The story ticks all of the boxes for a true crime fan like myself.
On the morning of July 7, 2011, multi-millionaire Richard Oland, of the Moosehead Brewing family, was found beaten to death in his Saint John, New Brunswick, office. His son, Dennis, was quickly identified as the main suspect and convicted of the crime. After spending 10 months in prison, the verdict was overturned and Dennis was released.
That’s where Deborah Wainwright came in. The award-winning director and Gemini and Canadian Screen Award-nominated producer was there with her team to film everything that happened in the planning for the trail.
Debuting on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, the four-part The Oland Murder delves into the family, the police, the investigation and the result of the retrial in a truly compelling way. We spoke to Deborah Wainwright about the project.
How did you find out about this in the first place?
Deborah Wainwright: Richard was murdered in 2011, but it was probably 2014 that I first sort of paid attention to the case. Of course, 2015 is when Making a Murderer hit. Everybody was talking about it. And this case kept popping up on my homepage and I didn’t really pay much attention except that patricide is certainly horrifying. And so when Dennis was convicted, I was like, ‘Yikes, that’s quite the story.’ And I started to pay attention as he was applying for bail, pending appeal, and he kept being turned down for bail, pending an appeal over and over again.
I thought that was curious. So I started reading all of the news articles and watching all the news clips that I could find on the story, trying to figure out why he wasn’t being granted appeal. And eventually, I thought this guy’s going to win his appeal. He’s going to be granted a retrial. So it just kept hopping across my home page and then I thought, ‘Well, wow, if I could find a way to be able to tell this story if he does get granted a retrial and I have the opportunity to follow that story as it’s happening, that would be a really unique situation.’ I can’t think of another case in Canada that did that.
How did you get Dennis to sign on and his mother to sign on? How did you convince them that you were a documentarian, that you weren’t going to take advantage of him?
DW: I’ve been asked that question a lot. And the first time someone asked, ‘How did I get access?’, I was so shocked. I said, ‘Because I asked.’ But I also think there was a little combination of the timing and the fact that I’m from the other side of the country.
Once I was in, they definitely expressed unease for agreeing. They definitely expressed unease with the way the case has been handled in the media. They didn’t feel it had been handled fairly by the media. So I do think that perhaps it was partly because I was from Vancouver and perhaps they hoped that I was coming with more of an open mind because as I say, I didn’t know the Olands. I didn’t know Moosehead. I didn’t know anything about it. I just saw this as an opportunity to tell the story of an ongoing trial.
Do you think maybe part of it was so that they could tell their side of the story?
DW: Absolutely. I mean, no one had been told their side of the story. And I think that’s a decision by the Oland’s to be quiet, to just be stoic and quiet and try and get through it together. Oh, I think it may have bitten them in the butt a little bit because people can only tell the stories that they are given access to. They knew because I’m a documentary filmmaker my goal was to tell the truth and to tell every bit of the story that I can. I can’t be one-sided.
And so they knew that they were going to be some things that were going to be uncomfortable. You mentioned Dennis’ mother, the widow. Having a sit-down interview with her was really something. And this was, gosh, six years later, seven years later, that I interviewed her after her husband had been murdered and her son had gone to prison and was still going through this. She was so brave and what a gift she gave me by allowing me to just sit down and ask her some really uncomfortable questions.
Something that I found really unique in your storytelling was the court transcripts. You couldn’t be in there with a camera so you used animation and it was wonderful.
DW: Oh, thank you so much. I will happily tell you, our animator is our wonderful graphic artist. His name is Vern Giammartino. He’s in Toronto and he is absolutely brilliant and also hilarious. We knew we wanted to animate it because of course, you can’t put a camera in the courtroom. So we talked about making it look like courtroom sketches. We really wanted the viewer to feel like that they had been sitting in the courtroom watching it go on.
What do you think happened?
DW: Of course I have an opinion on the verdict and who the killer is and so on. I and my colleagues sat through every day of the trial and all of the pretrial motions, so we have a lot of information that didn’t even make it into the film. We worked so very hard to craft a story that is balanced and fair and truthful.
The Oland Murder airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.