Infamous McDonald's murders remembered 20 years later
Published Monday, May 7, 2012 6:07PM ADT
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most shocking crimes in Nova Scotia's history and the effects are still felt in Cape Breton after two decades.
There is no lasting memorial to the victims of the infamous McDonald's murders in Sydney River, N.S. nor is there a restaurant at the site of the brutal killings, but the incident has forever changed the lives of the victims' families and of the community.
Three employees were killed during an attempted robbery at the McDonald's in Sydney River on May 7, 1992.
Twenty-nine-year-old Neil Burroughs, 27-year-old Jimmy Fagan, 20-year-old Donna Warren and 20-year-old Arlene MacNeil were cleaning up after a night shift when they were confronted by three young men who planned to clean out the safe at the restaurant.
The men convicted in the killings said they never intended to use violence to rob the restaurant, but all four of the workers were shot in the head at close range and left for dead.
MacNeil survived the attack but was left critically injured and is now a paraplegic. Burroughs, Fagan and Warren all died from their injuries.
Two suspects were seen leaving the building, although police believed three suspects were involved, and a manhunt ensued.
But police had little information to go on in the beginning of their investigation, and the community was gripped by fear.
"It was scary. They did not have anybody in custody," says neighbouring worker Melvin Burns. "They were still loose, you didn't know if they were around here."
Burns says he was met by a police dragnet when he arrived for work, across the street from McDonald's, the morning of the shootings.
"We had a trailer that was over in the corner…we used it for garbage," he says. "We had to go and open it with the cops, to see if anyone was hiding, or if anything was put in there."
The restaurant's owner took to the podium during a police news conference the day after the shootings.
"My family and I extend our deepest sympathies to the families, the Warrens, the Burroughs, the Fagans and the MacNeils," said Garfield Lewis on May 8, 1992. "Words can't express our feelings…it's our hope that everyone is apprehended."
Three suspects were arrested later that day but the hopes of an immediate conclusion to the case quickly faded as police realized they had the wrong men in custody.
Sylvan Arsenault, who was an RCMP staff sergeant at the time, led the investigation.
"It certainly wasn't an open-and-shut case. It was initially a ‘who done it?" says Arsenault, who is now retired. "We were led astray on a few leads that did not pan out."
The investigation quickly grew to include 120 officers and police arrested three different suspects eight days after the shootings.
This time, they had it right.
Nineteen-year-old Derek Wood and 23-year-old Freeman MacNeil were both charged and convicted of first-degree murder.
The third suspect, 18-year-old Darren Muise, avoided trial by pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
Wood was represented at his trial by defence attorney Allan Nicholson.
"You could feel the tension in the courtroom of the families that were there, and had to listen to all of this and had to go through the senseless, gruesome details," recalls Nicholson. "It was a tragedy in that way. It was a totally senseless act."
Wood and MacNeil were sentenced to life in prison, where they remain to this day. They have no hope of parole for another six years, but the third killer is well on his way to freedom.
"I have been totally disgusted with the justice system," says Cathy Burroughs, the sister of murder victim Neil Burroughs, whom Muise admitted to killing.
Muise was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 20 years, but the National Parole Board granted him day parole last year, saying he is considered a low risk to re-offend.
He now lives at a halfway house in Quebec and will be eligible for full parole next month.
"'Life' is not a life sentence. That is what hurts the most," says Cathy Burroughs. "I think justice will never be served when it comes to these guys."
With files from CTV Atlantic's Randy MacDonald