New details on the killing of brewery millionaire Richard Oland and the trial of his son, Dennis
I have a confession to make about the Oland murder trial: I didn’t pay attention to it.
I heard about it, of course. You’d need to have been in a media blackout – and not use social media – to not know about it. But unlike most, I did not follow the story, even though it garnered national attention.
Richard Oland’s wealth never made the crime more interesting for me, as it did for some. This is why the media, particularly national outlets like the Globe and Mail and National Post, gave it so much ink.
Dennis Oland was accused of murdering his father and it was portrayed as being motivated by money. I filed it away as “Rich kid kills his dad to get the money” and didn’t give it any more thought.
But when I was asked to write about two new books on the case, my interest in criminal law and journalism made me eager to take the case, as it were. The two books are Truth and Honour: The Death of Richard Oland and the Trial of Dennis Oland by Greg Marquis, a historian, and Shadow of Doubt: The Trial of Dennis Oland by Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon, a CBC reporter who covered the case. Despite the difference in the titles, both look at the case in its entirety from the moment Richard Oland’s secretary, Maureen Adamson, arrived at the uptown Saint John office and discovered the body of her boss on the morning of July 7, 2011.
Richard Oland, 69, was bludgeoned to death. A coroner testified that Oland suffered 45 blows to his head, neck and hands. As Marquis points out in his book, a criminal profiler would call it “overkill” or “an excessively violent assault motivated by rage or revenge.”
During the trial, the public followed the case with an almost morbid fascination, which ramped up as salacious details of an affair bubbled from the reservoir of secrets held by one of Atlantic Canada’s wealthiest families. When facts about a cool father-son relationship, further strained by the son’s debt, were laid out for public scrutiny, many thought Dennis had a strong motive. He was also the last person known to have seen his father the day he died.
For almost two years, Dennis Oland was the elephant in the room. Everybody knew he was a suspect, mostly because the police did a thorough search of his home just a week after the murder, during which they seized several items.
The Saint John Police finally charged Dennis Oland in November 2013, 28 months after the crime. After a preliminary inquiry in 2014, Dennis Oland stood trial for second-degree murder in the fall of 2015.
After 65 days of testimony, the longest trial in New Brunswick history, a jury found Dennis Oland guilty of killing his dad. The verdict was handed down last December and, in February, a judge gave him the mandatory sentence of life in prison, but set parole eligibility as low as it could go at 10 years.
Both books paint a vivid picture of Richard Oland. Dick, as he was often called, had a high-profile split from his family’s business when his brother Derek was given control of Moosehead Breweries. Dick ventured out on his own and became a wealthy man. He was regarded by some as ruthless in business and by his family as aloof and uncaring at best, a “pig” at worst. The latter was a moniker uttered by his daughter, Lisa, when she found his Viagra, which had fuelled an eight-year-long affair with Diana Sedlacek, a real estate agent who was also married.
Despite being worth about $37 million when he died, and a noted philanthropist, Dick Oland was a penny pincher on the home front. That he was being unfaithful to his wife was galling enough, but he put her on a budget and required her to submit receipts to his secretary, who would prepare a monthly report of the household expenses before Oland would reimburse his wife.
This was in stark contrast to his extravagant sailing habit. He had an ocean-racing yacht named Vela Veloce that was worth an estimated $850,000 and was having a larger sailboat custom-built in Spain when he died.
That is a sketch of the wealthy murder victim and his familial relations, but it is the trial of his son Dennis, and the police work around his murder, which have drawn national attention, largely because of Dennis’ appeal of his conviction to the Supreme Court of Canada. No one convicted of murder in New Brunswick has ever been allowed out on bail while they were appealing their conviction. This is what Dennis Oland sought to do and it attracted the interest of three other provinces and the Canadian Criminal Defence Lawyers Association.
Under scrutiny is the seizure of one piece of Crown evidence, a blood-stained brown jacket taken from Dennis Oland’s house, which was initially deemed lawful. But a question was raised as to whether city police had the proper authority to have the blood tested by the RCMP in Halifax.
Ultimately, the directions the judge gave to the jury were deemed prejudicial on appeal, and Dennis Oland’s conviction was overturned in October. He was also granted bail, making him a free man pending a second trial, if one occurs.
Regardless of the final outcome, each author approaches the case itself from a different background. Marquis is a criminal historian who teaches at the University of New Brunswick; MacKinnon is a reporter for CBC Saint John. She live-blogged the trial and provided updates on Twitter. All that material, and more that she has gathered through additional interviews, are in her book. As a reporter writing on deadline and with space restrictions, there is much of what MacKinnon gathered in court that she was not able to use in her stories for CBC.
“Some of it, I didn’t even have a chance to touch,” she says. “It was a chance to look back. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. It gave me a chance to take a closer look at it all, and how it all unfolded and to tell it in different way, a more comprehensive way.”
MacKinnon devotes an entire chapter to evidence the jury didn’t hear and the media couldn’t report. She brings an exquisite level of detail, painting a vivid picture of the state of the Saint John Police Force and the detectives and forensic team. MacKinnon explains the manpower and logistical challenges the police faced and how it affected their investigation.
As a historian, Marquis is used to studying and writing about events in the distant past. The Oland case has given him the chance to observe history unfolding with far-reaching implications in Canadian criminal law.
Neither author provides a personal verdict. MacKinnon says her continued coverage of the appeal process of the case this fall precludes that. Marquis prefers to provide material for devil’s advocates on both sides.
“Many people have very set views,” he says. “I’m hoping people will challenge themselves and maybe it’s a book that people will revisit as the various appeals happen.”