When Melissa Sheridan’s son and daughter asked her what she missed most while she was in prison, besides her children, the answer was obvious to her.
“I always say it was to see the sky,” Sheridan said. “You never know the things you take for granted every day until they’re gone. When you’re locked up in a room that has no real light and you can’t see the sky outside and you can’t have that fresh air, those are things that everyone takes for granted.”
Her nightmare began two years ago in October 2020 when her husband of nine years, from whom she’d been separated, was found dead on a trail in Killarney, Ont.
“It’s one of the worst things as a parent when you have to give that news to your children, especially at that young age, it was devastating. It totally destroyed their world,” she recalled.
Brant Burke, 56, died by gunshot wound. He had been shot twice in the back and left to die in Point Grondine Reserve within Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.
“It’s one thing to try and wrap your head around the father of your children being gone but then to learn that he was shot by someone,” she said. “The more the detectives described the way the bullet was, from the back, close range — obviously whoever shot him knew at that point that they had done a horrible act and they chose to leave him there.”
The bigger shock came exactly one month later, on the morning of Nov. 25, 2020.
“I was driving down my street and there was an OPP cruiser coming at me,” Sheridan said. “She came to the window and she asked me to step out of the vehicle and told me that I was being charged with Brant Burke’s murder and it was a first-degree murder charge.”
Sheridan was taken to the police station where she was interrogated.
“I was shocked. I was confused how they could ever think I had something to do with this,” she said.
She would later learn it was Brant’s brother, Kerry Burke, who had implicated her in the murder after he confessed to the killing.
Kerry Burke pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his brother and claimed Sheridan, with whom he said he was carrying on a sexual relationship, promised to pay him $10,000 and the home he was living in with Brant.
“It’s preposterous. It’s unimaginable. And anyone who knows me knows I was never close with the family to begin with. When I was married to Brant, Kerry wasn’t a part of our life. So when Brant and I separated, I hadn’t seen Kerry in two years,” she said.
At the time, Sheridan was 40 years old, an active mother and full-time children’s playground designer. She had previously been named one of the winners of the 40 Under Forty Award by Northern Ontario Business in 2017.
While she and Brant had long been separated, she said they had recently found “a sense of calm, peace” and the children enjoyed spending time with their father, although she had custody.
Sheridan had never before been in trouble with the law.
“I was always under the impression … you kind of get that from the movies and TV … like your lawyer is there with you but that’s not the case. You’re allowed one phone call and then you’re on your own for the entire time. Their only advice to you is, don’t say anything so of course, you want to know more information, but you can’t ask them those questions,” she recalled.
Afraid for herself and worried for her children, who were at school and unaware that their mother had been arrested for their father’s murder, Sheridan said she was in complete shock.
“You’re scared. You’re in shock. You’re confused. Like, where are my children going to go? What’s going to happen to them? What are they going to think? And at the time, I mean, you’re trying to stay as calm as you can and when you have these investigators that are questioning you and telling you that you’re a murderer and that you’re evil and all for things I know I didn’t do, I never committed a murder. I was never involved in it. So it’s confusing,” she said.
Sheridan was remanded into custody and sent to jail.
“I was a first-time offender, as they call you, and with the severity of the charge, I was automatically remanded on suicide watch for 24 hours,” Sheridan said. “It’s this horrible little room that you’re put in with a metal bench and they give you this, like, fire retardant dress to wear. It’s just humiliating and so you have someone for the first 24 hours that just sits there and kind of stares at you.”
After that, Sheridan met with a prison psychologist, who she recalled asked her just two brief questions.
“How is your hope and how is your support? I don’t know how my hope is because I don’t even know why I’m here. And how is your support? Well, I still haven’t talked to my family at this point so because of those two answers, I was remanded on suicide watch for a week,” she said.
Sheridan advises that for an entire week, she was unable to call home.
In that time, Sheridan said she later learned about rumours swirling on social media that she had died by suicide.
This still haunts her until this day, she said.
“Without my children being able to talk to me, it was just another level of tragedy that was kind of forced upon them until they finally did learn the truth towards the end of the weekend. … But for a week there, my kids thought they lost their mom. So they’ve definitely been through a lot,” she said.
When the suicide watch was lifted, Sheridan was placed in COVID-19 isolation for a further 15 days. Then, finally, she was transferred “into the range.”
She described horrific conditions in jail, including mouse infestation, a lack of staff and a riot that broke out among inmates.
Every day, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Sheridan said she and the other inmates were locked out of their cells and forced to interact with each other.
“It definitely gave me a different perspective of people that are in there and they’re normally stereotyped,” Sheridan said.
“And some of the people I met and that I spoke with were good people. They just made a mistake and they were learning from it,” she said. “The time in there they used to get their high school diploma or take courses on substance abuse and things that they could help turn their life around later on.”
Over the course of six weeks, Sheridan was able to call her children several times but giving them hope, while she felt hopeless herself, was difficult.
“We have to stay positive and we have to pray that the truth will come out and this nightmare will end and as much as you say it to your children, it’s sometimes, when you’re living in there, it’s very hard to even follow that on your own,” she recalled.
Sheridan was anxious to go home.
“I didn’t realize you don’t automatically get bail when you’re charged with murder. You have to apply for it. And it’s quite a process, from what I understand. So I was remanded in custody for six weeks and I was lucky enough that the lawyers I had worked extremely hard and they were able to get me out just before Christmas,” she explained.
When she arrived home, however, her children were taken from the house, prohibited from staying with her given the severity of the charge she was facing.
“They ruined my life,” Sheridan said. “They’ve ruined my reputation, they’ve damaged my children and all for something I didn’t do.”
When finally she had settled into life at home, under strict bail conditions, Sheridan said she learned more about the way her former brother-in-law had implicated her in the murder.
“It actually blew my mind to know that I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit based on the confession of a murderer that said I had something to do with it,” she said. “They arrested him and he implicated me and so they arrested me the next day without even following up on these allegations or investigating or even bringing me into question me other than since they arrested me.”
For 20 months, in the eyes of the law and her community, Sheridan was considered an accused killer.
“It’s absolutely been devastating and life-altering. … Never in my life did I ever think that something like that can happen based on somebody’s word,” she said.
Sheridan wore a GPS ankle monitor, which she said, is not what people may envision it to be.
“It’s actually quite large. It’s not what people think, like a little Apple Watch that you’re wearing. Like it’s a huge box. So there’s fear, you don’t want to leave the house, you don’t want to see anyone, you don’t want to interact because you’re still trying to wrap your head around this,” she recalled.
Sheridan said there were many court dates that followed and a lot of delays.
“My lawyer was pushing forward to hurry up to get us to a preliminary inquiry, but they hadn’t even finished investigating so months and months were delayed while they continued to investigate to try and prove his allegation correct. Meanwhile, they’ve destroyed my life,” she said.
Finally, in July 2022, a preliminary hearing was held in a Sudbury courthouse, and the Crown dropped the murder charge against Sheridan.
“My biggest fear is being wrongfully convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. And that’s a long sentence. I’m looking at life and what happens to my children? And so when they withdrew the charge, there is that relief. Obviously, the kids were more at peace. But your life doesn’t go back to the way it was. It’s forever changed,” she explained.
Her nightmare now over, Sheridan has given notice that she plans to sue the Ontario Provincial Police and the Wikwemikong Tribal Police.
“We’re advancing a lawsuit against the police that were involved in this,” said her lawyer, Justin Linden. “In our view, the police ought to have been far more careful before laying this charge. There was, in our view, a negligent investigation. They didn’t take the steps they should have taken. And had they properly investigated what was being alleged, they never, ever, ever would have laid this charge against Miss Sheridan.”
Counsel for police declined to comment given the matter is before the courts.
Linden said this should serve as a wake-up call to other Canadians who think this can never happen to them.
“I think it’s terrifying that you can be charged with first-degree murder essentially the morning after someone who shoots their own brother in the back twice comes up with some concocted insane story that you are somehow involved in it without any sort of a proper investigation,” Linden said.
“Hours passed between the time he gives the story and the time she’s arrested, and those hours should have been spent investigating this crime rather than going and picking up the innocent mother of two children who had absolutely nothing to do with this crime. So I think the average person should be terrified about what happened,” he said.
Linden called it a “terrible case of someone who’s been wrongfully accused by a rush to judgment by the police.”
He added that the lawsuit is about accountability and making sure this doesn’t happen to somebody else and recovering compensation for his client.
Between rushing her son and daughter to school and their many extra-curricular activities, and her full-time job, Sheridan is back to living an active life but she is quick to point out, things will never be quite the same.
“In our society, they always say you’re innocent until proven guilty. That’s not true in light of social media. … You’re automatically convicted in the eye of the public,” she said.
“It’s very disappointing that this is where our justice system is at and that there’s no repercussions and there’s no acknowledgment of the grave mistake that was made.”