actual lab reports indicated the swabs did not yield a usable sample and revealed not much more than that they probably came from a white male.
No motives were put forward. They did not uncover any of the usual explanations, the ones that they told the sons would probably turn up: girlfriend, boyfriend, terminal disease, mental illness, financial woes. The best they came up with was that John was unusually agitated at work, over the pending state report regarding fatality rates after cardiac operations at Cooper.
The report did not name the people who provided this information, nor did it say what John Sheridan had said or done specifically to leave an impression that he was not himself. Soriano concluded his report with several bullet points, which amounted to a sort of connect-the-dots finding of murder-suicide. By the time the report was issued, the Sheridans knew what would be in it.
This did not lessen the sting. Even in death, John Sheridan was politically connected. County prosecutors in New Jersey are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate, and candidates for the job typically have a political sponsor. Geoffrey Soriano had been a lawyer in private practice in Somerville with a job as the municipal prosecutor in Branchburg and North Plainfield. His political patron was the state senator Kip Bateman, whose father, Raymond Bateman, a former president of the State Senate, was a longtime friend and political ally of John Sheridan.
Not that it helped the Sheridan family. It went on to compare him with the German airline pilot who deliberately crashed a commercial airliner into the Alps, killing everyone onboard. The way it looked to him, an unimaginable family tragedy was now being compounded by official incompetence and rank stupidity. His interactions with the detectives left him exasperated. He would lay out his lawyerly arguments and try to convince them that they had put their facts together illogically or had not even gathered all the pertinent facts, but they were unmoved.
And the complicated way they said he committed suicide? You stab yourself? Burn a building? Nothing makes sense. Last spring, less than three weeks after Soriano released his report, Mark Sheridan filed a lawsuit on behalf of himself and his brothers. The matter could yet end up back in court.
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Soriano would not be interviewed for this article, despite repeated requests, and New Jersey government lawyers successfully defended a suit filed by The Philadelphia Inquirer seeking access to investigative files on the case. It could have been anything.
One of the younger Sheridan brothers, Dan, is president of a human-resources firm. The other, Tim, is in the home-restoration business. Takes everything as it comes. Me, not so much. Matt left for his fishing trip the day before the fire. He favored an extreme form of the sport in which participants wear wet suits, swim several hundred yards from shore and cast for striped bass from rock formations, sometimes at night when the bass are thought to be most interested in feeding. He said goodbye to his mother on the way out and gave her a kiss.
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According to court documents, they found a small amount of cocaine, a digital scale and plastic bags coated with white powder. In one twist the Sheridan case would take, he was arrested that day. He has not been charged, and no trial date has been set. On one of the occasions I met with Mark at his Newark office, Matt joined us, wearing a sport jacket and tie.
The twins have a similar manner: direct but wisecracking, with an inclination toward dark humor. They still talk about their parents in the joking way that adult children often do. Nor did anyone else I talked to who knew John Sheridan. Had they considered the possibility that their mother initiated some kind of episode that ended in the two deaths, because by all accounts, she was the more hot-tempered of the two?
The presence of the gas can, which came from the garage and was used to fuel a generator that powers a basement sump pump, would suggest planning, as would the knives carried up from the kitchen. But nothing else — neither forensic evidence nor interviews — suggests that John Sheridan was planning anything other than continuing to work. They went back and forth like this for a few minutes. I felt as if I were listening in on a conversation they had been having for months. Where was the other knife?
In their telling, the whole Sheridan universe holds together. Their parents were civic pillars. Collectors of antiques. Their marriage made it through the inevitable bumps and endured for nearly a half-century. The prosecutor turned up not even a shred of a motive for John Sheridan. All four brothers were where they said they were — their cellphones had been examined; they were nowhere near Meadow Run Drive — and none were under suspicion. What about Matt, with his supposed possession of cocaine, and the scale and plastic bags?
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