Joyce Sheridan, New Jersey, Sheridan discussed on On The Media

On The Media
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Listener supported WNYC studios. Earlier this year, the New Jersey attorney general opened up an investigation into the killings of John and Joyce Sheridan, a well-known couple with personal ties to three governors. In 2014, they were found stabbed to death, and their homes set on fire. This morning, the mystery deepens over the death of John and Joyce Sheridan, a prominent New Jersey couple with powerful connections and close friends of governor Chris Christie. The first responders who came into the door, the Sheridan home early the morning of September 28th, found what could only be described as a house of horror. Local police thought that John Sheridan murdered his wife and then killed himself. That was 8 years ago. So why is the attorney general revisiting the case now? Well, this year, our WNYC colleague Nancy Solomon released an investigation into their brutal deaths and found damning evidence of corruption at the highest levels in the garden state. The series is called dead end, a New Jersey, political murder mystery. I'm a big show out on Friday, you'll hear an hour of that spellbinding coverage. But in this midweek podcast, I wanted to hear why after 20 years of reporting on New Jersey politics, Nancy made the show at all. The idea first occurred to her in 2019. She was working on a project with ProPublica, and she found that a tax break program was being exploited by a powerful family in Camden, New Jersey. During that reporting, she realized there was more to the Sheridan killings than the public had been told. But that thought didn't make it into that story. Instead, she focused on the political corruption. I'd spend a whole year working on that reporting. And it never really broke through. It never had what we call legs. It didn't feel like it went anywhere. And that it got the kind of attention that I had hoped it would get. Those are hard stories to tell because they're very document driven and us radio people we love good tape. And I didn't have a lot of good tape. And so those stories were just a bit dry and long and complicated. And so it just left me kind of a little frustrated by the end of the year. You said it was a yearlong project. And you were looking into many party bosses. But you ended up focusing on the nor cross brothers, right? Yes. George norcross was often described by the press as quote one of the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey. Is that phrase straightforward? Or is that code for something? I don't think it's code necessarily. I think it's true, but it doesn't really tell you anything. And I think for many years, I wondered what exactly that meant. You know, okay, so he's powerful. I get that, but how? What kind of power does he have? What levers of power is he able to pull on? And how did he get to be so powerful? Okay, so that started out as a story of outrageous conflict of interest and corruption and a tax break program in the poorest city in America. Somehow you found yourself staring down an old double murder case. And that is what dead end is about. And in order to tell the old story and the murder story together, you landed on a new format true crime. And that was a conscious decision because you love true crime. That's right. I guess my very first experience with detective stories was Nancy Drew, who I adored when I was a kid, especially since my name is Nancy. That sort of thing matters a lot. I thought those books were written for me. And in more recent years, I'm just a complete Scandinavian noir nerd. And I like in a true crime podcast. So all that was rumbling around in my mind in terms of what I actually consume as a reader and a watcher and a listener. So I realized that if I could hook an audience with a compelling murder mystery, then maybe they would stay along for the ride to understand the political corruption at work behind and connected in some ways to the murder mystery. You know, this spring as we geared up and got ready to launch the podcast. I would lie awake in bed in the middle of the night. Worrying that the audience was going to drop off as soon as we left the murder mystery and tried to explain the political machine and the real estate deal and the tax breaks. I thought, oh, people are not just going to not listen, but they're going to be mad at me. That's what I was afraid of. But you made those inextricably intertwined. To me, they are inextricably intertwined, and that was one of the mind-blowing pieces of new information that no one had ever reported related to the Sheridan case. So, you had all this. You had the somewhat arcane story of taxes intertwined with a, let's face it, addictive mystery about terrible murder. Did this strategy of yours to apply the true crime format to a story you'd visited before? Did it work? Yeah, absolutely. I think we're thrilled with the audience numbers that we're seeing. How many listeners do you know that you've gotten? As far as I know we're up over 3 million in two months, you know, when I do a story that runs on the air, even if it runs on NPR on the national network, I'm excited if I hear from one or two people. Like, oh, I heard your story. It was so good. Blah, blah, blah. This has just been unreal. But here's the big question. This is a somewhat fraught genre. The gory details are what draw people in, but true crime can easily tilt closer to exploitation than justice. Also, the plot twists that keep people tuned in can feel manipulative and confusing, but hey, that's the price of admission, right? As long as it doesn't mislead. Now is really concerned about the Sheridan family and how they would feel about it and what it would be like for them. And so I was really super happy to hear from multiple members of that family about how pleased they were with the podcast after it came out. You know, and one of the other issues is, you know, we thought long and hard about whether we would insert the usual narrative tool that many mysteries engage in, which is the red herring. They present a solution to the crime that starting to look like, oh, that must be it. You get really drawn in like, that's the guy who did it. And it's looking like it's going that way. And, oh, I'm so smart because I'm figuring this out ahead of what they're telling me. And then of course it turns out not to be true. And that person, whatever has an alibi or didn't do it, and you move on to the next red herring. And I really did want it to unfold like a murder mystery, but I just couldn't, as a journalist, I couldn't put information into the podcast that I knew was not true. I just couldn't live with that. So there were, there were limits to how far we were willing to go. When our producer asked you, if there was anything about dead end that you didn't want to give away in this conversation, you mentioned feeling a little conflicted about that.

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