Blood, Beer, and the Maritime Rumour Mill: The Dennis Oland Murder Trial
Dennis Oland is accused of murdering his famous dad: the Maritimes can't take its eyes off the sad spectacle.
Rumours ran thick and fast in Saint John, New Brunswick on July 6, 2011, when Richard Oland, president of the Far End Corp, and from the sixth-generation of the Oland beer dynasty, was beaten to death on the floor of his office in the heart of the historic uptown. The cause of death: dozens of slashes and blunt-force wounds. Somebody seriously pissed off had wielded a heavy object with enough force to break apart the bones in his face, leaving fragments lodged in the wounds. Gashes on his hands indicated he fought for his life. The blood soaked through three layers of flooring, permeating the ceiling of the office below.
Murders are rare in Saint John, a port city of 70,000, a melange of massive oil refineries and wild ocean views, dead malls, and 19th-century brickwork draped with film-noir fog. For 230 years, Canada's oldest incorporated city has kept it old school, in the sense of both strong family and community loyalties, and in that it's still an old boy's club. At some point, almost all Saint Johners have been hired and fired by a small coterie of millionaires and billionaires. Irving- and Oland-owned companies pump the gas, brew the beer, and sign the cheques: that's enough to shut up most of their critics. Generally, it's only when things get so bad that a dispute ends up in court that the juiciest scandals of such wealthy elites enter into public record.
The Oland case ripped the lid off the private life of Richard Oland. While well known in Saint John, he wasn't well liked. After losing a bitter battle for the helm of Moosehead, Canada's oldest independent brewery, to his brother, he rapidly racked up his own professional successes—but according to his wife, he was verbally and emotionally abusive, and "never the same with his children" afterward. Richard's great joys seemed to be arguing with people, winning sailing competitions, making a lot of money, and carrying on an eight-year affair (which was increasingly difficult to hide). His shrewdness extended to his wife, whom he required to provide receipts for any expenditures from her $2,000/month allowance. By his death at age 69, he was worth a cool $37 million. Hundreds of mourners, including the premier, mayor, and lieutenant-governor, filed out of his funeral to the strains of the Sinatra classic, "My Way." The lyrics ("The record shows I took the blows / And did it my way") were spookily fitting.
From the moment cop cars arrived at the murder scene on Canterbury Street, Saint John crackled and sparked with rumours. Cabbies, co-workers, and coffee-shop regulars all had their pet theories and suspicions. Among them: Richard was beaten to death with a drywall hammer (which, strangely, turned out to be probably true). The killer was his jilted lover or the jilted lover's husband or a pissed-off investor or the Russian mafia.
The top guess, however: Dennis Oland, Richard's only son.
At face value, this was a slam-dunk theory. Richard's son admitted being the last person to see his father alive, at the office, where he said they were talking about a genealogy project. Dennis was also hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, according to testimony from a forensic accountant, spending around $14,000 per month more than he earned on items such as trips to Hungary, Italy, England, and Florida. Most awkwardly, he also owed his father over $500,000, a loan that bankrolled Dennis' divorce from his first wife. With Richard's death, Dennis became either co-director or president of his father's three companies. He also received a payout of $150,000 as the co-executor of his father's will and trustee of an additional fund. Good financial news, at least, in a time of tragedy—but also, some said, a fiscal motive for murder.
The Saint John Police Department—which has since been dragged into allegations of corruption and other major fuck-ups in the Oland investigation, first realized something strange was happening with Dennis during a videotaped witness statement to Constable Stephen Davidson.
What started as routine questioning quickly turned into a laundry list of his late father's ugly traits. In the video, Dennis describes his father as "a really difficult" person "lacking in certain social skills." Unsolicited, he outlines Richard's infidelities, and how he alienated his friends and family with his constant disses and arguments. When asked if he knew anything that could help police, he airily theorized that "some crackhead looking for $20" was probably the killer (never mind said crackhead forgot the Rolex, laptop, and BMW keys sitting on Richard's desk). But while some people called Richard a "ruthless bastard," Dennis said, he didn't want his father dead.
The chattiness dried up when Dennis was asked where he was during the murder. While he admitted coming to his dad's office, he couldn't recall the route he drove or what he did afterward. Left alone in the room, Dennis appears confused on the video, tracing an imaginary map on a piece of paper, mumbling to himself. After 2.5 hours, police informed Dennis he was a suspect, and they'd be executing search warrants.
But then, very strangely, the case seemed to go cold. The searches of Dennis' home, Volkswagen, and a boat co-owned by his wife turned up nothing. No other suspect was advanced: still, nothing happened. For two years. Dennis continued to work occasionally at the office where his dad was killed. Reporters, meanwhile, were going nuts: lawyers for the local paper and CBC started contesting the sealing of several search warrants, as police threw shade at the forensic lab for taking forever processing the scene. The media were forced to dance around a court-ordered publication ban on naming Dennis as a suspect for almost two years. While the ban was eventually overturned, the radio and print silence had only intensified the rumours.
Public feeling was equal parts shock and "no shit, Sherlock" when, two years after the crime, Dennis Oland was charged with second-degree murder. He was released after a few days in jail on $50,000 bail posted by his uncle, Derek Oland, who issued a public statement defending Dennis' innocence and pledging the family's full support during upcoming legal proceedings.
As with his highly public self-presentation leading up to the trial, it appeared as though Dennis Oland was trying to send everyone a message via social media November 9, 2013. Just a few days before he was charged, he changed his publicly-visible profile pic to a still of Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. In the 1993 flick, Ford plays a man wrongfully convicted of murder, trying find the real killer while being hunted by police. It was either a truly ballsy bit of vaguebooking, or a strange attempt at black humour. Whatever the intended message, few people, if any, remarked on the reference. In any case, it was eclipsed by the re-emergence of another strange photo of Dennis, re-used by various media outlets, in which he appeared to be smiling as he exited his father's funeral.
Four years after the murder, those proceedings drag on. The trial, which started September 16, 2015 and is scheduled to run into December, is poised to be one of the longest criminal trials in New Brunswick history. It's drawn a remarkably vivid, dysfunctional portrait of the Olands. But it's an even more powerful illustration of just how much appearances matter in small towns, where gossip is a tie that binds, and burns. Peeping over the hedges to see what your neighbours are up to is a favourite recreational activity.
Dennis Oland's estate, Sevenacres, has been in the family for generations. On one of the toniest roads in Rothesay, a Saint John suburb with an average household net worth of $2.29 million, Sevenacres is screened from the road by a double-barrier of log fencing and box hedges, further buffered by spacious paddocks, a barn, and stables. While private, the situation is extremely cozy in other ways: it's just a five-minute walk from the mansion where Richard once lived—and closer still to neighbour and Oland family lawyer Bill Teed. The court-ordered conditions for Dennis' release include that he maintain this residence, surrender his passport, and advise police of any travel outside New Brunswick. In other words, he's basically trapped in this genteel seclusion.
So, on a certain level, it's kind of easy to see why Dennis has, in recent years, turned into quite the man-about-town—a shift from his quieter, pre-2011 lifestyle, according to some who knew him. While Dennis is seen daily above the fold of the local paper, as well as entering and exiting court in a swarm of media, he's almost as frequently sighted at bars, restaurants, auctions, and concerts. In a city the size of Saint John, this is not a huge circuit. In fact, it appears from the outside a hellishly claustrophobic, Panopticon-like situation, enough to drive anyone mad. But it seems to have had an opposite effect on Dennis.
On November 26, the same day his preliminary hearing ended, Dennis Oland and a group of friends attended a Bob Seger show at Saint John's biggest hockey arena, Harbour Station. While Bob and the Silver Bullet Band revisited classics like "Against the Wind," he and his buds conspicuously rocked out—to some eyes, an odd way to cap off 37 days of court proceedings determining he'd be tried for murder. As Dennis and friends stood up in their seats, working on their night moves, saucy fellow Seger fans surreptitiously snapped pics of the local celebrity in their midst, stealth-texting photos with captions like "OMG look who it is!"
In a bizarre small-town twist, when Oland pleaded not guilty on September 8, 2015, he attracted a bigger crowd to Harbour Station than Bob Seger. Five thousand people were summonsed for possible jury duty: one of the biggest jury pools in provincial history, and larger than the pool for either Paul Bernardo or Robert Pickton, necessitating the makeshift venue. Even the typically yawnworthy process of jury selection felt like the casting for a reality TV show. Offered a choice to be tried either by a judge alone, or by judge and jury, he choose the route of public spectacle. And so, the concession stands were open and prospective jurors chowed down on nachos as Oland sat in the middle of it all, watching the masses filter in. He entered his not-guilty plea into a microphone, on the arena stage, in front of thousands.
Several months ago, I was out with a fellow journalist at Port City Royal, around the corner from the former crime scene. We'd both covered the Oland case. So it felt a bit weird when we walked in and instantly spotted Dennis and Lisa. When Dennis left to bring the car around, we watched a mint-condition, dark-green 1967 Volvo Amazon roll down steep Grannan Lane. In a town of 12-year-old Toyota Corollas and brand new Ford F-150s, a ride like that stands out: I'd often spotted it parked on Charlotte Street. I'd even tweeted a picture of it, once: "My ride's here." I'd had no idea, then, who it belonged to. I sure did now.
As Lisa got in beside Dennis, she looked back. For a second, I saw the scene from her perspective: us staring out at her, framed by the glowing rectangle of the window. She looked pained and annoyed: we were caught red-handed, watching. Indeed, it was impossible not to watch the car's silhouette, like a getaway vehicle in a Turner Classic Movie, as it disappeared into the darkness.
"If one does not think that the privacy of my clients has not been invaded, let me suggest to you that it's not only been invaded, it has been run over by a truck," defence lawyer Bill Teed told a closed-door hearing in August 2012.
"What this family has had to put up with and deal with as a result of this murder, as a result of the investigation, as a result of the media attention, their privacy rights and...the innocent rights that we try to protect for them, has been just about drowned." The trial, for the Oland family, has no doubt been a humiliating, painful airing of dirty laundry. Literally: the court has seen pictures of Dennis' Hugo Boss jacket, stained with trace amounts of blood matching Richard's DNA profile.
All this stuff about privacy and appearances hearkens weirdly back to something Dennis said, early in his video statement to police. Describing the ill-fated genealogy project he and Richard were working on, he unconsciously may have revealed an irony in how he sees himself—and how he thinks Saint Johners see him.
"We have our family [then] they have this Halifax Oland family that were really, really rich, and drove around in fancy cars and [had] big houses [...] they ended up having to sell their business, because they were too worried about appearances, as opposed to more the Saint John way, where everything's quiet [...] You could see all these fabrications were built up about people being, y'know, more than they actually were."
His public appearance of carefree innocence aside, Oland may well see this four-year nightmare quietly resolved. The expertise of his top-flight Toronto lawyers, the bungled police investigation, two-year delay in laying charges, no murder weapon ever found, and innumerable other factors all cast enough reasonable doubt for a jury to, very soon, potentially find Dennis Oland innocent.
But whether he'll ever walk freely again in Saint John again is another question.
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