On Dec. 15, 2017, Barry and Honey Sherman were found dead in their Toronto home on Old Colony Road. The case has continued to grip the city and beyond.
The funeral of Barry and Honey Sherman was set for Thursday, Dec. 21. Normally, it would have been held at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, a Jewish funeral home. Big though Benjamin’s was, it was anticipated that more than 7,000 people would attend the Sherman funeral, such was their popularity in the Jewish community and in the business world, both in Toronto and internationally. The funeral service would be held instead at the International Centre, in Mississauga, a place typically home to trade shows.
In the previous few days the centre had hosted a Christmas celebration called “Jingle and Mingle” and a giant trade show featuring footwear and clothing. By Wednesday morning, the day before the funeral, staff had begun to set up 7,500 chairs with the help of Benjamin’s, which would convert the aircraft-hangar-size space into a funeral home and run the service.
Dr. David Chiasson was at the coroner’s office early that Wednesday. When Dr. Jim Cairns, Ontario’s former deputy chief coroner, had asked him on behalf of the Sherman family to conduct the second autopsies, Chiasson had been of two minds.
On the one hand, he enjoyed a challenge, and judging by the news reports describing the mysterious deaths, this was going to be both a fascinating post-mortem and one fraught with scientific questions that would be tough to answer. But on the other hand, he had dealt with a great deal of politics when he was Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist, and he did not enjoy that side of a high-profile job. He was not entirely sure he wanted to face that kind of stress again.
But he’d made his decision, and he hoped he could shed some light on what had happened to the Sherman couple. He was also being well paid for the work, as were Cairns and the former police officers on what appeared to be a steadily growing private investigation team.
Chiasson had invited both Dr. Michael Pickup, who performed the first post-mortems, and the Toronto police detectives working the case to the second autopsies. The police, a mix of divisional and homicide officers, had declined. Pickup agreed to go. He did not request permission from his boss, Dr. Michael Pollanen, and later Pickup would catch heat for not at least informing Ontario’s chief pathologist.
Chiasson faced a major hurdle in taking on the assignment. Conducting a second autopsy is very different from doing the first. When a first autopsy is done, the body is in the condition it was found in at the death scene. The first post-mortem disrupts the body through major incisions, removal or cross-sectioning of organs, and the removal through biopsy of parts of the skin to determine the age of bruises or cuts.
Having Pickup present was key to Chiasson being able to conduct a successful second set of post-mortems. As with the description of the official autopsy, neither Chiasson nor Pickup would agree to be interviewed. This account is pieced together from people with knowledge of what happened that day.
It was important to Chiasson that he not misinterpret anything done in the first round the previous Saturday. Pickup told Chiasson that he had not finalized his report. In fact, the official autopsy report would not be finalized for more than a month. Pickup had not reached a conclusion on the manner of death, and three theories were being considered: murder-suicide, double suicide, and double homicide.
Pickup had made a determination of the medical cause of death — ligature neck compression — but he was not prepared to state with 100 per cent certainty what caused the compression. Blood and oxygen flow had been cut off by something being wrapped around their necks, but the police had not made a determination as to the type of ligature, although the leather belts were a strong candidate.
The medical cause of death had been released by the Toronto police to the public late Sunday night. The public was told that the homicide squad was overseeing the investigation, but police said it was not classified as a homicide.
When reporters inquired over these first few days, police would say only that the investigation was continuing. To be fair to the Toronto force, at no time did Toronto detectives say publicly and on the record that they believed it was a murder-suicide. But privately, police sources continued to tell reporters that murder-suicide was the working theory, which inflamed the family and friends of the Shermans.
While Jim Cairns had been looking for a second forensic pathologist, the Shermans’ bodies had remained in temperature-controlled storage at the coroner’s building. Embalming and visitation are not part of the Jewish funeral custom, so it was possible to conduct the autopsies on Wednesday and have the funeral on Thursday.
Winter was setting in. On Old Colony Road, a police forensics team continued to go through the house. A special city truck had been brought in to help officers search through the sewer drains, but no explanation was given to the media about the purpose of this. Officers were also seen walking over the snow-covered roof of the house, but again no explanation was given to reporters.
In fact, the Sherman house had been one of many broken into in the neighbourhood over the past two years by bandits, still on the loose, who gained access through second-floor windows and doors. In the Sherman house, burglars entered through a skylight. It is quite likely that police were looking to see if anyone had tried to do so again.
If he was going to do a second set of post-mortems, Chiasson wanted it done right, and that meant having experienced investigators in the room to make observations and notes. When Michael Pickup performed the official autopsies on the Shermans the previous Saturday, Toronto police detectives were present. Joining Chiasson from the private team that morning were former Toronto homicide detectives Tom Klatt, Ray Zarb and Mike Davis.
Also present were two former forensic identification officers, now retired, one who had been with the Toronto police and the other with the Ontario Provincial Police. The former ID officers were in the room to make detailed observations and to ensure the chain of custody for any samples taken, which Sherman lawyer Brian Greenspan insisted on. Even though this was an unofficial investigation, Greenspan wanted anything discovered by his team to stand the legal test of a criminal court, if it came to that.
Shortly before 9 a.m., Barry Sherman’s body was wheeled in. In the days when Chiasson had conducted autopsies for the province, it had been in the old coroner’s office in downtown Toronto. This would be the first time he performed a post-mortem examination at the new state-of-the-art building in Toronto’s North York.
The task ahead of him was formidable. It was like being asked to complete a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
The process of conducting an autopsy involves cutting the body open, removing organs or sections of organs for analysis, and taking fluid and other samples, including skin biopsies. Dr. Pickup’s autopsy, which had determined that both Shermans had died by ligature neck compression, had been typically invasive. The other problem was that, unlike when he had conducted official post-mortems at the direction of police investigators, Dr. Chiasson had no access to the scene where the body was found. That was why Dr. Pickup was present.
The younger doctor told Chiasson he wanted to be helpful. Physically, the two men were polar opposites. Pickup was young, slender, with dark hair, a big smile and tortoiseshell glasses. Chiasson was a big man, almost completely bald, with a salt-and-pepper moustache and an almost perpetual scowl. Both men wore sterile medical gloves. Pickup produced a folder containing photos and diagrams and spread them out on a table. The photos showed the scene where the bodies were found as well as pictures taken during the first autopsy. Chiasson looked them over, and as he worked, he referred to the photos.
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From his conversation with Pickup, and from the police news release, Chiasson knew ligature neck compression had been determined as the medical cause of death. He was curious to see the condition of the horseshoe-shaped hyoid bones in both necks he was going to examine. Though not conclusive, the condition of the hyoid bone would inform his determination.
There were those in the forensic pathology world who believed that to make a ruling of murder by strangulation it was imperative that the hyoid bone be fractured. But 20 years earlier, Chiasson and Michael Pollanen, now the province’s chief forensic pathologist, had authored a study that proved this was not the case.
They found the bone was fractured in only one-third of the cases of homicide by strangulation. In the other two-thirds, an intact hyoid was found to be related to several factors, including the pressure that was used on the neck, the condition of the hyoid bone to begin with, and the type of ligature that was used. The softer the ligature wrapped around the neck, the less likely the hyoid bone was to fracture.
Compounding this, and creating further confusion, was how age factored in. In the two-decade-old study, Chiasson and Pollanen had found that the older the victim, the more likely the hyoid bone was to fracture in a homicidal strangulation.
Barry Sherman’s hyoid bone had been removed in the earlier autopsy by Pickup. But through information provided to Chiasson that day, he came to understand that neither Barry nor Honey’s hyoid bone was fractured. Chiasson wondered if that was why police thought it was a murder-suicide. As he had shown with his research years before, a murder with a soft ligature could leave an intact hyoid.
Later in the day, Chiasson looked at the death scene photos Pickup had brought to the autopsy suite. The Shermans were in a seated position, legs outstretched away from the pool, with jackets on but pulled down off the shoulder. A belt was looped around each person’s neck, with the end of each belt fed through the buckle and the end then looped or tied around the metre-high railing they were positioned against.
The leather belts would qualify as a soft ligature. If pressure was applied firmly but not suddenly, the hyoid would likely not fracture.
Chiasson, who would later discuss his findings with Cairns, did not see how the murder-suicide theory could work. While it was theoretically possible that one of the two had strangled the other and then staged the body, the other person could not have died by strangulation simply by looping the belt over the rail and sitting down. There would not be enough weight or downward force. The retired detectives present in the room agreed.
During the dual autopsies, Chiasson also paid close attention to the wrists. When he began his examination of the bodies, he had noted that skin biopsies had been taken from the wrists, which Pickup had done to determine the age of the markings. It appeared they were fresh, but a laboratory test would narrow the time frame. The bodies had remained undiscovered for two days, however, which might skew the timeline. Chiasson consulted Pickup’s photos.
From the abrasions that were present in the photographs, it looked, and Pickup agreed, like some sort of rope or plastic tie had bound the wrists. Checking the police photos of the death scene, Chiasson did not see any indication that there were ropes or ties near the bodies. Others in the room speculated that the Toronto police were searching the sewers to see if — and this seemed a fruitless task — ropes or ties had been flushed down a toilet and into the sewer system.
As Pickup had done several days before, Chiasson took fluid samples to check for the existence of drugs, beyond what a 70-year-old woman and 75-year-old man would be expected to have in their systems. Those samples were rushed to a U.S. lab, and the results were back in 48 hours, weeks before the backlogged Ontario laboratory used by the police reported on their results.
Chiasson’s samples showed there were no drugs in either body (“on board” is the pathology slang) that would have killed the pharmaceutical mogul or his wife.
It looked to Chiasson as if the Shermans were the victims of a bizarre double murder by persons unknown. In discussions with Pickup and others that day, Chiasson got the impression that the police detectives present at the first autopsies had made up their minds that it was a murder-suicide, with Barry strangling Honey, then hanging himself. That notion — and this became a hotly discussed topic among lawyer Brian Greenspan, the private detectives, and Chiasson over the next few days — seemed, at least on its face, ridiculous.
It was quite possible the police had formed this theory because Honey Sherman had injuries to her face and Barry Sherman did not. According to that theory, Barry had struck his wife to subdue her, then strangled her. But Chiasson knew there could be a wide range of reasons why one would have injuries to the face and the other did not.
The attackers could have injured Honey Sherman, for example, and for some reason not hit Barry Sherman. As some of the private team speculated, perhaps attackers had demanded something from Barry and beaten Honey to try to convince him. The fatal flaw in that theory was that the wound to Honey’s face occurred either immediately before or after death, as no bruise formed.
When Chiasson and the private detectives reported their findings to Greenspan, the conclusion was this: it was a professional hit. Some person or persons had murdered both Shermans in a deliberate and apparently professional attack, then had staged the bodies to make it look like they had killed themselves, or like one had killed the other.
For some unknown reason, Barry Sherman’s body had been arranged almost as if he were in “repose,” the word one source later used to describe the serene way he was positioned: one leg crossed over the other in a relaxed-looking fashion, glasses not at all askew.
If the killers had struck on Wednesday night and intended to make it look like a murder-suicide, one possible reason for doing that, the team decided, was to buy the killers time to escape. The ironic part of this theory was that, due to a perfect storm of inattentiveness on the part of the Sherman family, friends, realtors, and business and charity colleagues, it was not necessary, as other than the few people who emailed or called, nobody had physically checked on the couple for two days.
Chiasson’s findings from these second autopsies would not be considered by the Toronto police for almost six weeks. It was the beginning of an awkward relationship between the Sherman family and the police. Though Greenspan and his team offered information to the detectives, the police showed no interest until a Toronto Star story outlining the findings prompted them to contact Chiasson. As a result, the funeral the next day took place under a cloud of very public suspicion that Barry Sherman killed his wife then hanged himself.