Spilled secrets: the Richard Oland murder mystery

v25n1_olandMaureen Adamson showed up for work as usual that sunny summer morning. She inserted her key in the street-level door at 52 Canterbury Street, a refurbished 19th century, three storey, red-brick office building in the heart of historic downtown Saint John, New Brunswick. The door was unlocked. Curious. It was always kept locked.

The door led up a set of stairs to the second floor offices of Far End Corporation, the investment firm owned by Adamson’s boss, Richard Oland, for whom she’d worked as a secretary for 30 years. When she reached the entrance to the offices, she discovered that that door, which was also always kept locked, was ajar too.

Adamson pushed it open, glanced around, saw what she saw and immediately bolted back down the stairs and into a print shop located on the ground floor. Preston Chiasson, one of the employees there, followed the shocked woman back up to the office where they tried to make sense of the chaos in front of them: a man lying on the floor, not breathing, his body so badly battered and splattered it would take a professional service specializing in cleaning up after bloody crime scenes days of hosing, scrubbing and painting to erase all traces of the mess.

Chiasson dialed 9-1-1. It was 8:54 a.m. on July 7, 2011.

Within minutes, police had descended on the building, sealing it off with crime scene tape.

Within hours, everyone in Saint John knew that Richard Oland, the 69-year old scion of one of New Brunwick’s most iconic families, was dead, the victim of a particularly brutal murder. What they didn’t know, and still don’t, was who did it. And why.

Richard Henry Oland, businessman, sportsman and philanthropist, was probably best known among ordinary residents of Saint John for his dimple-making, eyescrunching, face-stretching smiles in a series of newspaper photographs: as president of the Canada Games he helped bring to his hometown in 1985, as an Order of Canada recipient in 1998, as the 2010 winner of the Canadian Yachting Association’s Gerry Roufs Trophy “awarded annually to the sailor whose achievement in international offshore racing has had significant impact on the recognition of sailing in Canada,” as a director of major regional companies like Newfoundland Capital Corp. and Ganong’s.

“Dick led an active lifestyle,” his obituary writer would note. “On Sundays he could be found on the slopes of Poley Mountain or riding horseback through Kingshurst. He enjoyed fishing on the banks of the Miramichi and was a Life Member of the Miramichi Salmon Association.” Sailing, however, was Oland’s overweening passion. In 2010, his death notice proudly pointed out, he’d won the US-IRC National Championship in his professionally crewed, New Zealand-built, 15.5-metre yacht, the Vela Veloce. It didn’t mention that he’d recently put that vessel on the market for $850,000 because he was having an even fancier, faster, sleeker boat built for him in Spain.

Given his standing in the community, it was no surprise that more than 450 people, including New Brunswick Premier David Alward, members of his cabinet, MLAs, the Lieutenant-Governor, the mayor of Saint John and a who’s who of New Brunswick’s business and professional elite showed up to pay their respects at his funeral.

“I think it’s always difficult in the best of circumstances for a life to be lost,” Lt. Gov. Graydon Nicholas told reporters. “When you stop and think of all the good this person has done for this community and all of New Brunswick, this is a beautiful celebration of life for him.”

Richard Oland, it turned out, had been doing community good almost up until his last breath. Just two days before he was murdered, he’d met with his old friend Pat Darrah, the executive director of the Saint John Construction Association (who would, six days later, deliver the eulogy at his funeral), Robert Harris, the Bishop of Saint John, and a few others to discuss preliminary plans to raise $10 million to replace the roof and repair stonework at the historic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Waterloo Street in Saint John. Earlier, he’d helped raise funds to build Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rothesay, the Catholic neighbourhood church from which he was now being buried.

But if the funeral tributes helped focus attention on the good Richard Oland had done in his life, the manner of his death shone a brighter light on some of the darker corners of that life.

In 1981, when he was just 38, Richard Oland had lost a very public, very bitter battle with his older brother Derek over which of them would run Moosehead Breweries Ltd., the family-owned firm started by their greatgrandmother, Susannah Oland. Though Dick had risen to vice president and was clearly angling to succeed their father Philip, Derek outmaneuvered him, threatening to resign and move his family to New Zealand. “I couldn’t work for Dick because of the nature of the guy,” Derek would tell author Harvey Sawler years later, claiming his brother was prone to “argue with anybody.”

Forced to choose between his quarreling sons, Philip chose Derek because “the younger one wanted to be president and hadn’t the experience,” as he rather succinctly if tactlessly explained to a magazine journalist at the time. Dick left the company soon after to focus on an affiliated trucking business and oversee preparations for the Canada Games, but the wounds of their rupture never really healed.

After their father’s death in 1996, Dick, who continued to be a one-third owner of the family company, sued Derek on two separate occasions over his management of the business (both settled out of court) before Derek finally bought him out completely in 2007.

Richard’s relations with his own family also seemed to deteriorate after he left the brewery. “He was never the same with his children,” his wife Constance would tell police the day after his murder. He was a “strong and controlling” man who could be verbally and emotionally abusive with their two daughters, Lisa and Jackie, but especially with his only son, Dennis. All of the children “had issues” with their father, Connie said, but it was Dennis who bore the brunt of Richard’s belief that “a father could not be friends with his son.” After Richard left Moosehead, Dennis told police, “things got complicated with his father… You kept your distance.” Dennis’s wife Lisa said Dennis had done his best to win his father’s respect but could never live up to Richard’s standards.

Though Dick and Connie Oland’s marriage had survived, ostensibly intact, for 45 years, the reality was that they led separate lives, daughter Lisa told investigators. It was not unusual for Dick to not return to the family home in the upscale suburb ofRothesay at night.

For the past eight years, in fact, Richard had been having an affair with Diana Sedlacek, a local real estate agent. As the relationship became more public – there was talk of marriage – Dennis had begun to feel increasingly guilty for not telling his mother about his father’s mistress, exacerbating the already tense relationships between the two men.

Connie was not unaware of Sedlacek, of course, whom she described to police as “Dick’s friend.” She’d actually learned about her husband’s murder as the result of a phone call from Sedlacek.

Oland and Sedlacek had spent the day before his death texting about a trip they were planning to take to Maine. Though they often communicated through texts, Sedlacek invariably phoned Richard at 6:30 each night to talk about their days. That evening, he didn’t answer when she dialed him. At one point, she texted him: “are you there?” No answer. The next morning, Sedlacek drove past his office, saw the commotion and called Connie to ask if she knew why there were so many police cars outside her husband’s office. Connie then called Richard’s longtime employee and friend, Bob McFadden, who delivered the shocking news.

Although there were plenty of people who didn’t get along with Richard Oland – daughter Lisa described him as a hard-nosed businessman who could have had “anyone for an enemy,” and an acquaintance noted that “to know him was not love him” – it didn’t take police more than a few hours to begin posing their most pointed questions about Richard’s relationship with Dennis. While Connie had been quick to tell officers she didn’t believe her 45-yearold son would ever hurt his father, Sedlacek described what she saw as a “strained relationship,” in part because Richard thought Dennis was “lazy.”

When Dennis was younger, Dick had done his best to dissuade his son from working for the brewery that bore the family name, even though Dennis and his cousin Andrew, Derek’s son, who would ultimately become the company’s president, were good friends. Instead Dennis became an investment advisor, working for a number of years in Toronto before returning to Saint John in 1994. As an investment advisor at Wood Gundy, one of his clients was his father but, as even Dennis admitted to police, he was more his father’s order taker than his investment advisor.

When Dennis’ first marriage broke up and he faced the potential loss of his family home – the one that had been willed to him by his grandparents in which his father had grown up, and was located just down the street from the Almon Lane mansion where his father and mother now lived – Richard was quick to step in. He lent Dennis $500,000 to allow him to keep the house in the divorce settlement. Although Dennis was repaying only the interest on that loan, with the principal to be paid off from any inheritance his mother would eventually leave him in her will, the money had apparently become one more source of friction between the two men.

But that loan and Dennis’s own precarious financial situation weren’t the only red flags that led police to suspect Dennis might have had something to do with his father’s death.

As investigators began to piece together the events leading up to Richard Oland’s death, they zeroed in on the early evening hours of July 6. Dennis Oland told police he’d visited his father at the office after work that day to talk family genealogy, one of the few passions the two men shared. It had been, Dennis suggested, an uneventful visit and he left.

But workers at the printing shop below told police they’d heard six or seven “exceptionally loud, quick pounding thumps” that evening from an area of Oland’s office on the floor above them.

Police were also curious about discrepancies between what Dennis claimed to be wearing when he visited his father – a navy blazer, khaki dress pants, dark brown dress shoes and a blue, white-collared dress shirt – and other evidence they’d gathered. Security cameras at Dennis’s Wood Gundy office showed him leaving the building that day wearing a brown sports jacket and beige pants. The police also had a witness, Bill Adamson, Maureen’s husband, who’d been waiting outside the office in his car for his wife to finish work. He saw a man wearing a dark brown sports jacket and light-coloured pants carrying a red, environmentally friendly grocery-style bag enter 52 Canterbury. Adamson did not see the man’s face so he couldn’t identify him.

A short time later, a woman saw a man at Renforth Wharf in Rothesay. He was “dressed very nice.” The man picked something up at the beginning of the pier, the woman said, then walked to the far end where he opened a bag and took something red out. He then wrapped the object he’d initially picked up, put it in the bag and walked briskly back toward the parking lot. “I knew it wasn’t right,” the woman told police investigators. “There was a purpose to what he was doing, a real purpose.” When police later showed her video from Richard Oland’s funeral, she identified the man she’d seen as one of the pall bearers: Dennis Oland. Dennis admitted he’d been to the wharf on his way home that night; he was just looking to see if his kids were still swimming there, he said. They weren’t.

On July 9, divers searched the waters around Renforth Wharf, but found nothing.

By then, police had already seemingly fingered their prime and only suspect. They told reporters they believed Richard Oland knew his murderer, and that the motive for his killing might have been financial. But they refused to formally publicly identify their suspect.

They didn’t have to.

On July 14, one week after the murder, 20 police officers, acting on a warrant, swooped in on Dennis Oland’s home at 58 Gondola Point Road, the same one he’d inherited from his grandfather, the same one his father had saved from the ashes of his divorce. Police spent eight hours combing the house and grounds and left with four large garbage bags, several cardboard boxes and some paper bags, seizing a total of 57 different items: legal papers, bank statements, a purple purse with a note inside, bedding, clothing, even a dryer lint collector.

Later, they executed search warrants at Dennis’s Wood Gundy office, at Loki (a yacht co-owned by Dennis’s second wife Lisa), and at the Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club to which the Oland family – and much of the city’s elite – belonged.

It wouldn’t have taken a Columbo to deduce what the police were up to.

Not surprisingly, residents of tightly knit, socially interconnected Saint John, a city of just 120,000 people, were both riveted and rife with rumour: Dick Oland had been bludgeoned to death with an axe handle… Police are about to make an arrest… They’ll never catch the killer… The reason no one has been charged is…

It didn’t help that police not only didn’t arrest anyone for the crime but they also refused to release any of the information they’d filed with the courts to justify their various search warrants. They wouldn’t tell reporters what they were looking for, or if those searches were even related to the Oland homicide investigation.

That police cone of silence, suggested Halifax media lawyer David Coles, “raised suspicions of the man in the street there may be some miscarriage of justice.” Coles, on behalf of the CBC and the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, launched a legal challenge to the sealed search warrants in December 2011. Coles argued that a 1982 Supreme Court ruling required police to disclose any information they’d used to convince the courts to grant them a search warrant once the warrant itself was executed.

The only exception to such blanket disclosure is for the kind of “hallmark” evidence only the killer could know, and which therefore might prove critical to winning a conviction.

But, as chief investigator Const. Stephen Davidson told the court, “Basically, everything that we seize could be hallmark evidence… I don’t think any items can be disclosed at this point.”

Davidson worried too that if the names of witnesses who’d provided information to police were unsealed, some of them would clam up or unnamed others might put pressure on them. One witness who worked in the building where the murder took place and had spoken to police early on, he told the judge, was now saying he was “done cooperating.”

Davidson wasn’t the only one who argued that the details in the search warrants should remain a secret. Gary Miller, a prominent criminal defence lawyer representing Dennis Oland, complained about the “media frenzy” and the already “poisoned atmosphere” against his client in the city. Bill Teed, who represented other members of the Oland family, warned his clients’ right to privacy had not only been invaded, “it’s been run over by a truck… 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 this media attention… the innocent rights that we try to protect for them has been just about drowned.”

In the end, however, Provincial Court Judge R. Leslie Jackson sided with the media, and slowly, unsealed warrant by un-redacted affidavit by unmasked name, the salacious details, incriminating tidbits and family secrets tumbled out: about the state of the Oland marriage, about Richard’s mistress, about his relationship with his son, about the fact Dennis had become – and still is – the investigator’s only suspect. (The details in this report, in fact, come from those documents. It’s important to note that none of the assertions in those documents has been tested in a court of law.)

On November 12, 2013 – two years, four months and five days after Richard Oland died in his office following what police now say were “repeated blows” to his body, and after having interviewed more than 60 witnesses, seized 378 pieces of evidence and sent 243 items for forensic testing – Saint John police finally charged Dennis Oland with second degree murder in the death of his father.

The year before, in November 2012, investigators had met with the Crown to lay out what they thought at the time was a beyond-reasonable-doubt case against Dennis, but prosecutors, Police Chief Bill Reid said, asked for a “multitude” of additional information and forensics evidence before finally agreeing to proceed.

Which was fine with Reid. “We were in no hurry to make a mistake,” he told reporters the day after the arrest.

Derek Oland believes they have. He quickly issued a statement on behalf of the family declaring “Dennis is, in fact, innocent and we will support him and his family through the course of whatever legal actions unfold.” Refusing to be drawn into the questions and gossip that bubbled just below the surface of everyday life in Saint John for more than two years, Oland urged the community to “allow the evidence to be examined and the rule of law to unfold as it will.”

Whatever the outcome of the trial itself, however, the reality is many of the Oland family secrets are out of the bottle now.

 

Originally published in Atlantic Business Magazine, January-February 2014. It won that year’s Atlantic Journalism Gold Award for Best Magazine Article.

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