It started with a broken conveyor belt. When the mechanical malfunction brought eighteen-year-old McDonald’s employee Derek Wood into the restaurant’s back room, he saw the safe and got a dangerous idea. It would be so easy to prop the back door open, allowing two friends to sneak inside and steal the money. Wood assumed there was at least $200,000 in the cashbox—an incredible haul for just a few minutes’ work—but things would not go according to plan.
The robbery went wrong from the start, and within minutes, a fast-food restaurant in the wilds of Nova Scotia was turned into a bloodbath. Wood and his accomplices attacked the employees, killing three instantly and leaving the fourth for dead. In the safe, where they had expected to find a fortune, there was barely $2,000. They fled the scene, instigating a manhunt that would captivate the nation.
In the tradition of In Cold Blood and The Onion Field, this stunning work of true crime tells the story of the small-town murder that shocked a nation. Phonse Jessome brings a trained journalist’s eye to the case, which remains one of the most horrifying incidents of suburban violence in recent history.
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Murder at McDonald's
The Killers Next Door
By Phonse Jessome
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1994 Phonse Jessome
All rights reserved.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, May 7, 1992, Jimmy Fagan headed out for the last walk of his life. Jimmy did not know that was what he was doing, as he locked the front door of his parents' home and walked down the steps to the sidewalk. His parents didn't know it either, when they went to bed without saying goodnight. Jimmy had been down in the basement watching TV when they retired for the night, after looking in on him to make sure he was still awake to go to work. Not saying goodbye that night was one of the many little things that would haunt them in the difficult months ahead.
Of course Jimmy had every right to expect a normal night at work, and his parents had every right to expect to see their son in the morning. They would see him in about two hours, but he would not be the Jimmy they knew. They would never again see the happy-go-lucky boy they loved so much.
Al and Theresa Fagan had worked hard all their lives to raise and support Jimmy, his five brothers, and his two sisters. Al, who was retired, now had the time to look back on his life — all the years at the Sydney steel plant, and all the weekends when they took off for the cottage in a station wagon loaded with kids. Theresa still worked at a local senior citizens home, but she too enjoyed recalling the memories of a house full of kids, and the couple spent many a happy evening talking over old times. Both were proud of their children and looked forward to years of family gatherings, as the ranks of the Fagan family swelled with sons, and daughters-in-law — and, of course, grandchildren. The old house seemed to come alive when it reverberated with the sounds of children yelling and running, and that was just fine with Al and Theresa. The more, the merrier.
Jimmy had nothing more pressing than the weather on his mind as he walked towards Prince Street, one of Sydney's main thoroughfares. He didn't even bother looking back at the big white house where he'd shared so much with his family, good times and hard alike. At about five-foot-nine and two hundred pounds, he was stocky and short compared to his brothers, who all edged close to or beyond the six-foot mark. His dark hair, thick eyebrows, and deep-set eyes could have given the twenty-seven-year-old a brooding appearance had it not been for the most dominant feature on his rounded face — his smile. Jimmy had a smile that lit up his entire body, and he was always ready to flash it. He loved life, and it showed. Not that he had much to smile about that night, as he walked along, huddled against a cold, brisk wind. Small piles of snow still clung to the ground beneath the shrubs, trees, and bushes along the way; the arrival of May was no guarantee that a Cape Breton winter was quite ready to surrender to the warmer weeks ahead. Jimmy had a keen interest in the snow and was watching closely each night as the piles got smaller and smaller.
As soon as the last remnants of snow had disappeared for another year, he could say goodbye to the job at McDonald's — and to these midnight strolls — and get back to working outside again, for his brother's landscaping company. It wasn't that Jimmy disliked working at McDonald's; in fact, he really liked it there. For one thing, he was getting a lot more work at the restaurant than he would have by returning to his old job at Zellers. Jimmy had left the department store the previous spring, when his brother offered him the landscaping job — the problem was, landscaping work fell off in the fall, and his brother couldn't afford to keep him on the payroll. Jimmy had complained to the family about the prospect of another winter at the department store; it would be all right until Christmas, but, after that, shifts would be few and far between. It was Marie, his sister-in-law, who came up with the solution; she knew Jimmy wanted to be working full time. Marie was a shift manager at the Sydney River McDonald's, a few kilometres outside the city, and the restaurant needed a back-shift maintenance worker. She would put in a good word for Jimmy if he was interested in the job. It sounded like a good opportunity, but what really sold Jimmy on the idea was that he would not be letting the restaurant down if he quit and went back to landscaping in the spring. Marie told him McDonald's always had a long list of students looking for summer jobs. If Jimmy stayed until the universities let out, he wouldn't be causing a problem by leaving, and she was also fairly certain he could get hired on again in the fall, when the students headed back to school and the landscaping work slowed down again. It was an ideal set-up for Jimmy, who had managed to keep himself working since high school; staying home and collecting unemployment insurance was not something he wanted to get into.
Only a week or so, Jimmy told himself, taking a last glance at the stubborn remains of winter as he continued walking; then he could give his notice at McDonald's and get back to some outdoor daytime work for the short Cape Breton summer. He knew he'd miss some of his new friends at the restaurant, though. Jimmy was quick to make friends; he loved to sit and chat with people, whatever the topic. His father once proudly described Jimmy as someone who never saw ugly people. He just saw people, and he liked them all.
Neil Burroughs, the other night-time maintenance worker at McDonald's, was one of Jimmy's new friends. They enjoyed each other's company on long winter nights, as they got the restaurant ready for the breakfast crew. Fortunately for the two men, their personalities were in sync. The long hours of the back shift can be tough on you, but if the time is spent talking, joking, and sharing the workload with someone you like, well, it doesn't wear on you so much. Jimmy and Neil both enjoyed a good joke or a tall tale, and they exchanged plenty of both as they cleaned, polished, and repaired whatever needed their attention before the customers and morning crew arrived.
Neil was already at the restaurant, working Jimmy's shift. The two maintenance workers had staggered shifts — 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Jimmy was usually on the early shift, but agreed to give it to Neil, who had hurt his back in a car accident a couple of months before. The early shift involved mostly cleaning and light duties; the guy on the second shift did the heavier work. Although he didn't have to be at work for almost two hours, Jimmy always headed to the restaurant early, so he could chat with the early- evening staff for an hour or so, before they went home. He was pretty sure Donna Warren and Arlene MacNeil would still be there when he arrived. Donna was a shift manager like Marie, and Arlene worked the cash counter; the two women were friends and usually left together.
Jimmy stuck his hands deep into his pockets as a blast of cold air from the ice-filled Sydney harbour swept up Prince Street. He decided to stop at Tim Hortons to get a cup of coffee to carry as he walked the rest of the way downtown. The cup would keep his fingers warm, and the coffee would help keep him from getting too tired at work.
As Jimmy waited to order his coffee, his co-workers were busy inside the McDonald's restaurant in Sydney River, a bedroom community on the outskirts of Sydney. Kings Road, the main thoroughfare to and from Sydney, is lined with restaurants, gas stations, and an assortment of other small businesses, of which McDonald's is the farthest from the city. The restaurant is perched on a hill at the point just before Kings Road dips beneath the concrete hulk of the four-lane Sydney bypass and merges with Highway 4, one of two major highways that run the length of Cape Breton Island. It's hard for hungry motorists to miss the restaurant, whether they're driving on Highway 4 or on the newer stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that links up with the bypass on the north side of Sydney harbour and takes travellers through the centre of Cape Breton, on the northwest side of the Bras d'Or Lakes. Coming in on Highway 4 means driving right by the entrance to the restaurant, while motorists speeding along the bypass need only glance below to see the familiar golden arches.
The restaurant is typical of the single-storey McDonald's design, with its caplike roof, brown brick walls, and large windows and glass doors. The driveway climbs a steep bank to the parking lot, at the rear of the building; beyond the parking area is a field that borders the property and leads to the bypass. Along with the brightly lit glass entrances used by the public, there are two large steel doors. One of them, at the back of the restaurant, opens into the busy kitchen; this door is used by employees. The other, down at the front corner of the building, near the street, is rarely used. Like the employees' entrance, the basement door can only be opened from the inside, and even restaurant workers rarely use it, since they have little occasion to venture into that area of the basement. So there was no reason for anyone to notice, in those early-morning hours of May 7, that the basement door was slightly ajar.
Upstairs in the kitchen, Neil Burroughs was chatting with Donna Warren. Donna was in the manager's small office; the door was open, and Neil stood outside, his slim, compact body relaxed as he leaned against the handle of his mop. His thick black hair and moustache accented his smiling eyes and ever-present grin; Neil often saw humour where others did not.
"So now I know how you can afford that fancy new car," Neil teased, as Donna looked up from the stacks of bills she was counting out for each daytime worker's float — a cash register insert with compartments for one hundred dollars in various denominations. Preparing the floats and locking them in the safe was one of her last duties before going off shift. "Yep, a loonie here and a quarter there," she said. "You should have seen the look on the salesman's face when I handed him a pillowcase filled with small change."
They both laughed as Neil returned to cleaning the floors. Donna was proud of her new car, a blue Toyota Tercel, and everyone knew it. What they didn't know was how long she had agonized over the purchase, weighing the commitment of a bank loan against her plans to go to law school someday. But the allure of that little car was more than the twenty-two-year-old could resist; besides, Donna had spent years working full time while taking courses she felt would be helpful for her career. In fact, the following week was her high-school graduation — the second one. Although she already had her diploma, Donna had enrolled in the radio and television program at Memorial High School to gain the communications skills she would need in the courtroom when she finally became a defence attorney. It had been a long haul, and she deserved the reward.
These days, Donna was basking in the pride her mother expressed in her accomplishments. Some parents can become impatient with sons or daughters who continually re-evaluate their goals and ambitions — young people who are always looking for more information, more training. But Donna knew her mother would be as proud of her at the graduation ceremony next week as she was the first time Donna "finished" school. Mrs. Warren was as delighted with her daughter's graduation picture as she was with the diploma. Donna, of course, feigned embarrassment every time she looked at the large framed photograph prominently displayed at home, but she secretly agreed with her mom that the picture perfectly conveyed the thoughtful appearance of a future lawyer. In the photo they had chosen from the graduation proofs, Donna's curly brown hair cascades over one shoulder; her chin is raised and her head slightly turned in profile. The look in her eyes, fixed on an object far away from the camera's lens, suggests a determined young woman, preoccupied with something much more important than the photograph for which she is posing. And her soft features add just the right touch of charm.
Downstairs, in the restaurant's basement, Arlene MacNeil was looking for something to do. The attractive twenty-year-old had already punched out on the time clock and changed out of her uniform, but she wouldn't be leaving until Donna was ready. Arlene's last task had been to conduct a stock inventory of the food supplies used on the evening shift and to co-sign the balance sheet for Donna. The inventory had taken less time than usual, because Derek Wood had stayed behind to help her. Wood, a slight young man with dirty-blond hair — still a teenager, really, from the looks of him — was the new cash-counter worker. Arlene hadn't worked with him very often, but she was favourably impressed — it was nice of him to stay after his shift and help her. Even when she was finished, he didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave, Arlene noticed. He had been out in the main restaurant smoking with one of the other cash workers earlier, when she went downstairs. Employees were not allowed to do that, but Donna was a pretty easy manager to work for, and as long as they cleaned the ashtray, she wouldn't complain. Arlene figured the two of them were waiting for a lift.
Well, if the new guy could put in some extra time helping her, she'd return the favour by doing some work for the morning crew. There was going to be a child's birthday party in the restaurant the following morning, so Arlene decided to help get a few things ready while she waited for Donna. As she sorted out the party favours, a gentle smile illuminated her fine-boned face, framed by long, dark curls.
In downtown Sydney, meanwhile, Daniel MacVicar sat behind the wheel of his City Wide taxi. He'd been driving a cab in Sydney for three years now, and liked the freedom the job offered. The tall, thin cabby looked a bit like a teenager whose body had grown too fast and whose co-ordination had not quite made the adjustment. Things were different behind the wheel of a cab, though. His height wasn't an issue, and fares rarely expected much more from him than a quick ride and occasional advice on where to enjoy an evening out.
MacVicar was waiting to hear the 1:00 a.m. news on the car radio as he parked outside the spot he usually recommended to visitors — Smooth Herman's Cabaret. The cabaret licence allowed Smooth Herman's to remain open until three in the morning, making it Sydney's late-night hot spot of choice. In two hours the big spenders would pour out, looking for a drive home; until then MacVicar and the other drivers parked nearby would wait for a radio call or for someone to decide to go home before last call. Maybe he'd get an out-of-town fare and make a few extra bucks on an otherwise slow night. MacVicar was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and thinking about going for a coffee when the rear door of the cab opened and someone jumped in.
"Hi. Can you take me out to McDonald's in Sydney River?"
"Yeah, sure." MacVicar recognized the fare as a McDonald's employee he'd picked up once or twice before.
"Sure is cold out there," Jimmy Fagan offered.
"Typical Cape Breton spring. I hear it's going to warm up by August, though," MacVicar said, pulling the car out of the parking lot for the short drive to Sydney River. There wasn't much traffic early on a Thursday morning, and the car made good time. As they drove, the two men chatted about sports. Jimmy liked to talk about hockey — not that he followed the game as fanatically as many people did, but he knew enough to get others talking on the subject, and that was fine by him.
Back at McDonald's, Donna Warren was finishing the receipts and preparing the morning cash drawers. She put everything in the safe and locked it. As she stepped out of the office, she looked around the kitchen for Arlene. Walking around the large propane grills, she found Neil working near the sinks.
"Neil, did you see where Arlene went?"
"She went downstairs after she punched out, and I didn't see her come up since."
"Thanks. Oh, look — you missed a spot." Neil turned to look at the sink he was cleaning before he realized Donna was only kidding. She laughed and punched her own code on the time clock before going downstairs to find her friend.
Arlene was counting long, colourful wooden sticks that would later have Ronald McDonald balloons tied to the tops. The balloons weren't inflated yet, but Arlene was getting enough sticks out for the kids who would attend the party in a few hours. She looked up as Donna walked into the room.
Excerpted from Murder at McDonald's by Phonse Jessome. Copyright © 1994 Phonse Jessome. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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