Police missed leads by concluding that deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman were a murder-suicide: author
Warning: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence
When billionaire couple Barry and Honey Sherman were found dead in their Toronto home in Dec. 2017, police initially said it was a murder-suicide.
But after their family rejected the idea, and a second autopsy came to a different conclusion, the investigation changed to focus on a double homicide.
Investigative journalist Kevin Donovan reported on the case for the Toronto Star, and says that initial conclusion was a mistake.
In his new book The Billionaire Murders: The Mysterious Death of Barry and Honey Sherman, he also says the police missed valuable leads by not looking past the option of a murder-suicide.
Responding to the criticism, the Toronto Police Service told The Current that "the Sherman investigation remains active; we will not be commenting further on the ongoing investigation."
Donovan sat down with The Current's interim host Laura Lynch to discuss what went wrong with the case. Here is part of their conversation.
Let's start by talking about that crime scene. How were Honey and Barry Sherman found?
It was obviously quite upsetting, and dramatic at the same time for the people who found them.
Both were sitting in their basement swimming pool room, legs outstretched away from the pool, backs up against a sort of a railing that goes around the pool, [a] metre high. But most awful was the fact that there were men's belts looped around their [necks], and then tied to the railing just a few inches above them. And that kept them sitting upright.
They were actually found by a real estate agent who was showing the house ... Is that right?
That's correct. They'd probably been in the house, dead for almost two days. But a realtor that works for the Sherman family brought in prospective buyers — the house was on the market — and just came down the stairs ... and saw this very odd and horrifying tableau.
Soon after the news broke, the media started reporting that the investigators believe the deaths were actually a murder-suicide that had been perpetrated by Barry Sherman. Why was that the police's original theory?
Well, the police are not giving out interviews on this one. But from what I pieced together, the Bruce MacArthur case was ongoing at the time. We in the public didn't know about it yet, but a lot of homicide resources were spent on that one, as they were zeroing in on Mr. MacArthur.
(Editor's note: McArthur was convicted in February of killing several men in Toronto's gay village.)
And so the officers that caught the [Sherman] case — some were divisional officers — they came into this home, they saw this tableau, and for a reason that still escapes me, they decided that it was quite possibly a case of murder-suicide. Honey Sherman did have some marks to her face. Barry Sherman did not.
And this was then passed over to homicide squad. And what I know from various court information that I received in the first six weeks, they were actually only looking at the murder of Honey Sherman. Police were not investigating the murder of Barry Sherman.
So how did that theory influence the way the police worked the case?
Well, they talk about the first 48 hours and certainly the first few days in a homicide investigation is so important, so critical. And with this time ticking by, things were missed.
It looks like there were some fingerprints and palm prints that weren't taken. Even months later, it turns out that DNA and fingerprints were not taken from people who were actually with the Shermans the day they died. And the problem there is that that shows that the police were not trying to exclude potential suspects. They were quite muddled by this, I think, for a while and now here we are almost two years later.
The Sherman family ... went ahead and hired their own forensic pathologist to do a second autopsy on the bodies. Tell me what that second autopsy showed.
That was a key turning point in the investigation. Dr. David Chiasson — who is the former chief forensic pathologist for Ontario — was hired by the family. It really was, in his opinion, a case of double murder. He found evidence that their hands had been bound at one point, but no ties were found at the scene.
DNA and fingerprints were not taken from people who were actually with the Shermans the day they died.- Kevin Donovan
He found that something called the hyoid bone, which we all have in our necks, was not broken. The earlier pathologist looked at that and said, well, that's an indication of a suicide, not a vicious strangulation.
But Dr. Chiasson had actually done an academic paper years before that showed that it did not have to be broken to be indicative of one or the other. And so when he looked at everything ... he came quite quickly to the determination that it was a double homicide.
And did he provide that information to the investigators?
They asked the investigators from the Toronto police to come and sit in at the autopsy. They declined. And what happened is when I got assigned to this by my editors at the Toronto Star, I was able to dig up information that I've just described, and we put a story on the front page.
And immediately after — now, this is five weeks after, five-and-a-half weeks after the murders took place — the Toronto Police actually call up Dr. David Chiasson, the second pathologist and say: "We want to talk to you."
He gives his findings. The junior pathologist then says: "Yes, I concur." And then the police held a press conference saying this is a case of targeted double-murder.
This was such a high-profile case. How could the police make such a basic mistake?
I don't have a good answer for that. All I can say is ... it was a very difficult year for the Toronto Police homicide squad, very busy.
Officers that caught the case just made a mistake. And now I think that they're back on track. But certainly they lost a fair bit of time in those first few weeks.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A edited for length and clarity.