Dennis Oland Case

On 19 December 2015, Dennis Oland was convicted of second-degree murder in the bludgeoning death of his father, Richard (Dick) Oland. A year later the conviction was overturned on appeal, and a new trial ordered. The initial, 65-day trial was the longest in New Brunswick history. It also drew national attention due to its brutal nature and revelations about the storied Oland family, founders of the Moosehead brewing empire. In 2019, Dennis Oland was found not guilty of the murder in his retrial.

Saint John, New Brunswick
Dowtown Saint John, New Brunswick.

Oland Family

On the morning of 7 July 2011, Richard Oland’s assistant Maureen Adamson discovered her employer’s body lying face down on the floor of his office, with 45 wounds to his head, neck and hands. The police investigation that began that day sparked a torrent of speculation in Saint John, New Brunswick, a small, insular city dominated by a handful of wealthy families like the Olands.

Richard in particular was a figure of interest: blunt and hot-tempered, he left Moosehead Breweries Ltd. in the early 1980s when his father, P.W. Oland, handed control of the family business to his eldest son Derek (see also Brewing Industry in Canada).

Richard Oland
Saint John businessman Richard Oland.

Richard then launched a series of lawsuits for greater control of the company before Derek bought him out in 2007. At the time of his death at age 69, Richard Oland had a fortune of some $37 million, amassed largely through a trucking firm connected to the brewery and his asset management company, Far End Corporation.

It was in the Far End Corp. office that Dennis Oland visited his father for the last time. The men were discussing family genealogy, a rare mutual interest. Otherwise, theirs was a stormy relationship, marred by a father’s sharp manner and high expectations, and a son’s messy personal life and disorderly finances.

Dennis Oland, then 43, worked as an investment adviser at CIBC Wood Gundy, but had trouble handling his own money. He was frequently in debt, not least to his father, who loaned Dennis about $500,000 during the younger man’s divorce, with stringent conditions. Dennis would also later tell police that he resented his father’s eight-year affair with local real estate agent Diana Sedlacek, though he had never confronted Richard about his feelings. In its case against Dennis, the prosecution argued that this brew of resentments provided a motivation for murder.

Murder

On his way to seeing his father on 6 July 2011, Dennis forgot something at his own nearby office, and doubled back in his car without ever reaching CIBC, before finally returning to his father’s office. Those events were pored over during the trial, with the prosecution suggesting they pointed to Dennis’s addled mental state at the time.

After visiting his father, Dennis drove home to Rothesay, the placid suburb where many of Saint John’s wealthy families live. Before arriving he stopped at a wharf, to see if his children were swimming there, he would later say. At 6:44 p.m., roughly the time Dennis arrived at the wharf, his father’s iPhone received its last text message, which “pinged” off a nearby cell phone tower, rather than one closer to downtown. The phone was the only item taken from Richard’s office, suggesting to prosecutors that Dennis had taken it back to Rothesay after the murder.

In the Far End Corporation office, Richard Oland lay surrounded by blood. No murder weapon would ever be found, but one detective speculated that a drywall hammer might have been used — given the alternating blunt and sharp force wounds covering Richard’s head and neck. The attack had been intense, inflicting 14 skull fractures, and cuts to the hands suggesting a struggle.

Investigation

Considering the wealth of forensic data left by such a gruesome killing, Saint John police treated the crime scene in a remarkably unprofessional way. Officers used a bathroom next to the office for two days before finally gathering prints from it; the deputy chief walked through the blood-spattered office without protective gear on, out of sheer curiosity; and one detective handled the jacket Dennis Oland was wearing on the night of the killing without gloves. The New Brunswick Police Commission suspended its investigation of the force’s handling of the case in January 2016, after Dennis Oland’s conviction was appealed. Police handling of the jacket in particular would form part of Dennis Oland’s legal appeal.

The jacket was a central element of the prosecution’s case against Dennis Oland. In a police interview on 7 July 2011, the day his father’s body was discovered, Dennis said he had been wearing a blue sports coat the previous day. But security footage from a downtown mall would show Dennis wearing a brown suit jacket that day

On 8 July, Dennis’s wife, Lisa, took the brown jacket to be dry-cleaned. Still, DNA testing found four tiny specks of Richard Oland’s blood on the garment. The prosecution often returned to this fact during the trial, though the defence maintained that any item of clothing worn during the murder would have been stained with much more blood, and noted that no other personal item belonging to Dennis was found to have blood on it.

Trial

After an investigation of more than two years, Dennis Oland was charged with second-degree murder in November 2013. The charge revived a local obsession with the case. Moosehead had long been a major employer in the city, and a source of Saint John pride as the last independently-owned national brewery in Canada. At the same time, the Olands’ wealth was envied and resented in a city that had lost much of its manufacturing base and was decades past its economic heyday. Both factors gave the family a celebrity aura, even in a province home to larger business dynasties like the Irvings and McCains.

The family’s fame and deep local roots made jury selection a challenge, when the case was finally set for trial in 2015. Five thousand potential jurors were summoned — thought to be the largest jury pool in New Brunswick history — and a final 1,000 appeared at a Saint John hockey arena for screening. The length of the trial prompted Judge Jack Walsh to make the rare decision of selecting 14 jurors (rather than 12), plus two additional alternates, in case any needed to drop out.

Saint John, NB, Riverfront
(photo by John Sylvester)

Media coverage was intense throughout the trial, but especially for the testimony of key witnesses such as Richard Oland’s mistress, Ms. Sedlacek. Dennis Oland’s lawyers were vivid performers. Alan Gold, a top defence counsel from Toronto, and Gary Miller, a similarly esteemed legal mind from New Brunswick, contributed to the perception that Dennis Oland would likely be acquitted.

The marathon court proceedings ended a week before Christmas, 2015 — drifts of snow on the ground a stark contrast with the baking heat that greeted the beginning of the trial in mid-September. The jury, winnowed to 12 by random draw, deliberated for about 30 hours over the course of four days.

Conviction

Their guilty verdict, delivered on the morning of 19 December, provoked sobs and cries of protest from members of the Oland family in the courtroom. Dennis wailed uncontrollably in the accused’s box. Second-degree murder comes with an automatic life sentence, though the jury recommended parole after the minimum 10 years, which the Court eventually heeded.

The conviction shocked the people of Saint John. Many in the tight-knit community felt that Dennis Oland was guilty, but also believed he should be acquitted because police incompetence and prosecutorial laxity had left gaps in the case against him.

The Oland family had professed Dennis’s innocence since he was charged in 2013. Derek Oland, his uncle and the executive chairman of Moosehead, had posted Dennis’s first bail following his initial arrest. Many family members provided character references ahead of the sentencing.

Constance Oland, Dennis’s mother and Richard’s widow, provided a harrowing account of their broken family in a letter to Judge Walsh after the conviction. She said that since the murder, the Olands had been stuck in a “nightmare” and experienced “living hell.” The toll had been especially great on Dennis’s stepson and three children from an earlier marriage, she wrote.

In his sentencing decision, Judge Walsh called the case “a family tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.”

Conviction Overturned

Oland’s lawyers announced their decision to appeal the guilty verdict immediately. They, too, focused on bungling by the police and prosecutors. The blood-stained jacket should not have been admitted as evidence, they argued, because investigators lacked a warrant for DNA testing. And they objected to a speculative argument made by lead prosecutor P.J. Veniot in closing arguments that imagined a heated confrontation between father and son immediately preceding the killing.

Oland also took the rare step of seeking bail while appealing a murder conviction. Twice he was rejected by New Brunswick courts, on the grounds that granting bail to a convicted murderer would undermine public faith in the justice system. That prompted Oland to seek a review of the bail decision from the Supreme Court of Canada. In March 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the New Brunswick courts were wrong to deny Oland release on bail while appealing his conviction — and that generally, even people convicted of murder have a right to avail themselves of bail conditions.

Oland’s appeal of his conviction was heard by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal in October 2016. Citing errors in the trial judge’s instructions to the jury, the court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. Oland was freed on bail at this time — although his lawyers still proceeded with their appeal to the Supreme Court of his earlier bail denial. In July 2017, the Supreme Court dismissed requests to review the case, upholding the order for a new trial.

A new trial for Oland is not expected until 2018.

Retrial and Acquittal

Dennis Oland’s retrial began in November 2018. It was held before a judge alone, rather than before a jury. Over the course of 44 days, the court heard testimony from 61 witnesses. More than 300 pieces of evidence were filed.

On 19 July 2019, Justice Terrence Morrison of New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench declared Oland not guilty of second-degree murder. In a summary of his decision, Morrison said that the Crown did not establish Oland’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He cited doubt about Richard Oland’s time of death and stated that prosecutors fell short of establishing a motive for the murder.


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