TORONTO – Barry Sherman, a Canadian billionaire, generic-drug mogul and philanthropist, once promised that the autobiography he was writing would be a page-turner, packed with stories of intrigue, duplicity and outright corruption by his competition.
The last chapter was without doubt the most sensational — and he did not get to write it. It occurred Friday, when his body was rolled out of his Toronto mansion by police, together with that of his wife, Honey.
On Sunday night, Toronto police announced that its homicide team was leading the investigation, and that “the cause of death for both deceased was ligature neck compression.”
The couple’s real estate agent found their bodies hanging by their indoor pool, according to a person close to the family and local news reports. Police said there were no signs of forced entry and no suspects at large the public should be concerned about.
Although the Toronto area is home to 6.2 million people, it can often feel like a small town where everyone knows one another — particularly among the small moneyed elite. And so Hanukkah and Christmas parties across the snow-swept city over the weekend were a buzzing hive of disbelief, shock and finger-pointing about the couple’s death.
The couple was known for two contradictory things: making a fortune in the tough, litigious business of generic drugs, and giving a lot of it away to charity.
Early local news reports said police were considering the deaths a murder-suicide, which friends said amounted to character assassination.
“There is absolutely zero debate in my mind, this was a double homicide,” said Linda Frum, a senator in the Canadian Parliament and a close, longtime friend of the couple.
She added: “This idea that Barry would ever harm Honey — he adored her. That’s impossible. He was a gentle, good man.”
The couple’s four children issued a statement slamming police for leaking the murder-suicide theory and urging them to “conduct a thorough, intensive criminal investigation.”
Fred Waks, a real estate developer and close friend of the Shermans, said: “Barry was involved in big pharmacy on a worldwide basis. His lawsuits pertained to billions of dollars, back and forth. When you are dealing with the size of that industry and the amounts we are talking about, you make enemies.”
He added, “And you make enemies on a global basis.”
Last month, Canadian Business Magazine listed Bernard Sherman, who was known as Barry, as the country’s 15th-richest person, with a personal net worth of 4.77 billion Canadian dollars ($3.7 billion).
He had a reputation as a shrewd, combative businessman, a brilliant scientist and a consummate workaholic who, at 75, still logged long hours in the office most days. He appeared to have no intention of ever stepping down as chairman of Apotex, the company he co-founded in 1974 and built up from just two employees to more than 6,000 in Canada alone.
The biggest Canadian-owned pharmaceutical company in the country, Apotex now makes more than CA$2 billion in annual sales, according to the company’s website.
Barry Sherman was often in the news for his company’s voluminous lawsuits, aimed at opening the market to his generic versions of drugs, and its “at-risk launches” of generic drugs, flooding the market before litigation concluded.
His personal life was also dragged into court, by a lingering lawsuit originally filed in 2006 by Sherman’s cousins, who claimed they were owed part of the company’s assets. An Ontario court threw out the case this September as “wishful thinking, and beyond fanciful.”
Friends described Honey Sherman, 70, as bubbly and vivacious. Born in a displaced persons camp to two Holocaust victims, she was passionate about Holocaust education and spent much of her time volunteering, sitting on numerous boards, including a university and a hospital.
Though fabulously wealthy, the couple did not live like billionaires. They flew economy. Barry Sherman drove a beat-up old car. And although they owned a grand house with a tennis court and two pools, it was modest compared with many even on their tree-lined, country-style street in the city’s north end.
The one way they showed their wealth was philanthropy.
The couple gave hundreds of millions of dollars to hospitals, universities, political parties and charities. They were fixtures of Toronto’s fundraising event circuit. Honey Sherman in particular was known as someone who did not like to say no to a call for help.
Just two months ago, Mayor John Tory of Toronto saw the couple at a groundbreaking for a new Jewish community center the Shermans were instrumental in funding. He asked Barry Sherman if he had plans to retire.
“He said not really. He just loved his work,” said Tory, who found himself over the weekend, at the opening of the city’s long-awaited subway extension, fielding media calls about the Shermans.
The couple showed all the signs of an expanding, invested life. They were building a new home, helping plan their daughter’s wedding and celebrating the arrival of a third grandchild.
They had booked a long vacation north of Miami Beach, Florida, where they owned a condominium and visited regularly. Honey Sherman, who was set to leave Monday, sent out email to friends last Monday asking for dates to golf and dinner for the couple while they were there.
It was signed off: “Looking forward to hearing back asap. xoxo Honey.”