Bodies in the Backyard by Brian O’Neill

This week on True Crime Index, we decided to have our inaugural reviews be of books based on crimes that took place in our hometowns. By writing about these books, we hope to shine a light on crimes that are lesser-known in the true crime community (and in Canada). Jesyka and I are also very intrigued by the intersection of memoir and true crime and we wanted to bring that forward in our first reviews.

Bodies in the Backyard by Brian O’Neill

The Place:

In order to tell you about this book, I need to tell you about me first, and then I need to tell you a story.

I was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, a small city in the Southern half of the province. When I was two, we moved to Sussex, New Brunswick, a tiny town about forty minutes away, where I lived until I was eighteen. Crime is very low—murder rates even lower. I was young and bored and gay and didn’t have much to worry about.

Me, around age 3, in Saint John.

As a kid, I loved anything that was dark and scary—Jaws (1975) was my favourite movie at eight, The Silence of the Lambs (1992)my second favourite at ten. I don’t remember when I became interested in true crime, but it seemed a natural progression from my childhood onward to explore and to think about things that weren’t easy or safe or happy, because I was fortunate enough to have to have a childhood that checked all those boxes for me. I lacked a concept of how privileged I really was to read about this kind of violence and to never see or experience it myself until I was an adult.

Anyway—small city, small town. Everyone knows everyone else (plus their parents and grandparents and the name of the dog that your mum had when she was a kid). I can’t go to the grocery store without seeing someone I went to high school with. When I was a teenager, we used to walk deep into the woods to smoke cigarettes because you just never knew which friend of your parents would happen to drive by. Once, I swore while standing on the side of the street with some friends and by the time I got home my mom knew about it. I can’t stress enough what a small world it is when you’re trying not to get caught.

Contributing to my happy childhood—and happy adulthood—was our cottage on the Kingston Peninsula, about thirty-five minutes from Saint John proper, and where I happen to be sitting now, writing this and looking out over the Saint John River.

The Kingston Peninsula, August 2020.

For over a century, my dad’s family farmed the land on which our cottage now sits. Our plot specifically used to be apple orchard from the road to the water. There are a million stories on this peninsula, about my family and others. Men crashing through ice on the backs of mares, farmers struck by lightning, married men dying in the local widows’ bed. With hard work and small communities, death and rumour abound in equal measure. It’s now just over a century since this land was apple orchard. It’s pleasantly cool and windy in late August. White caps arc on the water. My summers here as a child were thoroughly idyllic—sun and water and family. It was hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here. Which is cliché, but true.

The Murders:

I don’t remember where I first heard the name Noel Winters, but it would have been pronounced all at once—like ‘NoleWinners’—in our accent. It wasn’t on television, and it wasn’t in any newspaper. It must have come to me the way all my facts did then, through my father or mother or grandfather. For whatever reason, I always connect him in my mind to Willy Pickton—the serial murderer in British Columbia, even though his arrest in 2002 would have been at the edges of my six-year-old periphery at best. Maybe it’s the unconscious association of remoteness, violence, and chaos that imbues the two sets of crimes. In 1984, though, Margot MacPherson, writing for Maclean’s called Winters’s crimes “a rhythmical trail of death” and “one of the grisliest murder sagas in New Brunswick’s history.”  

Noel Winters.

The facts are these: Noel Winters was born on September 17th, 1949 in Saint John, New Brunswick. He was a known drug dealer and gambler, as well as a heavy drinker, with nearly 18 years of convictions by the time of the murders. In 1984, during a night of drinking, he shot and dismembered Jimmy Keenan, 32, and his father James, 64, at Noel’s home in Crystal Beach on the Peninsula. Noel then drove their remains to the local dump in Brown’s Flats, NB, and deposited them there, where they were later found by two teenagers hunting for scraps. Noel was eventually arrested and charged for these crimes, which alone created a media frenzy in the province. However, on searching his property on Crystal Beach after his arrest, the RCMP discovered two more sets of human remains: the bodies of Jack McLaughlin, 45, and his girlfriend Maria Hillebrand, 25, were found buried on his property, both shot by Noel based on a dispute Noel had with Jack about the murder of his friend and unpaid debts. They were buried in a shallow grave next to their bull terrier, Buster, who had also been shot. Noel’s girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth Clark, 23, was present for the murders and testified for the crown against Noel. Paul Hines, 28, an associate of Noel’s, was also charged as an accessory after the fact for helping to dispose of the bodies after the murders. On April 24th, 1984, Noel Winters died by suicide in his prison cell at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick.

A map of New Brunswick (Google) showing Saint John, Winters’s home-city, the Kingston Peninsula where the crimes took place, Crystal Beach, the rough location of his cottage, and Brown’s Flats, roughly the location of the dump where Winters’s first-discovered victims were taken.

While this might sound, sadly, rather benign, depending on where you’re from, for Southern New Brunswickers in the 1980s, it was galvanizing. In a city that knew everyone, particularly the ones to stay away from, everybody knew Noel Winters. Everyone had seen him fight, seen him get arrested, or was warned to cross the street if they saw him coming. He was always up to something, beyond the drugs and the gambling. He once stole a load of dynamite from the Saint John Power Commission, hiding sticks in caches all over the city. He used two sticks to attempt to blow up the local jail in Uptown Saint John—he only succeeded in blowing off the door. The RCMP agreed not to charge him if he revealed where the rest of the dynamite lay hidden. Most everyone who grew up in the city at the time has a story about Noel, and local NewsChaser groups on Facebook post about him occasionally, and the post abound with public comments about interactions, connections, theories, and rumours relating to Winters and the crimes. This event hasn’t quite passed into distant memory yet and may never.

Nothing so sensational had ever happened on the Peninsula or in Saint John—not since the Great Fire of 1877, when over half the city burnt to the ground. Locals were riveted, waiting every day to see who or who else the RCMP might find on Noel’s property, clamouring for information on his girlfriend, wondering just how much she knew. In this tiny, local community, nothing like this ever happened, let alone on this large of a scale, with this level of violence and desecration.

Winters’s home on the Peninsula.

The Book:

Already, the story was sensational enough, but when Brian O’Neill released The Bodies in the Backyard in 1993, something changed.

An original copy of Bodies in the Backyard.

It’s my grandfather’s copy I have next to me while I write. It’s in remarkable shape—the corners unbent and unpeeled, the pages unstained. The cover, once white, is yellow with age, and the spine is taped together with clear scotch tape, the book bending firmly into three uneven sections whenever it falls open. The blue, stark printing of Bodies in the Backyard is still prominent, but begins to fade towards the bottom, and the tiny, red lettering of Noel Michael Winters has nearly disappeared altogether, rubbed away by so many hands and so many readings. The inside cover cracks when I pull it open to the title page. “$13.50” is penciled in the top right corner. I could erase it if I wanted to. The large name scrawled in my grandfather’s abrupt handwriting at the top of the page, however, is indelible. The name is a series of intermixed capital and lowercase letters that look so like my father’s writing, in dark blue ink. I imagine him writing on the inside cover with one of those clear ballpoint pens with the bronze coloured tip and a bright blue cover that you can buy in packs of twelve, although I truly have no idea what he wrote it with.

The book is about 200 pages in length, self-published in Fredericton, New Brunswick. There are forty-four photographs in roughly a third of the way through the book—only one, a photo of the decapitated head of one of Winters’s victims—is in colour. The text itself is, as far as anyone can tell, mostly factual, but rife with spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and other textual issues that make it difficult to read.

It’s not the book itself that’s interesting, although this is, ostensibly, supposed to be a review. Rather, it’s the effect the book has and continues to have. When it was released in 1993, and as far as I can tell now, in 2020, it was the only book to exclusively depict Winters and his crimes as well as a portrait of the effect news of the murders had on New Brunswickers.

Now, the book is out of print. There seems to be copies available on True Crime Canada for $55.00, and an eBook available on Amazon, although it is mysteriously under review. Like I said, my grandfather’s copy is the one I have and the one I read. I’ve never heard of anyone whose purchased online—most copies are either found or inherited. There’s a local book sale that weeds out their copies of Bodies in the Backyard and auctions them off for exorbitant prices.

And people do pay—readily and willingly. These books are hard to find, and every year the number of circulating and available copies shrinks. I’ve never seen one in the wild—else I would have bought it—and the only copy I’ve ever seen in person is the one that sits next to be on the desk now. And here’s the thing: that’s probably for the best. It’s not a good book. It’s just not. Much as I respect O’Neill for working on this story, the book is poorly done on a technical level, and it’s exploitative for the photographs alone. And yet, it seems to be one of the most sought-after books in the province. A local Saint John based book blogger writes that it’s her Bookish Holy Grail. Part of that appeal has to do with the shocking photos and the inaccessible details. It also probably has to do with the fact that people knew Noel, they knew the victims, they knew the RCMP officers, the prosecutor, or any number of other people throughout the book, or they knew someone who did. This was a painful event in Saint John. The city is too small to have something as violent and tragic as this go unnoticed, and like any pain, people have a hard time looking away from it. Compound that notion with a narrativized version of this tragedy with street names you recognize and names you know from church or school or work and you have a strange cultural touchstone.

So, the book has a strange and prolific afterlife in local memory, as do the crimes. The book still circulates in bouts of high prices and chanced bargain bin copies, as well as through lending and passing down. For many who watched this story unfold, it’s a tight-lipped tragedy, spoken with shaking heads and clucking tongues, but with the avid eyes of someone who was there. Almost forty years later, during the incredible renaissance that true crime and those who enjoy it are in the midst of right now, people turn inward. They look for the monstrous moments that happen in their own backyard with the characteristic and particular kind of fascination that true crime warrants. Parents and grandparents are asked to remember details, copies of Bodies in the Backyard are dusted off, and the tragedy of Noel Winters becomes, at least for me, the ‘Hometown Murder’ story I have always wanted to tell.

For me, Noel Winters has always been presented in the abstract. A hastily told story, a poorly written book. His victims, as so many victims are, have been maligned to even less than that as they become recapitulated as footnotes of a larger, more harrowing story of a city vindicated in the knowledge that one of their sons was born bad and stayed bad. However, it doesn’t seem that simple. What O’Neill’s book seems to be missing is not truly rooted in spelling mistakes or bad grammar, but rather in what it does not say, and perhaps what it did not have the language to say in 1993. Was Noel Winters an irredeemable human being, or did he fall through the cracks in ways we can’t begin to imagine? Why did he mistake being dangerous for being powerful? What does addiction do to individuals? And pain? In a criminal world where violence is the only acceptable response, what recourse did he have to access another resolution? And we should never forget that this man ultimately ended his own life. Why? Was it guilt? Fear?

I don’t know. These questions didn’t occur to me as a child, and they didn’t occur to me as I read Bodies in the Backyard for the first time. But as true crime moves toward victim-focused narratives that interrogate not motive, but systemic problems that help to shape individuals and their pain into horrible acts, I can’t help but wonder where someone like Noel would fit into this discourse when he has never been encouraged to fit in at all.

Bodies in the Backyard has done an indelible job of solidifying Noel in his abstract, violent legacy. He was my earliest education in bad men. And now, as I walk along the streets in Saint John that he used to, or park next to the old jail he almost blew up, I dart my eyes down alleys and side streets, keenly aware of all the corners someone could hide in. My male friends walk me to my car. And when I stand in the kitchen on the Kingston Peninsula and flick the lights out, I stare at the pitch-black field, barren of apple trees, and think about darkness, remoteness, and long-gone phantoms. But now I’m working hard to remind myself that it’s not that simple.

– Rachel Friars, August 2020

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