Murder and a Maritime dynasty: The Dick Oland case

When Oland was found dead, police turned to a prime suspect

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, Nov. 13, Saint John police charged Richard Oland’s son, Dennis Oland, with second-degree murder in the death of his father. This story was first written prior to his arrest.

Murder and a maritime dynasty

Richard Oland (right) wins an award from the Canadian Yachting Association. (Courtesy: Canadian Yachting Association)

It has been more than two years since Richard Henry “Dick” Oland, one-time heir to the Moosehead brewery fortune, was found dead in the office of his investment company in uptown Saint John. Investigators have since remained tight-lipped about the 69-year-old’s cause of death and have made no arrests, although Saint John Police Chief Bill Reid has said he is confident police will lay charges before the end of the year. In the meantime, new details of the investigation, unearthed by court order, have revealed allegations of family rifts, financial intrigue and infidelity that have rocked both the province of New Brunswick and the prestigious Oland family.

Just before 9 a.m. on the morning of July 7, 2011, a Thursday, Maureen Adamson arrived at the office of her long-time employer to find the front door unlocked. Though Dick Oland was often known to work late into the night, Adamson later told police it was highly unusual for him not to lock the door when he left. Adamson climbed the stairs to the second floor, where she found Oland’s rented office was also unlocked, the door ajar. What she discovered inside 52 Canterbury St.—a fairy-tale block of 19th-century brick buildings in the gentrifying core of historic Saint John—has likely changed the city forever.

Oland, the president of the Far End Corp. investment firm, had been messily dispatched at his desk in an attack so violent, it would require nearly $30,000 in cleanup and repairs to the office. A man who, in photographs, was seldom without a face-cracking grin, Oland had last been seen at six o’clock the night before. He had spent the day in a series of meetings, the first one scheduled for 10 a.m., to discuss his family estate. According to police, Oland’s last meeting was scheduled for sometime that evening with Oland’s 45-year-old son, Dennis. Later that night, Anthony Shaw was working at Printing Plus Ltd. on the main floor of the building, directly below Oland’s office, when he heard six or seven “exceptionally loud, quick, pounding thumps” from above, as if someone were “banging on a wall,” he told police, followed by noises that sounded like “shuffling.”

Known around town as Dick, Oland was a bright, energetic but difficult son of the Moosehead-beer Olands, one of a handful of wealthy New Brunswick families that have divided the province into lucrative fiefdoms of endeavour and that, over the years, have come to settle in the old-money bedroom community of Rothesay, 20 minutes up a pockmarked highway northeast of Saint John.

The brewing family has lived here for generations alongside the rest of Saint John’s upper class—some of them, such as the Crosby molasses dynasty, lesser known west of New Brunswick, perhaps, but still big fish. Together, the families, which include the Irvings, hold enormous influence over the region, as Dick Oland himself recognized. “New Brunswick’s free-enterprise system has become a 20th-century version of the Family Compact,” he once told a reporter, a reference to the Tory clans who, through sheer cronyism, once controlled Upper Canada.

The Saint John Police Force executed a search warrant at the home of Dennis Oland, son of Richard Oland, on Thursday. (Telegraph-Journal)

Oland’s unsettling death, in a tight-knit Saint John that still grinds to a standstill on Sundays, is a Gothic reality unfolding with all the apparent inevitability of a dark novel. The lengthy police investigation, some of which has been made public over the past year through a series of media court challenges, has unveiled allegations of a tangled web of strained family relations, infidelity and financial problems that threaten to unravel the tidy image of one of New Brunswick’s most storied families.

The obituaries that followed Oland’s murder dwelt, rightfully so, on his many contributions to the community, from his role in bringing the Canada Games to Saint John in 1985 to his presidency of the New Brunswick Museum, which he helped install in nifty new digs in 1996. The obituaries mentioned his sporting pursuits, most crucially, his yacht racing in international waters. He had hired a professional crew to compete behind him as skipper on the yacht, the New Zealand-made, state-of-the-art, carbon-fibre Vela Veloce, entering several international competitions and winning the 2010 US-IRC National Championship. At the time of his death, he had put the Vela Veloce up for sale for $850,000 and was in the thick of overseeing the completion of a second custom racing yacht being built in Spain.

Only recently, too, he had put the finishing touches on renovations to his home on Almon Lane, an exclusive, tree-lined road that bisects old Rothesay. Oland had unearthed the original plans of the house and, with his wife, Connie, had moved temporarily into the carriage house, spending enormous amounts on refurbishing the building to its past glory, those who knew him say.

Only hinted at in the public outpouring of grief after his death was Oland’s reputation around Rothesay and Saint John as a hard man to get along with; it was not for nothing that attendees left his packed funeral to the strains of My Way . “A very capable guy,” as one acquaintance has it, “but there would be a few people, after he got through with them, with footmarks on their backs.”

At the Union Club, an old-fashioned gentleman’s club established in 1884 and housed in a Victorian building around the corner from the office where Oland died, habitués say they were wary of his presence: At least one member told a friend he did not enjoy meals with Oland because of Oland’s habit of “stirring things up.”

His hard-driving ways extended even to his dealings with family members. It was that often uncompromising nature that caused his departure, in 1981, from Moosehead Breweries Ltd., now the last nationally distributed independent Canadian brewery in Canada (Molson and Labatt have long been subsumed by multinationals), and where Oland had sought to become president. Instead, his father, Philip Oland—P.W., he was called—chose Oland’s brother Derek, two years his senior, to succeed him.

Dick Oland’s manoeuvrings to become president of Moosehead had become so difficult for his older brother by 1980 that Derek felt he had no choice but to give P.W. Oland both written and verbal notice that he would quit the business and leave Canada entirely.

According to Last Canadian Beer: The Moosehead Story, a history of the company by Harvey Sawler written with Moosehead’s full co-operation, Derek’s resignation left P.W. “fretful” because he “believed that Dick would not be able to take the company forward.” Dick was “an argumentative type,” Sawler writes, paraphrasing Derek. “Dick would argue with anybody,” Derek is quoted as saying. “It didn’t matter who it was.”

Though Dick had acquitted himself well at Moosehead, where he’d risen to vice-president and spearheaded the adoption of a slick new bottling line at the Saint John brewery, his father, P.W., did not find in him the royal jelly. “The younger one wanted to be president and he hadn’t the experience,” P.W. once told the Financial Post Magazine coolly.

Derek, described as personable and more relaxed than his brother, shared that assessment. “To put it bluntly,” Sawler writes, “Derek did not respect his brother when it came to corporate leadership.” Quoted directly in the book, Derek drives home the point: “I couldn’t work for Dick because of the nature of the guy.”

In 1981, P.W. named Derek executive vice-president—on the way to becoming president. Dick left the company to concentrate on Brookville Transport, a trucking business he’d already established in Saint John, and to continue his work to bring the Canada Games to the city. Intense, exacting and tough, Dick was frequently right, people who knew him say. Pat Darrah, an old friend who worked with him on the Canada Games, remembers Dick dragging a decision-maker to the University of New Brunswick campus, which offers stunning views of the Saint John and Kennebecasis rivers, and asking, “You see what the television cameras are going to see?” The site of the games, long planned for elsewhere, were, as a result, changed to the more photogenic locale.

Such dedication helped Dick make his trucking business a success beyond the Moosehead contracts his father, P.W., promised him after the succession squabble. Other profitable businesses followed. Still, his brother’s ascendency at Moosehead rankled Dick, who was known to sniff at Derek’s personal acquisitions and ask: “I wonder what dividend paid for that?” P.W.’s death in 1996 apparently permitted that rancour to flow more freely. With shares of Moosehead split between Dick, Derek and their sister, Jane Toward, commensurate to P.W.’s reckoning of their contributions to the company—53 per cent for Derek, 33 per cent for Dick and 14 per cent for Jane, writes Sawler—Dick developed into a particularly vocal minority shareholder.

In 1998, Dick sued Derek and the Moosehead holding company. The pretext was a drop in business that had put a halt to the payment of dividends and that Derek blamed on challenges associated with growing into the U.S. market. Dick and his sister, Jane, apparently operating together, sought to wrestle more control of the company from Derek. The case was settled, but Dick sued again—prompting a second settlement—and continued causing trouble at the company’s annual general meetings, when, according to Sawler, Dick would hand Jane several pages of queries to ask. “It was like Law and Order,” Derek said. Derek bought Dick and Jane out in 2007.

Today, Derek (who does not live in Rothesay) is executive chairman of Moosehead, with the presidency falling to his son Andrew. Though Dick and Derek’s relationship may have been strained, two of their sons are said not to share that discomfort. Andrew and Dennis Oland live a minute’s walk from each other on Gondola Point Road, which skirts the Kennebecasis River. They are, by all accounts, close friends.

Still, the succession fight left a lasting mark on the relationship between the two brothers, those who know the family say. At the Union Club, Derek and Dick met by accident when they met at all; their interaction around a communal lunching table was frosty. “It was gentlemanly, maybe, but it was certainly not a close relationship anymore,” says one man who witnessed these encounters. The family battle had driven a wedge between Dick and his children. “After he left the brewery, he was never the same towards them,” his wife of 46 years, Constance, told investigators, according to a police affidavit of the interview. He distanced himself from his family but, as the only son, Dennis had the most tumultuous relationship. Dennis “had always tried to gain the respect of his father,” Constance told police. “However, he had never been able to live up to his standards.”

Father and son had been close until Dennis hit adolescence, he allegedly told police. “His father felt that a father could not be friends with his son,” a police report reads, saying that Dennis felt “some of the issues were that his father is ex-military and that he grew up in a family with high expectations.” The two would sometimes have “big fights,” according to the police affidavit based on an interview with Dennis, “but they would blow over quickly.”

In 1988, a 20-year-old Dennis fatally injured his father’s $25,000 show-jumping horse after losing control of his Jeep Cherokee and horse trailer when he swerved to avoid a cat on a highway outside Brockville, Ont. Two decades later, on Oct. 21, 2008, Dennis James Oland’s most tangible connection to his father, Dick, burned to the waterline due to an electrical fire while docked at a marina in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Aloma II, an 18-m motorboat with a distinctive canoe stern built in 1910 in Sydney, N.S., had been part of the Oland family since 1947, when George B. Oland bought it as a beat-up military vessel.

Boating has been part of the Oland family since at least the time when George B. learned to ply the harbour waters from Dartmouth to Halifax on the Gambrinous, a barge they used to transport beer kegs. Perhaps that’s why Dick felt so comfortable on the boat. “Dad was completely at peace on the Aloma,” Dennis records in a written history of the vessel that was lovingly, almost obsessively, compiled post-fire. “As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was truly the good old days, the best of times were with that boat,” Dennis told the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John’s daily newspaper, in a story immediately after the Aloma’s destruction. “I didn’t get to see him a lot, and when we got on the boat, that all changed,” he added of his father, describing Dick then as “relaxed, a huge smile on his face.”

Neither Dennis nor his two sisters, Lisa Bustin and Jacqueline Walsh, play any role in the Moosehead brewery. Some in the Saint John area say Dennis would have liked to have entered into the family business, but that his father had persuaded him against the move because of his rift with Derek. Educated at the University of New Brunswick, Dennis worked in the investment industry in Toronto for a time, but returned home in 1994 and now works as an investment adviser with CIBC Wood Gundy. He lives in the Rothesay house where his grandparents P.W. and Mary Oland lived and raised Dick, Jane and Derek. Dennis married his second wife, Lisa, at a United Church four years ago; together they are raising three children.

Though Dennis didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps in business, the two were involved financially. Dennis had acted as his father’s financial adviser and told police his father had “bankrolled” his divorce several years earlier, paying court costs and purchasing the ancestral family home in Rothesay, where Dennis lived to protect it from the divorce settlement. Dennis had arranged to repay his father the $85,000 in legal fees, along with a mortgage on the home of between $500,000 and $600,000, police said. The home had two existing mortgages on the property from 2010 and 2011, totalling more then $200,000, leading police to describe Dennis as being “on the edge, financially.”

Adding to the family tensions was Dick’s eight-year affair with a Saint John real estate agent named Diana Sedlacek. An apparently poorly kept secret, Sedlacek told police that most of Dick’s family was aware of their relationship. The two had discussed marriage and Dick had arranged to meet with a lawyer to go over the details, Sedlacek told investigators. So public was their affair that the two had a standing arrangement to speak every night at 6:30 p.m. When, the day after the murder, she couldn’t reach him to discuss a trip the two were planning to Maine, Sedlacek phoned Dick’s wife to track him down. Dennis was particularly bothered by the affair, telling police he had asked a family friend “to speak to his father and tell him to stop the affair because it was becoming more public.” Sedlacek told police that Dick had often complained to her about his son’s work ethic and that “he did not have a lot of respect for his son and thought he was lazy.”

Investigators have honed in on the allegedly strained father-son relationship, seizing more than 50 items from Dennis’s Rothesay home, according to search warrants, including lint from a clothes dryer. They also searched a boat co-owned by Dennis’s wife at the Kennebecasis Yacht Club in Saint John’s north end, taking DNA swabs from a red drop on a seat and a stain on a sink. Also at issue are alleged contradictory accounts of what Dennis was wearing when he visited his father’s Saint John office the night of the murder. Dennis allegedly told police he was dressed in khaki dress pants, a blue-and-white shirt and a navy blazer, while police affidavits contend a witness and video surveillance show him wearing a dark brown sports coat and light-coloured pants. His wife, Lisa, told investigators her husband had arrived home that night and “went straight upstairs and got changed.” Witness Barbara Murray told police that, on the evening of the murder, she and her husband were sitting in her van at Rothesay’s Riverside Country Club when she spotted a “well-dressed” man she later identified as Dennis walking quickly toward the wharf. He stopped to pick up an item and then sat down, took something red out of a bag, wrapped the item, put it back in the bag and quickly left in a silver car. “I knew it wasn’t right,” she told police. “There was a purpose to what he was doing, a real purpose.”

Despite so much focus on Dennis, police have not charged him—or anyone—with the crime. Nor have they revealed how Dick Oland died, or any suspected murder weapon. Constance told police that, despite her son’s rocky relationship with his father, “Dennis Oland would not hurt Richard Oland.” There was a long list of people who would not count Dick Oland as a friend, daughter Lisa Bustin told investigators, describing her father as a “hard-nosed businessman who could have anyone as an enemy.” Dennis’s wife, Lisa, told police that, on the night of the murder, the two had chatted about Dennis’s conversation that night with his father, saying “they talked about the family history and he said the meeting was ‘really nice.’ ”

In the face of the very public airing of their private business, the family has said almost nothing publicly about the murder. In a statement, Derek and Jane recalled their brother’s many contributions to Saint John and New Brunswick and, in an interview, Derek noted he and Dick would, in recent years, sometimes meet for lunch. Dennis, meanwhile, read from Scripture during his father’s funeral. From time to time, locals in Rothesay relate, he is spotted walking through the grounds of the yacht club where he did so much of his growing up, engaged in the pursuit—boating—that, of all things, had brought him closest to his father.