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A Canadian Beer Baron’s Murder — And the Son Who Swears He Didn’t Do It

Richard Oland, from the sixth-generation of the Oland beer dynasty, died of dozens of slashes and blunt-force wounds in 2011. His only son, Dennis, was charged two years later.
December 3, 2015, 5:20pm
Dennis Oland. Photo by Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The only son of a Canadian beer magnate choked down tears before a packed court in Saint John, New Brunswick on Wednesday. It was the second day Dennis Oland testified in his own defense. Wiping his eyes, he reiterated what he'd been saying for the past four years: that he had nothing to do with the "rage killing" of his father.

Richard Oland, 69, was found beaten to death on the floor of his office back on July 7, 2011.

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Richard Oland, from the sixth-generation of the Oland beer dynasty, died of dozens of slashes and blunt-force wounds. The attacker used something like a drywall hammer to break apart the bones in his face. Wounds to his hands showed he tried, vainly, to fight back. The blood soaked through three layers of flooring into the ceiling of the office below.

Richard Oland died, as he lived, in a public, sordid fashion. While he lost control of Moosehead, Canada's oldest independent brewery, in a public fraternal feud, his own professional successes netted him a cool $37 million by the time he died. His main joys appear to have been arguing with people, winning sailing competitions, and carrying on an eight-year affair (which was increasingly public knowledge.) While his wife described him as emotionally abusive, his funeral was a who's-who of the local business and political establishment, attended by hundreds including the premier, mayor, and lieutenant-governor of the east coast province.

Murders are relatively rare in the industrial hub of Saint John. With a landscape of oil refineries, 19th-century bricks, and wild, foggy ocean vistas, Canada's oldest incorporated city prides itself on old-school loyalty. Especially close-knit: the billionaire Irvings and millionaire Olands, who pump gas, brew beer, and sign cheques for most of Saint John's 70,000 residents. Richard Oland's murder offered a rare glimpse into the dysfunctional private lives of the region's wealthiest elites.

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Related: Blood, Beer, and the Maritime Rumour Mill: The Dennis Oland Murder Trial

The investigation rapidly zeroed in on Richard's only son, Dennis. The last person to see his father alive, Dennis was also hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and spending around $14,000 per month more than he earned. The 46-year-old financial advisor, who also owed his father over $500,000, became with Richard's death either co-director or president of three companies, and received a payout of $150,000. Some saw all this as a potential financial motive.

But any appearance of an open-and-shut case proved deceiving. Searches of Dennis' home, Volkswagon, and boat turned up nothing. No other suspect was advanced, and for two years, the case appeared to go cold. Police attributed the silence to backlogs at the forensic lab. When a second degree murder charge was laid against Oland in 2013, he was bailed out by his uncle, Derek, who joined the rest of the family in publicly defending Dennis' innocence. Ever since, he's been trapped by court-ordered conditions to stay at his estate in Rothesay, a tony suburb with an average household net worth of $2.29 million, surrender his passport, and advise police of travel outside New Brunswick.

But small towns love gossip  — especially about the rich and powerful. Thus, the tiniest details have become grist for the rumor mill: a newspaper photo that appeared to show Dennis smiling while leaving Richard's funeral; that he changed his Facebook profile pic to a still from The Fugitive; that he capped off his 37-day preliminary hearing by rocking out at a Bob Seger show. All these, and juicier details, have turned Saint Johners into a community of armchair private eyes.

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Related: A Cop on Trial for Murder in Toronto Breaks His Silence

Much was also made of discrepancies between the video witness statement Dennis Oland gave to police the day the body was found, and his testimony this week under direct examination. In the former, Dennis described his father a "a really difficult" person with whom he shared only a crisp, business relationship. But in the witness box, he became emotional when defense lawyer Gary Miller asked if he loved and missed his father. He told the court he'd visited his father's office three times the day of the murder; previously, on the video, he told police he'd gone to Far End Corp only twice.

"I was nervous, I was in shock, and I was sad," Oland said, by way of explaining the incongruities.

But in both 2011, and this week, he reiterated one thing: he didn't kill Dick.

The trial, which started in mid September, is likely to wrap up earlier than expected — possibly as soon as Friday. After that, it's in the hands of the jury, which will also consider allegations of police corruption and incompetence, the two-year delay in laying charges, that no murder weapon was ever found, and innumerable other factors. If Oland is found guilty, there's little question his world-class legal team will appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

Whatever the outcome, the Oland dynasty — once synonymous with ice-cold beer — is now brewing some of the hottest gossip Atlantic Canada has ever known.

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