Barry and Honey Sherman: Duelling investigations, high drama and still no answers

Anne Kingston: Shrouding of information is now the norm in a case many reflexively say will never be solved

A year has passed since Honey and Barry Sherman were found dead in their Toronto house on the deck of their indoor swimming pool, strangled, with belts looped around their necks. The horrific discovery of the high-profile billionaires, he the founder of generic drug giant Apotex, she a noted philanthropist, gave rise to international headlines, a battalion of armchair detectives, and one of this country’s most perplexing unsolved crimes. Over the past 12 months, the mystery has been compounded by duelling investigations that themselves require a forensic detective to unravel: one by Toronto Police Services (TPS), a second, the private investigation paid for by the family. In the process, much has been shrouded, with the complex intersections of money and justice on full display.

From the outset, the Sherman family’s clout and powerful connections shaped and shadowed both investigations. It was Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, a family friend, not the police, who announced the Shermans’ deaths in a tweet sent at 12:30 p.m. on December 15th.

RELATED: The other side of Barry Sherman

Within 24 hours of their parents’ deaths, the Shermans’ four children had retained high-profile Toronto criminal defence lawyer Brian Greenspan, a man vaunted for his skill shaping a narrative to defend clients. The family was furious with early police statements that suggested the case was being treated as a murder-suicide (police declared no signs of forced entry; that they weren’t looking for other suspects; that the neighbourhood was not at risk).

In a statement released on Dec. 16, the family forcefully rejected any suggestion that their 75-year-old father could have killed their 70-year-old mother then himself, calling police sources “irresponsible.” Greenspan echoed the point on the Toronto Star noting that anyone who knew the couple would find the murder-suicide scenario, which is statistically the most common outcome of family violence in the home, “unsupportable as a matter of logic.”

Greenspan assembled a team of retired homicide cops, forensic specialists and a pathologist who conducted second autopsies. The family was also supported by Toronto mayor John Tory, a Sherman family friend and member of the Toronto Police board, who communicated their dissatisfaction to the TPS.

In short order, the media was filled with unattributed details about the deaths that pointed to professional killers — that the couple’s wrists had been bound; that Honey Sherman, believed to have arrived home first, struggled with her killer or killers and was found lying in a pool of her own blood. One detail widely circulated, that the Shermans’ winter coats had been pulled back behind them, thus immobilizing their arms, so clearly pointed to murder it was difficult to understand how anyone who had read Nancy Drew, let alone seasoned police officers, would have considered murder-suicide. Compounding the tabloid-like frenzy were allegations from Barry Sherman’s cousin, Kerry Winter, that the Apotex CEO approached him in the ’90s to kill Honey. (Winter, who later failed a televised lie-detector test on the subject, recently had unsuccessfully sued Sherman for denying him what he believed was his family’s rightful portion of Apotex; he owed the executive sizeable damages.)

In late January, the police held a public update to announce that the case was being investigated as a “targeted” double homicide. An April Maclean’s investigation revealed the complexity of any such investigation, given Barry Sherman’s labyrinthine business dealings that included interactions with known criminals, a history of bitter litigation and adversaries that spanned continents.

While police don’t comment on ongoing cases, at least officially, private investigations are not so constrained. The Toronto Star provided a backstage look at the Greenspan-led investigation in May; the Wall Street Journal followed suit in June with “After a billionaire and his wife are found dead, their children try to crack the case.” The WSJ piece hammered away at the murder-suicide scenario abandoned by police months earlier; it cited photos with “another clue inconsistent with a suicide”: “The belt loop around Mr. Sherman’s neck didn’t appear to extend far enough from the railing to provide the force he would need to kill himself.” The private team had zeroed in on the detail of Barry Sherman’s legs “stretched out on the tiled floor,” it noted: “They wondered how his legs could have been so neatly aligned if he had strangled himself.”

RELATED: The Barry and Honey Sherman murder investigation by the numbers

That story included the first interview with the Sherman’s son Jonathon, who shared that he and two of his sisters waited until 9 p.m., hours after Eric Hoskins’ tweet, before the police confirmed their parents were dead. He also said that without the “family’s efforts,” the TPS would have stuck to the possibility that his father killed his mother and then himself, a theory he called “unsubstantiated and wrong-minded.” “We have tried to be patient and understanding,” he said. By then, the family had obtained a two-year blanket seal order to keep private the progress of the Toronto police homicide probe to protect the “privacy and dignity” of the deceased couple and their loved ones.

In October, the investigation was put under the spotlight again by Bloomberg News. The Unsolved Murder of an Unusual Billionaire” was written by Matthew Campbell, a journalist who had attended the same high school as Jonathon Sherman a year apart and whose parents traveled in the same circles as Barry and Honey; Apotex had donated to the political campaign of his father, Barry Campbell, a former Liberal MP.

The story included previously unreported details from sources close to the investigation, though none were credited. In this telling, Barry Sherman’s legs were crossed, not “neatly aligned”: he “was seated, legs extended forward and crossed neatly at the ankles.” Campbell reported the “tidiness of the scene suggested the work of professionals,” adding a new theory to earlier reports that Sherman was found not wearing a belt: “one of the belts seemed to have been taken from Barry’s trousers.” Such last-minute improvisation contradicts the organized contract hit theory and raises questions: If one belt was brought to the scene, why not two? Did the killer intend to kill only one and end up murdering two? Or was this another detail reported by a journalist fed a tip he or she couldn’t corroborate? (Campbell declined to speak with Maclean’s.)

The story concluded the murders will likely never be solved. It also featured an interview with Jack Kay, Barry Sherman’s longtime #2 at Apotex who is now heading a company 90 percent controlled by Shermans’ estate. With the generic drug company in crisis, the company is a depreciating asset, the business publication noted.

Days later, Greenspan held a 45-minute presser at Apotex destined to garner headlines: he announced family’s frustration with police had compelled it to offer a reward “up to $10 million” for information leading to the apprehension and prosecution of those involved in the crime.  A tip line was up and running.

In lambasting the force for failing to follow best practices in its investigation, Greenspan provided a litany of lapses destined to assist any future defence lawyers looking to discredit the police’s evidence-gathering in the case: mishandling fingerprints, not checking locks for tampering.  Basic tasks still hadn’t been completed, Greenspan reported, adding that the family’s efforts to share evidence — including 25 palm prints allegedly missed by the police — had met with a stall.

Greenspan vowed not to compromise the investigation: “We’ll make no public disclosure of information we have acquired or is in the hands of the Toronto Police Service.” Yet in criticizing the police for failing to identify the crime as a homicide at the outset, he described the staging of Barry Sherman’s body with new details about placement of his glasses: “Barry Sherman’s legs were outstretched with one crossed over the other in a passive manner, wearing his undisturbed eyeglasses and his jacket pulled slightly behind his back which would have prevented use of his arms.”

After portraying the force as little better than Keystone Kops, Greenspan called for closer coordination between it and his team. A large body of academic literature supports joint public and private investigations, the lawyer said, adding they can assist the community by “freeing the public purse of the burden of the investigation we contemplate.” Money shouldn’t make a difference in the justice system but, well, it does, the lawyer said: It can take a year for the Centre for Forensic Science to process police evidence, but the wealthy can speed up the process by accessing private facilities.

The family and the police share the same goal, Greenspan noted—finding and prosecuting the perpetrators. But, as is the case with all lawyers, his loyalty is to his clients, not the public. He is not obliged to assist a police investigation; nor are the police under any obligation to share all information with the family. The creation of a second tip line arguably creates two communication streams with no apparent coordination. Greenspan said his team would pass on credible tips to police, though how that would be decided is unclear.

RELATED: What’s slowing the cops down at Apotex headquarters

Hours later, TPS Chief Mark Saunders countered with his own press conference in which he said early information provided by police had been taken out of context. He supported the family posting a reward, he said, then bashed the effectiveness of paid incentives: “We know historically awards don’t help in proving cases,” he said, providing the police tip line number. Private sector investigations can be biased, Saunders pointed out: “What is the vested interest in that private sector?”…”Who is paying that private sector?”

The chief, who once headed the homicide division, appeared constrained. “Some things were disclosed today that, uh…” he said, before cutting himself off. Explaining his caution, he uttered a jaw-dropping statement: “I have to be cognizant that the suspect or suspects are watching right now. I know that for a fact.” How he knew that for “a fact,” short of seeing the suspect or suspects  in the audience in front of him, is unclear. TPS did not respond to Maclean’s request for clarification.

Days after the duelling press conferences, the Toronto Star reported the Sherman case was not quite dead embers yet: the TPS had obtained nine new search warrants in the previous four weeks, suggesting “police may be ramping up their investigation into the pair’s killing.” What the police are looking for or where the warrants were served is unknown; the Star has asked the court to have the warrants unsealed.

A month later, the Toronto Sun reported a ramping down: several police officers heading the unsolved Sherman investigation had been promoted or are on a list to rise up the ranks. The Toronto Star has reported there is now only one-full time officer on the case.

Yet solving the crime has taken on new urgency given the Star‘s recent report that Honey Sherman died without a will, or, if there is one, it can’t be found. The specter of no will is odd given the Shermans’ wealth, the fact that estate lawyers usually work with spouses, and Honey’s history of giving generously to charities. Absence of a will makes the order of the Shermans’ deaths salient: if Honey died before her husband, his assets would be divided among his children, per his will; if she died after him, her estate would be arbitrated in court. Details of the size and distribution of the Shermans’ estate, estimated around $5 billion, have been sealed by a rare court order granted to the family due to their fear of “kidnapping and violence.”

Such shrouding of information is now the norm in a case many reflexively say will never be solved. Certainly, if you looked at the TPS website on the morning of December 13, it was as if the case never existed—or was not unsolved. It listed 32 unsolved 2017  homicides. Barry and Honey Sherman were nowhere to be found — until Maclean’s contacted the TPS to ask why the most talked about murder victims of 2017 were missing from the list. Hours later, the page was quietly updated. Barry and Honey Sherman are now at the top.

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