Boston University School of Law

July 18, 2008

J. Renn Olenn (’72) cracks seven-year murder case

Olenn ('72) and partner Penza ('72)

As a litigator specializing in swimming pool, aquatic and scuba injury lawsuits, J. Renn Olenn (’72) never expected to find himself in a Providence Superior courtroom accusing a husband of killing his wife.  But in February 2006, after seven years of meticulous investigation, he confidently told a jury hearing his civil court case that the scuba diving death of Shelley Tyre had “every, every element of murder.”

Olenn began researching the case when a personal encounter with Tyre’s parents, Richard and Lisa Tyre, led the couple to request his assistance in determining the cause of the inexplicable death of their daughter, who had over 350 dives of scuba experience.  Shelley had died four months earlier on an expedition with her husband, David Swain, in the British Virgin Islands on the isle of Tortola. 

“I had no reason to think [Swain] had done anything because he wasn’t at the scene,” Olenn said in a January 6, 2008 Providence Sunday Journal article.

Only after a year had passed and Olenn visited the scene of Tyre’s death did the attorney realize what had been missing from the story: the woman’s death had not been an accident—her husband had attacked and killed her in the water’s depths.

“I knew, just knew, that it was murder,” Olenn said in the article.  “And equally important, it could not be anything else.”

Swain’s motive?  Olenn concluded Tyre’s move from her headmistress job at Thayer Academy in Braintree, MA to a lower-paying position at Rocky Hill School in Warwick, RI had prompted Swain, who owned a financially failing dive shop, to murder his wife for her life insurance.  Olenn backed his story with the evidence he found at the dive scene: a mask broken by force, a flipper lodged toe-first into the sand as if in struggle, and the backing of dozens of expert witnesses—like the expert in diving medicine and the mechanical engineer who testified at the hearing—who confirmed that the death could not have been an accident.

The civil jury agreed, awarding the Tyre family $3.5 million, and Swain now faces criminal charges after being arrested on a murder warrant from Tortola.

“Something in me locked when those cuffs locked,” Olenn told the Journal.  “It was like a circle was completed, another long step taken on the journey for justice for Shelley Tyre.” 

Olenn is a founding partner of the Rhode Island firm Olenn & Penza LLP.  He and his partner Joseph Penza (’72) dreamed of a partnership during their years at BU Law, where they became friends after being seated together in many of their classes because of the alphabetical order of their last names. 

Former classmate Arthur Read (’72) told BU Law that Olenn “is an outstanding lawyer—he presently represents me on a matter—an extraordinarily interesting, multi-faceted human being and an extraordinary ambassador for the law school.”

>>View the entire Providence Sunday Journal article detailing Olenn's case

Reported by Elizabeth Ress