Infamous crime remembered
Sunday marks 25th anniversary of McDonald’s murders
Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the most infamous crime in Cape Breton’s history and an event that’s been described as robbing the island of its innocence.
On May 7, 1992, a botched robbery at the Sydney River McDonald’s restaurant resulted in the murders of workers James Fagan, 27, Donna Warren, 22, and Neil Burroughs Jr., 29, while Arleen MacNeil was shot and left permanently disabled by a brain injury.
The brutality of the crime shook the community and discussion of it often enflames passions to this day, despite the passage of time.
“I don’t think that anybody could really believe that it was happening, I remember the morning that it occurred I woke up and heard that there was a triple murder at McDonald’s in Sydney and my first thought was, ‘well, thank God we’re in Cape Breton and not living in a big city like Sydney, Australia’ and it turned out it was here,” Ken Haley said in an interview
“I made a comment to my wife the other night, ‘it’s 25 years, it’s hard to believe.’”
Now a justice in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court family division, Haley was part of the team of Crown attorneys who worked on the trials of Derek Wood, Darren Muise and Freeman MacNeil. He noted that his work on the prosecutions — from the preliminary hearings to the trials and appeals — almost exclusively took up about three years of his professional life, which included working with the families of the four victims.
“We were representing the public interest and … we had to be responsible to (the victims), but we also had to be responsible to the community and to the public interest at large and we also had an obligation to be fair to the accused,” Haley said. “At that time there was a lot of anger in the community about the three accused but we had to treat them as any other accused and treat them with fairness according to the judicial system rules and the criminal procedure rules.”
Those obligations did on occasion result in minor conflicts with the families, who weren’t familiar with the complexities of the judicial system and the role of the Crown, he said. The families were, however, fully supportive of the
Crown team throughout the process, Haley added.
“Unfortunately, what we did for the families did not bring back their loved ones, that was the worst of it,” he said. “No matter what we did, we couldn’t undo the damage done by Derek Wood, Darren Muise and Freeman MacNeil.
“My thoughts and prayers are still with the families … There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them and the consequences of what happened that evening. Here it is 25 years later and it still hurts.”
As difficult as the period was, Haley said it was probably the most stimulating time during his career as a lawyer and noted it did result in three convictions.
Other members of the Crown team have also since been named to the bench, including provincial court judges Brian Williston and Marc Chisholm, who recently retired.
The McDonald’s murders occurred during what’s been described as the bloodiest year on record in Cape Breton, when there were eight deaths stemming from violent crimes, including the grisly stabbing death in Sydney of Big Ben’s convenience store clerk Marie Lorraine Dupe, in the early morning hours of March 22. That crime remained unsolved for the next decade.
“At the time, we didn’t know what we had going on,” Haley said. “As it turns out they were not related, but the community was just lost by the criminality in the community. We had wellknown criminals calling the police at that time disavowing any knowledge or involvement in the McDonald’s case because it was so horrific and so over-thetop in terms of what we were used to dealing with.”
Now 43, Muise was 18 when he admitted to killing Burroughs, a married father and maintenance worker. He
pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 20 years. Muise was granted full parole in November 2012. He is now living in lower mainland British Columbia with his girlfriend, living a “stable and financially secure” life, according to his most recent parole board decision.
Wood and MacNeil were able to begin applying for unescorted temporary absences and day parole beginning in 2014 and are eligible to apply for parole this year. In 2015, Wood lost his appeal of the decision to deny him day parole.
Earlier this year, Cathy Burroughs told the Cape Breton Post that the pain of losing her brother has never gone away.
“It’s getting harder now because you know they’re out there,” she said.
She said it irks her that Muise is allowed to be friends with another released offender under the amended terms of his release, and this appears to be an example of him receiving preferential treatment. And that after all this time, she said Muise still hasn’t apologized for his actions.
“He has never, never said that he was sorry or that he has any empathy for the victims,” Burroughs said, adding the families also received life sentences when the crimes happened.
“Those three individuals have to know that there will be a Burroughs in their lives for the rest of their lives so I got a life sentence too.”
This file photo shows the Sydney River McDonald’s restaurant the day after three workers were killed and another seriously injured in a botched robbery that has been described as an event that robbed the island of its innocence.