In 1985 a murder case rocked the small town of Niantic Connecticut. A pregnant wife was found strangled in the bedroom while her husband was away on a sailing trip. The crime went unsolved until a witness came forward to give investigators a clue, in of all places, a VHS copy of a horror movie.
Ed and Ellen Sherman appeared to be a happy couple around town, both professional, Ellen a publisher, Ed a teacher at the local community college. Although they appeared to be the epitome of community grace, their private lives told a different story. Ed was a philanderer who often partook in wife swapping and sex parties. Ellen seemed not to mind and often engaged in the activities herself.
Enter Nancy Prescott, Ed’s mistress who became pregnant and had a child during their affair. Ellen at her limit told Ed to leave Nancy so they could start afresh.
Ed agreed and the couple tried to reignite their marriage, Ellen herself becoming pregnant.
But on a Sunday in August 1985, while Ed had gone on a sailing trip with four friends, he got a call from police on the boat’s radio, saying his pregnant wife was dead. She was discovered by a male family friend who Ed had asked to look in on her that night.
At first glance it indeed looked as if an intruder had come into their home and squeezed the life out of Ellen then made a hasty retreat, in fact, the air conditioner was still turned on.
Ligatures around Ellen’s neck provided the medical examiner with enough proof to determine she had been strangled with her own underwear. But the furthering investigation would also show that she had been strangled before the panties had gone around her neck. Medical examiners determined that she had been killed earlier that Sunday.
The question remained; who would do this? And as is usually the case, investigators look first to the spouse as a suspect. But Ed had been away on a sailing trip on Sunday, he had a solid alibi, with four witnesses. He couldn’t have done it. How could he be in two places at once?
Ed had even spoken to his wife on the night of the murder at a friend’s house, they all heard him on the phone.
Forensic scientists were baffled especially Dr. Henry Lee of the Connecticut State Crime Lab. That is until someone came forward with a tip that would blow the lid off the case.
The witness said she had run into Ed at the local video store on the morning of his sailing trip. She says Ed recommended a horror movie called Blackout, a mystery about a disfigured man named Allen Devlin, who early on may have brutally killed his wife and children and then manipulated the crime scene to thwart investigators.
In the film, Richard Widmark, Detective Joe Steiner, is confounded and sets out to prove that Allen is, in fact, responsible for the brutal killings.
Remember the air conditioner? In “Blackout” the killer uses a clever trick to throw investigators off. He turns up the appliance to its highest setting and leaves it running.
The extremely cold temperatures slow down the rigor mortis process and the body’s decomposition which can cause investigators to inaccurately estimate the true time of death.
Both Widmark in the film and real-life investigators in the Sherman case discover this murderous hack. In the Sherman case where the coroner determined the time of death to be Sunday, they surmised that with the air conditioner running, the time of death was actually two days prior, on Friday. This means Ed could have done it before leaving for his fishing trip.
Still, Ed had called his wife from miles away the night of the murder and his friends could attest to that. Except unbeknownst to Ed, there was someone else on the phone, one of the gentleman’s daughters who reported that she picked up the receiver to make a call and heard him talking, only he wasn’t talking to his wife, he was talking over the ringing on the other end: the call was a fake.
According to the show Forensic Files (full episode below), Ed strangled his wife to death with his bare hands after dinner on Friday. He then wrapped the underwear around her throat to try and mislead investigators into thinking it was a sex crime.
After that, and inspired by the movie Blackout, he then turned the air conditioner to high to slow down the decomposition process ultimately misdirecting the Coroner and the true time of death. He then left for his friend’s house for the fishing trip and mocked a call later that night all within earshot of his friends, but unaware someone else was listening.
Ultimately thanks to the movie Blackout, investigators concluded that with the frigid temperatures, the actual time of death was not on Sunday, but two days earlier when Ed was still at home.
Ed Sherman was arrested for murder. Prosecutors argued that Ellen had given up on their marriage and wanted a divorce. She, being the primary owner of the business told Ed he could have his girlfriend and the sailboat, and nothing else.
During the trial, jurors were very interested in knowing more about Ellen’s time of death. Based on the forensic evidence they determined that Ed had the time and the motive to commit the murder, and six years after the crime he was found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Ed never admitted guilt and three years after the conviction he died in prison after suffering a heart attack.