A murder case gone unsolved for nearly three decades has finally found answers thanks to DNA genealogy and the resolve of a Virginia police department.
The Fairfax County police said 51-year-old Stephan Smerk has now been arrested and charged for the murder of Robin Lawrence, who was found stabbed to death inside her home on Nov. 20, 1994 — a crime Smerk has since confessed to committing.
That November, Lawrence's husband had been worried after not being able to reach his 37-year-old wife while he was out of town. He had a family friend head to their home to check on her, who came upon the tragic scene and called police. Lawrence's 2-year-old daughter was found in another room unharmed.
Chief Kevin Davis described the scene Monday as "heinous and particularly gruesome," but the work on the crime scene that day is what led them to find Smerk nearly 29 years later.
A DNA sample found during scene processing had been kept all these years, and in 2019, detectives resubmitted the evidence to Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA sample testing company.
Parabon used the DNA sample, then unidentified through the national database, to try to find matches in genealogical databases. This search helped them create a family tree for the suspect's DNA, which detectives worked with for three years to try to "put things together, Deputy Chief of Investigations Eli Cory said.
The developments through the DNA company finally led them to identify Smerk as a match.
Detectives compared yearbook and DMV photos of Smerk to digital composite sketches the lab created to estimate what he looked like at the time of the crime before heading to his current home in Niskayuna, New York.
Two detectives took the trip "with the intent of furthering the investigation," but they didn't expect what really happened, Davis said.
They happened upon Smerk in his driveway as he was taking out his trash, and they proceeded to engage in conversation. Police said Smerk even willingly gave police additional DNA swabs before they handed him their business cards and went back to their hotel.
Then the phone rang. Smerk said, "I want to talk, and I want to talk right now," according to Davis. Detectives directed him to the local police department, where they had a "consensual conversation" in which he confessed and fully described killing Lawrence.
The killing was a "randomly selected act," Cory said, with no connection between Smerk and Lawrence. Davis added that Smerk has "zero criminal history," and they don't have any reason to believe he's been involved in any similar crimes at the moment.
Davis also said Smerk was an active-duty military member working near Lawrence's home at the time of the murder, but they don't expect the military to intervene in the case due to the department's "overwhelming" evidence.
Smerk, who is now married with two children in high school, is now waiting to be extradited from New York to Virginia — a process Davis said the suspect is not fighting — on the charge of second-degree murder.
Alongside Lawrence's now-grown daughter and other family members Monday, police said their work in the case isn't done yet.
"After almost 30 years of work, Smerk is behind bars and is going to be held accountable for his actions," Cory said. "No matter how far we have to go, how much work we have to do or how long it takes the Fairfax Police Department is going to bring those responsible for a crime to justice."
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