Warning: Contains graphic content.
The first person to find the bodies of Barry and Honey Sherman inside the pool room of their North Toronto home had no doubt they were the victims of a double homicide.
“Someone has killed my clients,” Sherman real estate agent Elise Stern told the 911 operator on Dec. 15, 2017. The grotesque tableau she witnessed was to her untrained eye a double murder. The gardener, who saw the bodies a few minutes after, came to the same conclusion.
Yet, less than eight hours later, when a homicide detective emerged from the home on Old Colony Road to address the media, he hinted police were going in a different direction. They were not looking for suspects, and he said there were no signs of forced entry. Police sources told reporters it was believed to be a case of murder-suicide, that Barry had killed Honey and then himself. It took six weeks for police to change their minds.
For almost five years, I have been trying to understand why a provincial pathologist and the Toronto police took so long to determine that Barry and Honey Sherman were murdered. As the clock ticked, detectives probed the case as either a murder-suicide or double suicide, instead of looking for the killer or killers.
Official crime-scene and autopsy photos recently viewed by the Star raise troubling questions about how investigators, medical and police, came to that early determination. The photos, taken by police forensic officers, make clear that all signs pointed to a double murder with the bodies then being staged.
Not making the determination of double murder for six weeks created a domino effect in the investigation: video from a homeowner across the road was ignored, DNA and fingerprints were not collected in a timely fashion, the wrong leads were followed.
The Star will not reveal how I came to view hundreds of photographs and accompanying notes; however, we have verified their authenticity and believe there is a compelling public interest in disclosing what they show about the handling of the high-profile case by the pathologist and police.
Neither the pathologist nor the police will answer questions about the case, saying they do not want to jeopardize an ongoing investigation. Police have said throughout that at each stage they were following good police practice.
There is more at stake here than one high-profile case. In a city and province where there have been so many missteps in homicide investigations (the Bruce McArthur, Paul Bernardo and Charles Smith cases to name a few), it begs the question: If this can happen on a case with so much public scrutiny, what about the deaths that fly below the media radar?
On the Sherman file, I tried to give police the benefit of the doubt. Thinking maybe, just maybe, there was something physical at the crime scene or on the bodies that screamed murder-suicide, something that would explain the early theory that Barry killed Honey, and took his own life, or that they both committed suicide.
I kept looking for something that would justify the indecision, first by the pathologist and then by the homicide squad, which went against what friends and family of the Shermans were telling police — that the Shermans were in good health, getting along well and had much to live for. They were busy planning trips, visits with grandchildren, and Barry was as invested in his role as leader of the Apotex generic giant as he was in the 1970s when he started the company.
Or, I wondered, was there some Sherman secret to explain why police detectives so strongly considered the double-suicide or murder-suicide theories. In reality, as police documents released to the Star by a court revealed, there was no terminal disease, no suicide pact, no suicide note, though the police searched long and hard for one. I have also come to learn that the toxicology reports showed nothing that would have contributed to their deaths. They were a relatively healthy 70-year-old woman and 75-year-old man.
While eyewitnesses to the crime scene had described it to me, and a judge had released search warrant documents detailing the scene, the pictures I have seen back up, in stark fashion, what outside investigators hired by the Shermans — and the Sherman lawyer — have said from day one. That it was clearly a double murder followed by staging of the bodies.
Before I get into this story, a word of caution. It contains graphic descriptions of the Sherman bodies at the crime scene, and during their autopsies. Based on my description (from photos I viewed, police notes, and interviews with people who saw the bodies that day), Toronto Star artist Susan Kao has prepared an anatomical sketch to show the positioning of the bodies. I never met the Shermans, but I have spent a lot of time with their closest friends and some family members, both for my Star research and my book on the case. Through them, I have come to understand the tremendous grief and loss they feel. As distressing as it is for this information to be published, we believe it is important for the public to see an artist’s rendering approximating what the pathologist and the detectives saw.
Barry Sherman, the billionaire founder of generic drug giant Apotex, and his wife, Honey, were last seen alive in the early evening hours of Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Thirty-six hours later, on Friday, a real estate agent touring clients through their home on Old Colony Road discovered their bodies. Details of that discovery can be found in documents released to the Star through a court challenge.
Civilians at the scene who saw the Sherman bodies, including real estate agent Elise Stern, made their own quick determination. Stern, as she has told the Star, never doubted that this was a double homicide.
But by that evening, Toronto police (including a homicide detective) were telling the media on the snowy lawn outside the Sherman home that they were not looking for suspects and there was no sign of forced entry — reporters took that as code for murder-suicide or double-suicide. On background later that Friday and on Saturday, police sources were telling the media that it was murder-suicide. That Barry had killed Honey and taken his own life.
Three weeks after the bodies were discovered, I was assigned by the Star to look into the case.
At the time, media reports said the Shermans were “found hanging” in their basement swimming pool room. For me, that conjured up an image of two bodies suspended in the air, feet not touching the pool deck. One report said they were hanging from “a railing” and I thought, perhaps (not knowing at the time the layout of the home) it was a railing on a viewing gallery for the swimming pool. If that was the case, I could understand why suicide was so strongly considered.
That description, read by the public around the world, was incorrect, as the photos I have now seen clearly show.
In reality, the Shermans were seated on the pool deck floor. The photos show some tension from the belts around their necks but not enough (forensic sources have told me) to cause death by suicide, given their positioning. There was simply not enough weight on the belts to cause death.
To fully appreciate the positioning, let me take you inside the swimming pool room in their basement.
The Sherman basement was 4,000 square feet. If you were looking at the house (now demolished on orders of the family) from the street, the indoor pool is at the very back. It’s a rectangular room with a rectangular pool running across the width of the house. The Sherman bodies are located in a corner of the swimming pool room (the far right corner of the house if you are looking from the street).
The location of the bodies is the most remote part of the Sherman house, and the pool was rarely used — the water was green, the pool cover was on, and the room had not been cleaned for three weeks. My speculation is that this area was chosen so that it would be a considerable amount of time before they were discovered.
There is one door into the swimming pool room. It is at the other end of the room from where the bodies were located. To get into that room you have to walk down a long hallway from the front of the house, and unlock the glass door by pressing a red button (placed there for child safety reasons as part of the municipal building code) that is high on a corridor wall.
Walking into the swimming pool room there is a narrow tiled walkway with a wall on the left and the swimming pool on the right.
In the photos I have seen there are what appear to be faint drag marks on the tiled floors, possibly from the heels of one of the Shermans’ shoes, which end at the bodies. From the police documents, we know that the Sherman cleaning staff had not visited the room for three weeks, so the faint marks were likely made in dust on the floor.
The bodies have been placed in such a manner that someone walking in would see Honey first, then Barry, on the other side of Honey.
There is a three-foot-high chrome safety railing along the side of the pool where the Shermans were found. As the police documents detail, and the photos show, the Shermans are tied to the railing with men’s leather belts. The railing where they are located is angled to follow the side of the pool. (The pool is not a complete rectangle at the far end where the bodies were discovered.)
A person walking in from the lone entry door would have seen Honey at the far end of the pool (40 feet away). Honey was in profile, the left side of her body the first part visible. She is fully dressed, wearing dark pants, a blouse and a blue vest. Her rear end is on the floor, her legs stretched out in front. Her shoes, simple black slip-ons (she had perpetually sore feet and liked a comfortable shoe), are almost touching the wall that faces the pool. Police, in their interviews with Sherman family and friends, asked if it was their mother’s practice to take her shoes off when she came home. The children were uncertain.
Seated on the floor, she is tipped back at the waist to a position that I estimate from the photos is a 20- to 30-degree angle. (Ninety degrees would be seated upright.) The belt that is looped around her neck has its pressure point at the back of her neck. Decomposition (the bodies were there for 36 hours) could account for her body shifting down somewhat, but likely not too much. While there are rare cases of people hanging themselves in a seated position, the second pathologist to look at the bodies (Dr. David Chiasson, hired by the Sherman family) determined this is not what happened, according to the Star’s sources.
In Honey’s case, and Barry’s as well, the free end of the belt is looped through the buckle and cinched around the neck, and the free end is tied tightly to the railing, keeping them from falling backwards into the pool. On the pool railing near where Honey’s belt is tied there is a small smear of blood. There is also a smear of blood on the breast of a blue vest she is wearing. The information I have seen does not say whose blood it is.
Some media reports have said that Honey’s face looked like she was the victim of a severe beating. That is not the case. There is a mark on one cheek, but it is minor. There is blood on her face, but it appears to have come from her nose as a result of the strangulation that killed her.
Barry is situated on the other side of Honey. He is attached to the angled railing a little bit farther back, which explains why, though he is taller than Honey, his feet are roughly one foot from the wall. He, too, is wearing his shoes. His right leg is crossed over the other at the ankle. He is wearing his glasses. This agrees with the description Sherman lawyer Brian Greenspan gave at a press conference one year after the murders, in which he criticized the police investigation and announced a $10-million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer or killers. The reward still stands. Greenspan, at the press conference, criticized the police for conducting what he said was a poor investigation.
Like Honey, Barry is seated, rear end on the pool deck, his torso tipped back but at a less severe angle than Honey. His head is slumped forward slightly, with the belt tension under his chin.
Where the belt tension is located is important, sources say, because the later examination by the forensic pathologist hired by the Shermans factored that in to his examination — determining that the location of the belt, plus the fact that there was relatively little weight pulling against the belts, made it highly unlikely that one or both committed suicide.
Sources say that based on an examination of the crime scene, it is most likely that the Shermans were not killed at the spot where they were found. One theory is that Honey was surprised on the main floor when she arrived home that night, and killed there and brought down to the basement swimming pool room.
When Barry arrived later that evening (driving his car into the underground garage), he was most likely surprised by the killer or killers as he walked out of the garage through a door that leads to the hallway to the pool room. Barry’s leather winter gloves and a home inspection report he had promised to mark up and bring home to his real estate agent were found scattered in the hallway as if they had been dropped. It is possible, sources say, that as Barry walked out of the garage door he saw Honey (who was likely already dead) in the hall and then Barry was attacked and killed, dropping his gloves and the home inspection report. Under this theory, both Shermans were then moved to the pool room. At some point during the attacks, both were restrained at the wrists while they were alive, as a forensic investigation would later show.
According to police notes, forensic police officers, and the forensic pathologist (Dr. Michael Pickup) went to the home that Friday afternoon, along with a coroner, when the bodies were still there. (Forensic pathologists rarely attend crime scenes though coroners sometimes do.) Homicide detectives also went to the scene. Det. Sgt. Susan Gomes, the lead officer on the investigation, never went to the scene when the bodies were there (she went four days later to the home), but Det. Brandon Price did.
Later that Friday, the bodies were moved to the provincial forensic services building and Pickup did the autopsies the next day, a Saturday, with homicide detectives observing, including Det. Sgt. Gomes.
According to the autopsy photos and accompanying notes viewed by the Star, Pickup determined that both Shermans died of ligature neck compression. He told homicide detectives that there were three explanations for their deaths: double suicide, homicide-suicide, or double homicide. Pickup was unable to determine which.
Sources have told the Star that without a clear determination of what is known as the “manner of death,” the police investigation stalled. One source, speaking on background and in defence of the homicide squad, said that in recent years, forensic pathologists have been loath to make a clear determination of death in cases where it is not immediately clear. “I think in the Sherman case, the homicide squad’s hands were tied at the start,” the source said. “They did not know what crime to investigate.”
As the Star has previously reported, one of the issues that Pickup struggled with related to the horseshoe-shaped “hyoid bone” in the Shermans’ necks. They were intact. (Autopsy photos confirm this.) Sources say that is one of the findings that caused Pickup’s indecision. A broken hyoid bone often occurs when someone is violently strangled — but not always.
The Sherman family, upset at the rumours swirling around their parents’ death, hired Dr. David Chiasson, the former chief forensic pathologist for Ontario. Chiasson did second autopsies and he was joined in the autopsy room by Pickup, who brought photos taken during the first autopsies, allowing Chiasson to see the bodies as they were originally found (before the invasive cutting of his autopsies). Chiasson, coincidentally, was the co-author of an academic paper on the hyoid bone — he found that whether it is broken or intact is not necessarily relevant to determination of how someone died.
The Sherman private investigation team asked the Toronto homicide detectives to join them for the second autopsies, but police declined the offer. Those autopsies were performed on Wednesday, Dec. 20, and the Shermans were buried the next day.
Chiasson keyed in on two things that Pickup had spotted, but not fully appreciated. These are apparent in the autopsy photos viewed by the Star. First, damage to tissue under the skin of the Shermans’ wrists that indicated they had been bound at the wrists. As forensic sources explained to the Star, when pressure is applied to a person’s skin, when they are alive, this causes broken blood vessels and bruising under the skin.
In the case of the Shermans, the marks were not readily apparent on the outside of the skin, but Chiasson noted the damage to blood vessels under the skin around the wrist, indicating to him the Shermans had been tied up. No ties were found at the crime scene. The police were aware of this at the start of the investigation — they asked a personal trainer who helped Barry work out the morning of the day he died if Barry had used any workout bands on his wrists. The trainer told police he had not.
Chiasson also took note of a thin line underneath where the belts were wrapped around the Shermans’ necks, indicating to him that they were killed with a thin ligature — the belts were merely used to hold the bodies up afterward. This indicates the Shermans were killed prior to the belts being attached to their necks. No thin ligatures were found at the crime scene.
Pickup, the first pathologist, had made these observations, but it did not cause him to make a determination on the manner of death. It took Chiasson, the more experienced pathologist, to make the determination of double homicide.
As part of its investigation into the case, the Star published Chiasson’s determination of double homicide on Jan. 19, 2018. Until that point, police did not know what he had determined. A homicide detective called Chiasson and interviewed him. On Jan. 26, Det. Sgt. Gomes (she was then the lead detective on the case) announced at a press conference that the deaths were a “targeted” double homicide.
Throughout the Star investigation, police have refused to say why it took them so long to determine it was a double murder. Previously, spokespersons for both Pickup and the Toronto homicide squad have said they cannot answer specific questions because it is an “ongoing investigation.” The Star posed the same question to Pickup and the police. Neither would provide an interview, but a spokesperson for each sent a written statement.
Stephanie Rea, from the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, said that “as per the Coroners Act, the details of this and all other death investigations are not publicly available pursuant to the privacy provisions of FIPPA. Further, as this case is subject to an on-going police investigation, I am unable to provide comment.”
Connie Osborne, manager of media relations for Toronto police, said she has “spoken with homicide and there’s nothing further to add from us at this stage.”
The case remains under investigation. Police documents obtained by the Star indicate that detectives theorize that someone they refer to as the “walking man” (between five foot six and five foot nine) with an unusual gait was the killer or one of the killers. Four years after police seized a video showing him near the Sherman home, police appealed to the public to see if anyone knew the man. Police have been unable to identify him.
Correction — June 16, 2022: The Sherman case was not deemed a double homicide by Toronto police for six weeks. A previous version of this article erroneously said six months. As well, the Sherman home on Old Colony Road was in North Toronto, not Forest Hill.
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The Star saw the Sherman crime-scene and autopsy photos. How could a pathologist and police call it a murder-suicide?