Fairfax County police say they’ve solved a 29-year-old murder case using DNA, and the suspect willingly confessed when cold case detectives talked to the 51-year-old father of two in upstate New York.
Stephan Smerk, a software engineer who lives in Niskayuna, N.Y., is awaiting extradition to Fairfax County in connection to the November 20, 1994, murder of Robin Lawrence, a 37-year-old mother found dead inside her Springfield home with her 2-year-old daughter in another room.
Smerk will face a second-degree murder charge.
Chief Kevin Davis credits the detectives with never giving up.
“Doggedness is a powerful trait,” Davis said at a Monday news conference. “Our cold case detectives have that trait in spades. I thank them for their diligence, and it’s because of their diligence, it’s because of their doggedness that we are here today making this important announcement.”
Back in 1994, the case stumped detectives. Lawrence had been stabbed and slashed repeatedly, and they had no suspects. They collected DNA at the scene and developed a DNA profile that had no match, at the time.
In 2019, the police enlisted the help of Northern Virginia–based Parabon NanoLabs. The DNA technology company specializes in DNA phenotyping and genetic genealogy analysis. Those processes can predict what somebody looks like and find people who are related.
Parabon created a composite sketch of a suspect using that DNA and developed a family tree.
“For three years our detectives worked with that family tree to try to put things together. Ultimately, that led them to Stephan Smerk,” said Eli Cory, Fairfax County’s deputy chief of police for investigations, during the news conference.
Two cold case detectives then headed to Niskayuna, which is east of Schenectady, N.Y.
“When they arrived at Smerk’s house, he just happened to be taking his trash out. They used that opportunity to walk up to him and engage him in a conversation. The results of those efforts: They got DNA, additional DNA swabs, and a full confession,” said Cory.
An “extraordinary circumstance” is how Davis described what happened.
“He submitted willingly without question to a DNA swab. I think that’s highly unusual. So that was a clue to our detective, who said something may be afoot. They spent just a little bit of time with him, took a DNA sample from him at his home that he consented to. They left their business card with a cellphone number, and then our two detectives simply went back to the hotel and were preparing to come back to Fairfax County when the phone rang and it was our killer,” Davis said.
Smerk then went to the police station, where he told detectives details about the killing he committed while stationed out of Fort Myer. Davis said Smerk did not know the victim.
“This was really a randomly selected act,” Cory said. “There was no connection between the two of them.”
Feature image is of Stephan Smerk as seen in a sketch generated from DNA, a yearbook photo, and a driver’s license photo, courtesy Fairfax County Police Department
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