New Brunswick’s Crime of the Century

Inside the first hours after the murder of Richard Oland

mrbanjo1138 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At around quarter to nine on the morning of Thursday, July 7, 2011, Maureen Adamson’s husband dropped her off at work. She carried a tray of Tim Hortons coffee she had picked up en route. Her boss, Richard Oland, loved his coffee, and as his personal secretary for twenty-five years, she tried her best to anticipate his every need. It would be another busy day. The prominent New Brunswick businessman had been travelling most of the previous two months, and they had a lot of catching up to do.

Adamson, a sturdy and serious woman in her late middle age, usually arrived first at Oland’s investment firm office, located in a commercial building at 52 Canterbury, a narrow one-way street in the heart of historic uptown Saint John. She dug for her key and inserted it in the street-level door of the three-storey brick building, but it was already unlocked. Odd, she thought. The last person to leave at night was supposed to lock the door.

Adamson climbed the narrow, windowless stairwell to the second floor, only to find that door, also normally locked, not completely closed. Now she was irritated. Grumbling, Adamson pushed the door open and turned left into the foyer, which led to Oland’s Far End Corporation, marked by a modest brass plaque. As she opened the French door, a “terrifically vile odour” struck her. She couldn’t imagine what it could be; she had never encountered anything like it before. She stepped inside the multimillionaire’s surprisingly modest, “pack-ratty” office full of stacked bankers boxes and electronic equipment, but nothing immediately seemed amiss; nothing, that is, but the air conditioner on full blast. It was normally turned off overnight. Adamson made her way to a long table in the centre of the room and set down the tray of hot coffee. That’s when, as she later recounted, she spotted “two legs” on the floor under Richard Oland’s desk. “You couldn’t miss it, really,” she later said in court, her voice momentarily breaking with emotion.

In shock, Adamson didn’t realize who was sprawled on the floor in a large pool of blood, and she didn’t stay long enough to find out. She raced downstairs and burst into the print shop on the ground floor, calling out for help.

“Something’s wrong,” Adamson blurted out. “I see feet upstairs.”

“She seemed panicked,” Preston Chiasson, who didn’t work at the print shop but was a frequent visitor, remembered later. His thoughts automatically turned to Richard Oland. Chiasson had known him for around twenty years and always enjoyed their conversations, which ranged from sailing to politics.

Worried Oland might need some help, Chiasson, who was trained in first aid, rushed upstairs with Adamson. He noted an awful, nauseating smell in the office, and then Adamson pointed. Just five feet away, underneath Oland’s desk, two legs were splayed on the floor. Chiasson didn’t move any closer. He knew right away there was nothing he could do. Oland was, as he put it, “slaughtered.”

Chiasson would later say he couldn’t remember much about that day, but he would never forget that macabre scene. He and Adamson hurried out of the office and back into the foyer. He hadn’t known what he was getting into on his way in, but he was careful on his way out to avoid stepping in any blood, he said. Chiasson used his cellphone to call 911. “There’s a man down,” Chiasson reported, describing the condition of the man’s head. Adamson, still reeling, pulled out her own cellphone to warn Robert McFadden, Oland’s business associate, not to enter the office. Out of habit, she dialled Oland’s number first by mistake. Within minutes, police sirens wailed down the street—the sound still haunts her.

Constable Duane Squires of the Saint John Police Force and Trinda Fanjoy, an Atlantic Police Academy cadet, were on patrol just two hundred metres away, in squad car 123, when the dispatch call came in: male, not conscious, not breathing. They arrived at the scene within four minutes, and constable Don Shannon, who had been working at the police station a couple of blocks away, soon followed.

Chiasson pointed them to the front door and said, “Second floor.” They bolted up the wooden staircase. The stench of the office also struck Squires but, in contrast to Adamson and Chiasson, it was familiar to him after nearly five years on the job, that of “a decaying body.” Shannon described it as “dried blood.”

Squires scanned the chaos. A man was lying face down in a large pool of coagulated blood, and the injuries to his head were “severe.” His arms were crumpled beneath him, his neck twisted to the left. A knocked-over garbage can was by his feet. A TV remote control, an iPad, and a set of keys were on the floor, along with some scattered and blood-soaked papers. Shannon searched the office for a suspect or anyone else who might have been hurt, trying to stay close to the walls to avoid disturbing the crime scene, as he had been trained to do when he became a police officer, just a couple of years before. Fanjoy entered behind the two officers. The three spent mere minutes in the office and had retraced their steps to the foyer when the paramedics arrived.

Phil Comeau and Christopher Wall had been having coffee on nearby Germain Street when they received the Code 2 call indicating “gunshot, penetrating and stab trauma.” Unsure exactly what they were dealing with, they didn’t know what equipment to lug upstairs. “Bring everything, everything you have!” Fanjoy shouted down. But Squires told them they didn’t need any gear; they were too late.

Comeau, an EMT with almost twenty years’ experience, readily recognized “the odour of death” on his way up the stairs, a piercing smell that assaults the nostrils and clogs the back of the throat. “It kind of lingers in the air, stays with you for a couple of hours,” he observed. His first glimpse of the body and the wide swath of blood, almost a full square metre, supported his suspicion. “It appeared he had injuries incompatible with life,” he later explained in court. Crime-scene photos would show bits of brain and bone on the man’s navy sweater and the hardwood floor. Wall, who was just shy of his one-year anniversary of working part time as a paramedic, had been to approximately ten other crime scenes, but never one like this. This was an abattoir. He let Comeau take the lead.

Patient care always comes first for paramedics, but they are also trained to avoid contaminating any evidence at a crime scene. Comeau knew the drill. He had attended roughly one hundred other crime scenes during his career, but this time he had a difficult time positioning himself, given the size of the blood pool and the blood spatter radiating from the body. He gingerly put his foot on the victim’s right thigh to check for rigor mortis, a stiffening of the limbs caused by chemical changes in the muscles after death. “When the whole body moves, that’s rigor.” Sure enough, rigor had set in; the man had been dead for “quite some time,” at least two or three hours. Comeau declared “time of no resuscitation” at 9:01 a.m..

The two officers and cadet sprang into action. Squires “guarded” the scene, advising those who entered not to go beyond the table with the coffee on it, which he believed marked the point where the blood evidence started. Shannon and Fanjoy went downstairs to take preliminary statements from Adamson and Chiasson while the details of their grisly discovery were still fresh in their minds. By that time, Chiasson was “pretty traumatized.” He was dizzy and his chest felt tight, so the paramedics came back to assess him.

Shannon jotted down some notes then went to search the third floor of the building, but he found nothing. Fanjoy returned to the second floor to keep a log of the flurry of comings and goings that shortly ensued.

Stan Miller, an acting sergeant, was called to the scene as the senior officer on duty. After Squires briefed him, a staff sergeant, the forensic identification unit, and the major crime unit (MCU) were also called in. The MCU deals with the city’s most “serious, complex, and sensitive property and person crimes,” including homicides, assaults, robberies, kidnappings, and missing persons.

At around 9:30 a.m. sergeant David Brooker, the head of the elite unit, asked constable Anthony (Tony) Gilbert to respond to the DOA and to take constable Stephen Davidson with him. Although Davidson had been a police officer for around twelve years, seven years in Saint John and most recently with the RCMP’s integrated proceeds of crime unit in Moncton for five years, he had joined the MCU only three days earlier. July 7 was supposed to be an orientation day for him, a chance to observe how his new unit operated. Little did Davidson know that when the lead investigator retired three months later, he would be put in charge of the high-profile case.

Gilbert had only been with the major crime unit for about nine months and had less overall experience than Davidson, having just reached his ten-year mark on the force. But he too detected the “distinct” fetor of death at the scene. After they spent “under a minute” together in the bloody office, observing the significant trauma to the victim’s head from about eight feet away, Gilbert knew he’d better call David Brooker with a status report. Up to that point, as far as he knew, no one had conveyed it was a suspicious death.

Gilbert and Davidson didn’t touch or move anything and retraced their steps. “It doesn’t look very good down here,” Brooker would later recall Gilbert telling him.

Brooker headed to the crime scene shortly before eleven with his superior, Glen McCloskey, who oversaw the major crime unit as then inspector of the criminal investigations division. The head of the forensic identification unit, sergeant Mark Smith, was already on-site, assessing the situation and determining what equipment he’d need. Forensic officers, known as “ident,” have special training and technology to photograph, collect, and examine evidence, such as fingerprints, footwear impressions, blood, and DNA.

This scene screamed out for every tool in Smith’s arsenal. Blood was 360 degrees—on the floor, on the desks and computers, on the filing cabinet and shelving units, on the lamps, and even on an empty pizza box perched in the garbage can. It was “one of the bloodiest” crime scenes in Smith’s twenty-year-plus career, with the most blows to a victim he had ever seen. To make matters worse, Smith was working alone that day. None of the other forensic officers were available. One with a broken leg was limited to desk duty, another was away doing an understudy, one was “fairly new” and about to go on an eight-week course, and the fourth was off. Smith was in for some back-to-back, around-the-clock days.

Smith raced back to the station and returned with a panel van packed with equipment. He donned full protective gear before he went back into the bloody office. The white disposable coveralls, latex gloves, mask, and shoe covers, or booties, were intended to prevent the transfer of any hair, skin, or fibres that would contaminate the scene.

He waved in Brooker and McCloskey to observe the body some time before noon. They, like all the officers before them, were not wearing any protective gear, but they were under the watchful eye of Smith, who directed how far they could go and where they could step. Staff sergeant Mike King, who was in charge of patrol services, went in with them. This was actually his second traipse through the crime scene, and as he later admitted, “There was no purpose for me to be in there.” King had no investigative role. As the on-site commander, his job was to coordinate his patrol officers to assist the investigators with whatever they needed: crime-scene security, canvassing, searching for evidence, or obtaining security videos.

Smith carefully moved the body to check for any weapons. He found only the victim’s eyeglasses underneath his left arm. Smith also checked the victim’s pants pockets, hoping to ID him. He retrieved a brown leather wallet, and the driver’s licence confirmed the dead man was sixty-nine-year-old Richard Henry Oland of one of Atlantic Canada’s most prominent and wealthiest families. The Olands, founders of Moosehead Breweries, are often mentioned in the same sentence as the Irvings and the McCains.

At one point during those first hours, a slender blonde woman approached the entrance to 52 Canterbury. She told an officer at the door that she had an appointment in the upstairs office, but he refused to let her pass.

Word of Oland’s violent death had hit the streets by the time Saint John police confirmed the identity of the body. Saint John is a city of about 70,000, but it has a small-town feel. It’s the kind of place where if you don’t know somebody, chances are you know somebody else who does. People greet one another as they pass on the street, neighbours keep an eye out for one another, and when someone needs help, the community always seems to pull together.

Saint John is located on the south coast of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. Since its incorporation in 1785, the city has boasted a long line of accomplishments: Canada’s first chartered bank, oldest public high school, first public museum, first labour union, first YWCA, and first public playground. For many years, the city prospered on shipbuilding. Today, the various industrial pursuits of the Irving family (forestry, pulp and paper, and oil) remain an important economic force, but the city is increasingly focused on culture, tourism, and IT. What in most cities would be termed “downtown” is known as uptown, because the original urban core was built on a hill that slopes steeply up from the harbour. Uptown is a quaint neighbourhood of narrow streets lined with beautiful Victorian buildings. From his office, Richard Oland could have walked almost anywhere—the shopping mall and office towers at Brunswick Square, the Saint John City Market, the exclusive Union Club—within minutes.

The port city has its share of crime, most of which involves property- or drug-related offences. Murder is rare. And this, only the second that year, was no ordinary murder. It would become one of the most sensational cases to grip the Maritimes in decades, the region’s “crime of the century.” Who could have killed Oland so viciously? And why?

Staff Sergeant King’s cellphone rang. Chief Bill Reid wanted to know what was going on. Although it wasn’t unusual to get a call from a higher ranking officer “at a scene like that,” King couldn’t recall the chief ever calling before in his roughly three decades of service. The “suspicious death” was deemed an all-hands-on-deck situation. Police would deploy as many resources as possible to find out as much as they could, as quickly as they could, during those crucial first hours before any trail went cold. Other cases would have to wait.

Constable Rick Russell, a thirty-one-year veteran, was called in from vacation and appointed the lead investigator, in charge of the “speed, flow, and direction” of the case. Russell was the most experienced officer in the unit, with eight years in MCU under his belt. He had spearheaded about six other homicide investigations and been involved with many more throughout his career, starting with just guarding the scenes in his early years.

Russell stopped by Oland’s office for a few minutes to familiarize himself with the layout and get “a contextual grasp,” which often proves useful later in an investigation, once the information starts “ owing in,” he said. Unlike some of his senior officers, however, Russell resisted the temptation to gawk and did not enter the crime scene. “I didn’t want to contaminate,” he said. “At that time, there’s no value in me going in.”

A briefing was scheduled for 2:30, when the officers involved would gather at the police station and share what they had seen and done so far. But first, police had to notify the family. Oland was a husband, a father of three, and a grandfather of seven. Constables Davidson and Gilbert, who had returned to the station to take statements from some of the witnesses, were assigned the grim duty. The force’s victim services coordinator, Mary-Ellen Martin, accompanied them.

Richard Oland’s family lived in Rothesay, a genteel neighbouring town of manicured lawns nestled along the Kennebecasis River. Rothesay is only about a fifteen-minute drive northeast of the industrial city and yet, some might say, is worlds apart. It’s home to billionaire industrialist James Irving and other wealthy elite. The average household net worth is in the $2-million range. In Saint John, the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent and nearly one-third of children live in poverty.

The Oland mansion was at 5 Almon Lane, an exclusive tree-lined street. Oland had referred to the property as Far End House, a nod to his investment firm, Far End Corporation; it had been the house where his mother grew up. Oland’s wife of forty-six years, Constance (Connie) Oland, was home. She knew what was coming. In the approximately five hours between the discovery of her husband’s body and police showing up at her door, a woman phoned her to ask if she knew why police cars were outside her husband’s office, prompting Connie to call Robert McFadden, who told her, but not explicitly, that her husband was dead. Connie had gathered her family around her. Connie, a trim brunette with dark eyes and a kind face, was sitting on the couch with her son, Dennis Oland, and daughter-in-law, Lisa Andrik-Oland. Daughter Elizabeth (Lisa) Bustin and brother Jack Connell were also there. Dennis was still trying to reach Connie’s other daughter, Jacqueline Walsh.

Davidson was nervous. It was a trying task. He informed them Richard Oland had been “found deceased” and said police didn’t have much information yet in terms of the cause or manner of death. “I didn’t provide details of the injuries,” he later noted. “It was a gruesome scene and I didn’t want to pass that along to the family. I was trying to present it in a way that’s respectful to the family.”

He couldn’t recall later what questions, if any, the family asked, but he did most of the talking during the estimated thirty-minute visit. He requested they all go to the Saint John police station to provide statements. Investigators needed to establish a timeline and were hoping the family could help fill in the blanks: where was Oland last, what was he doing, who was with him? Police also wanted to gather as much information as possible about his family life, business life, and social life—anything that might help them figure out who committed this heinous crime. At that point, they had no suspects.

All of the family members agreed to be interviewed, but Dennis Oland said he needed to speak to his children first, to break the news about their grandfather’s death. He promised to come to the police station later.

Back at the crime scene, the forensic officer, coroner, and funeral home employees were coordinating the removal of Oland’s body. Smith had already taken numerous photographs. It’s important to document the position of the body as it relates to other evidence, he later explained. He charted a course to minimize contamination. “There was going to be some [contamination] for sure,” he said. “The scene was too messy to avoid it.” They decided to place Oland face down on the stretcher, because the damage to his head was so severe. This was definitely not the norm, according to funeral director Adam Holly, but it was his first crime scene. It was also a first for his colleague Sharlene MacDonald, who was grateful the coroner forewarned them about what they were walking into. She knew it would be bad when he suggested they bring extra towels. “I watched where I was going and kept my hands to myself,” said MacDonald.

Smith enlisted Squires to assist him. Fortunately, Squires wasn’t squeamish. When he was a rookie cop, he dealt with a victim who had been attacked with a sword and had such a severe gash to his head that Squires could see his brain. Squires did his best to reassure the man as he held his cracked skull together until paramedics arrived, but the victim later died in hospital.

Squires put on latex gloves and cloth booties. Then he straddled Oland’s torso, standing smack dab in the sticky, coagulated blood. He lifted the left side of Oland’s body, while Smith, who was hunched over Oland’s legs, tucked a blanket underneath. Squires lifted the right side, and Smith pulled the blanket through. They tied the ends of the blanket into a makeshift sling and hoisted Oland onto a stretcher and into a waiting “pouch”—funeral home vernacular for body bag. Squires discarded his soiled protective gear somewhere in the crime scene and put on a fresh pair of gloves.

They fastened two straps on the stretcher and shrouded it with a blue blanket, and then Squires, the two funeral home directors, and another officer grabbed a corner each and struggled their way down the steep flight of stairs to the funeral home’s Dodge Caravan. Sharlene MacDonald had such a hard time managing the twenty-one steps that another officer offered to take her place, and MacDonald held the doors open.

No one told them about the back door, which would have been much easier to manoeuvre. The building was constructed on a slope with a rear door that exited almost at ground level. The back exit also would have been more discreet than Canterbury Street, where curious onlookers and reporters had gathered. A photograph of the removal of the body appeared on the front page of the Telegraph-Journal the next morning under the banner headline, “Dick Oland Dead.”

Smith escorted the body to the morgue at the Saint John Regional Hospital, where Oland was officially declared dead at 3:03 p.m. and locked in a police cooler.

At police headquarters at 15 Market Square, Rick Russell, the lead investigator, was prepping for the first team briefing and the “wave of information that was going to start coming in.” The officers would tell Russell what they saw, what they heard, whom they spoke to, and what they did, and Russell would write it all down on a big flip chart. This would give him “the lay of the land,” and then he would start assigning tasks. The major crime unit was so small that, as Russell said, “everybody’s interchangeable.” Every officer gained experience over the years doing all kinds of different tasks, big and small. The expectation was whatever was asked of you, you’d step in, he said.

An officer from the fraud unit, constable John Braam, was named file coordinator, responsible for collecting and categorizing any information that came in. Fraud officers are routinely assigned the task because they are used to dealing with large volumes of documents.

It was also decided “right off the bat” to request the RCMP tech crime lab’s assistance with Oland’s electronic equipment, because it might “afford information,” said Sergeant Brooker. He also planned to contact Rogers Communications about getting Oland’s cellphone records after he got the victim’s cell number from one of his business cards. Oland’s green BMW—parked in its usual spot, number twelve, at the corner lot—was towed to the police garage with a police escort, parked in the detention area, and taped off as evidence.

Officers were also going door to door to ask area residents and business owners if they had seen or heard anything unusual, but they faced more questions than answers. The officers were also seeking all available surveillance video. They were particularly interested in the nearby Pizza Hut, given the pizza box in Oland’s office garbage can, as well as another restaurant, Thandi’s, directly across the street from the office.

An article search was also underway. Canine unit constable Mike Horgan, his sniffer dog, Leo, and several other officers fanned out across the uptown business district, looking for a possible murder weapon or anything else that might be related to the crime, such as blood or clothing. They checked the back alleyway, the parking lot across the street, and an adjacent courtyard, and scoured every other lot, entrance, bush, and grassy area in at least a two-block radius. Horgan, a dog handler for roughly fifteen years, identified only one spot he didn’t search, because he couldn’t access it with his dog: a small grassy space behind the office building that was at a higher elevation and blocked by a fence.

Shannon “poked around a bit” at a construction site one block over, where there was a big pile of concrete debris and heavy equipment. Other officers checked out a nearby building under renovation, peering inside the clear plastic wrapped around the building and running their hands underneath the tarps. Two officers also dumped garbage cans collected from surrounding streets into the back of a pickup truck and picked through the trash, wearing white gloves. They searched for about an hour in the hot sun and through a ten-minute torrential downpour but found no clues.

Despite the heavy police presence and very public investigation, the force was tight-lipped about the case that day, as it would continue to be for the next four years. “We’re investigating the discovery of a body,” Staff Sergeant King initially said. He later confirmed only that Richard Oland was the victim and that he had died under suspicious circumstances.

Meanwhile, the police had started interviewing the family at the station. The lead investigator was most interested in hearing from Oland’s widow, Connie, because, as Russell explained, spouses and significant others tend to know the most and thus can be a wealth of information. “We didn’t know a lot,” he noted. “It’s important to start from square one.”

Three interview rooms were on the go. Russell made a point of monitoring the interview with Richard Oland’s widow, making sure nothing was missed and suggesting follow-up questions. Investigators also interviewed Oland’s two daughters. His son, Dennis, and Dennis’s wife, Lisa, arrived, but the other statements were “dragging on,” each taking about an hour, so Russell suggested they leave to grab a coffee and come back. Finally, at 6:01 p.m., Davidson, who was still getting his MCU feet wet, began to interview Dennis Oland.

Excerpted from Shadow of Doubt: The Trial of Dennis Oland. Copyright © 2016 by Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon
Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon (@BJMCBC) is a reporter for CBC News. She has worked at the Telegraph-Journal, the Toronto Star, and the Ottawa Citizen.

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