Just after midnight on 7 May 1992, the night crew at the McDonald’s in Sydney River, Nova Scotia, finished up the accounts for 6 May and prepared for the coming day. Donna Warren, 22, worked in the small manager’s office counting cash and locking the money in the safe. Neil Burroughs, 29, cleaned the kitchen. Arlene MacNeil, 20, had already finished work and changed out of her uniform, but was waiting for Warren to finish. Jimmy Fagan, 27, was on his way to work early to prepare the machines for the coming day.
Derek Wood, 18, Darren Muise, 18, and Freeman MacNeil, 23, had spent the winter hanging out and talking about robbing the McDonald’s restaurant in their small town on the outskirts of Sydney — Cape Breton’s main city. Wood got a job there in March 1992 and the plans took shape. The young men expected to take up to $200,000 from the safe.
Wood learned about a rarely used basement door at the restaurant. He propped it open on his 6 May shift in preparation for the robbery later that night.
Meanwhile, MacNeil and Muise dressed themselves in a second layer of clothing, so they could throw their top layers away after making off with the stolen cash.
The three men met up late on 6 May, after Wood’s shift, and drove to the McDonald’s. MacNeil had brought a stolen .22-calibre pistol, but Wood carried it.
Their plan was to enter through the basement door. MacNeil would go inside and stand at the door to stop any employees from leaving. Muise would guard the kitchen and Wood would rob the safe. If anyone tried to run, the men planned to beat them unconscious.
Wood, Muise and MacNeil parked on a nearby dirt road and walked to the fast food place after midnight. All three entered the basement door and crept through a dark training room. Wood took out the pistol. Muise put on a rubber Halloween mask and brandished two knives. MacNeil had a shovel handle and ropes.
The three men surprised Donna Warren and Arlene MacNeil. Both recognized Wood, who was not disguised and had left his shift only hours before. Warren, the manager, had long planned to give any potential robbers what they wanted, but was confused to see her own employee.
Wood shot Arlene MacNeil in the head and she fell face-first onto the floor, breathing but severely hurt. Freeman MacNeil (who wasn’t related to Arlene) told Wood to hurry up. Wood and Muise raced upstairs into the main part of the restaurant.
Neil Burroughs hadn’t heard anything downstairs and was cleaning the sinks. Wood shot him in the head and he fell to his knees. Muise then stabbed him in the neck and MacNeil later beat him with the shovel handle. A second shot to the head ended his life.
Wood went back to the basement and forced Warren upstairs to the safe and told her to open it, which she did. Wood shot her in the head, ending her life. Wood took the money out of the safe — it totalled $2,017.
At 1 a.m., Jimmy Fagan arrived in a taxi to start his overnight shift. He went to the restaurant’s back kitchen door and saw Wood, whom he had worked with before. Freeman MacNeil shot Fagan dead.
Derek Wood, Freeman MacNeil and Darren Muise then jumped over Fagan’s body and fled into the night.
The taxi driver who had dropped Fagan off saw two of them running, and returned to the McDonald’s to find out what was happening. He saw Fagan’s body, and called for help.
Within 10 days of the murders, the RCMP arrested Wood, MacNeil and Muise. There were months of preliminary hearings in court, and legal arguments over where the trials should be held. Court dates and places were finally settled. And as the one-year anniversary of the crimes approached on 7 May 1993, the three accused killers prepared for trial.
Wood was tried first. He was found guilty of the attempted murder of Arlene MacNeil, and the first-degree murders of Donna Warren and Neil Burroughs, as well as robbery and unlawful confinement. He was given a life sentence, with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Darren Muise stood trial next. He pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Neil Burroughs and to the robbery. Other charges he had faced were dismissed as part of a plea bargain he had made with prosecutors. He was convicted and given a life sentence, with no parole for 20 years.
Freeman MacNeil was convicted of the first-degree murder of Neil Burroughs, the second-degree murder of Jimmy Fagan, and other crimes. He was given a life sentence, with no parole for 25 years.
As of 2017, Derek Wood remained in prison for the crimes he committed. He applied for parole in 2015, but the Parole Board of Canada denied his request.
Darren Muise was granted full parole in 2012. He was released from prison, but prohibited from ever going to Sydney, NS, and surrounding communities, including Sydney River. He moved to British Columbia.
Freeman MacNeil was still in prison as of 2017, but had been granted escorted temporary absences.
Arlene MacNeil survived the attack but was left with permanent damage to her brain and body.
The McDonald’s in Sydney River reopened a week after the murders and continued to operate for eight years before the owner closed it and tore it down.
None of the three murderers has ever explained their actions.
On the 25th anniversary of the crime, Neil Burroughs’s sister, Cathy — who has attended the parole hearings of all three killers — said she was still serving her own “life sentence” without her brother.
“We don’t want anything to mark the day,” she said, “because it’s marked on our souls.”