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Personal Essay: Writing a book about New Brunswick’s most notorious murder case involved walking some thin lines

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JanFeb_Frontmatter_PersonalEssay_Bobbi-Jean-MacKinnonThe murder of multi-millionaire New Brunswick businessman Richard Oland, and the investigation and trial of his only son, Dennis, has captivated public attention in the city of Saint John. It has dominated my life for the past five years. I covered the police and court beat for years when I worked for the provincial newspaper, but reporting on the Oland case for CBC – and writing a book on the case – was unlike any other story I’d worked on.

Saint John is a city with a small-town feel, the kind of place where if you don’t know someone, you probably know someone who does. Everywhere I went, the Oland case was all anybody wanted to talk about.

The Crown’s case was largely circumstantial. No murder weapon was ever found. The key piece of evidence in the slaying was a bloodstained brown sports jacket seized from Dennis Oland’s closet. His alleged motives? He was more than $745,000 in debt and resented his father’s extramarital affair. In December 2015, after a lengthy investigation and trial, a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder.

The verdict divided public opinion into three impassioned camps: those who believed Oland was innocent, those who believed he was guilty, and those who believed he probably was guilty but felt police bungling and the lack of physical evidence created reasonable doubt. I spoke to a few people who thought the Crown proved its case but blame Richard Oland’s difficult personality for provoking his otherwise affable son. Others argued Dennis was being punished because he’s from a prominent family – the founders of Moosehead Breweries. When the New Brunswick court of appeal overturned his conviction in October 2016, setting the stage for a new trial, at least one Twitter user attributed the decision to his family’s wealth.

I was often asked for my own opinion. “You were there for the whole trial,” people would say. “What do you think?” I declined to answer; as a reporter, it’s crucial to maintain objectivity, and I am still covering the case. But I recognized that this fascinating, tragic story has left a family – and a city – forever changed, and it needed to be fully told. I had reams of material that didn’t make it into my daily reports, material I could use to tell a more comprehensive, coherent story.

The challenge was to take the five years’ worth of information in the notepads, search warrants, court documents, transcripts, and experts’ reports stacked on my kitchen table and turn it into a compelling, suspenseful narrative. I wanted readers who had closely followed the case and knew the outcome of the trial to discover new twists and turns and details. At the same time, I hoped to engage readers who weren’t familiar with the complex case and craft the story so they could easily follow along as I took them to the crime scene, inside the investigation, and right into the courtroom, putting them in the jurors’ shoes.

Nobody connected to the case was willing to sit down with me for an interview because the story was still unfolding – with Oland’s appeal, a provincial police commission inquiry into the murder investigation, and a criminal investigation into allegations the deputy chief had urged another officer to lie about his presence at the crime scene. This complicated my efforts. If I had a question about a technical legal point or a policing issue, I had to find outside sources. Similarly, I wanted to give readers a sense of Richard’s and Dennis’s personalities and the father-son dynamic — the focus of so much speculation outside the courtroom and a contested issue at the trial — but I had never met either of them, and the family wouldn’t talk to me. So I scoured whatever other sources I could find — the obituary and eulogy, police statements and sentencing letters of support, Facebook pages, and yacht-club listings — for tidbits to weave together to create fuller portraits.

Writing a book about such a controversial case in a city where I frequently encounter investigators, witnesses, or family members at grocery stores or social events has been awkward. Nobody wanted additional publicity. Some of the professional relationships I worked hard to build and truly valued are now, I fear, beyond repair. I take some solace in the fact both sides seem equally disgruntled with my work. In journalism, that means I’m doing my job, being balanced and fair. The response of readers is intriguing: some tell me they thought Oland was innocent and reading my book has changed their minds, and vice versa. A few have offered their own theories. There are, of course, those who remain steadfast — and those readers who persist in asking me, “Did he do it?” as they hand over their copy of the book for my signature. With the last word yet to come, I can only sign my name.


Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon is a CBC News reporter. Shadow of Doubt: The Trial of Dennis Oland is published by Goose Lane Editions.