A murder case that has remained unsolved for nearly three decades has finally found answers thanks to DNA genealogy and the determination of a Virginia police department.
Fairfax County Police said 51-year-old Stephen Smerk has now been arrested and charged with the murder of Robin Lawrence, who was found stabbed to death inside her home on Nov. 20, 1994 — a crime Smerk committed. Since then I have accepted to do it.
That November, Lawrence’s husband was concerned about not being able to reach his 37-year-old wife because he was out of town. A family friend had gone to their home to check on him, witnessed the tragic scene and called the police. Lawrence’s 2-year-old daughter was found safe in another room.
Fairfax County Police Department
Chief Kevin Davis on Monday described the scene as “heinous and particularly gruesome,” but it was the work he did at the crime scene that day that earned him a smite nearly 29 years later.
A DNA sample found during scene processing was kept all these years, and in 2019, detectives reassigned the evidence to Parabon Nanolabs, a DNA sample testing company.
Parabon used a DNA sample, then anonymized, through national databases to attempt to find matches in genealogical databases. The discovery helped them create a family tree of the suspect’s DNA, which detectives worked on for three years to try to “put things together,” said Deputy Chief of Investigations Eli Corey.
Developments through the DNA company eventually led them to identify Smirk as a match.
Detectives compared Smerk’s yearbook and DMV photos with digital composite sketches created by the lab to get an idea of what he looked like at the time of the crime before moving to his current home in Niskayuna, New York.
Fairfax County Police Department
The two detectives traveled “with the intention of furthering the investigation,” Davis said, but they did not expect what actually happened.
They met in the driveway while Smerk was taking out his trash and they started talking. Police said Smerk voluntarily gave additional DNA swabs to police before they handed him his business card and went back to his hotel.
Just then the phone rang. According to Davis, Smirk said, “I want to talk, and I want to talk now.” Detectives directed him to the local police department, where they had a “consensual conversation” in which he confessed and fully described Lawrence’s murder.
The murder was a “randomly chosen act” with no connection between Smerick and Lawrence, Corey said. Davis said Smerk has “zero criminal history” and that he has no reason at this time to believe he is involved in any such crimes.
Davis also said that Smerk was an active-duty military member working near Lawrence’s home at the time of the murder, but he does not expect the military to intervene in the case due to the department’s “overwhelming” evidence.
Smerk, who is now married and has 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 charges of second-degree murder.
Speaking with Lawrence’s grown daughter and other family members on Monday, police said their work in the case was not yet complete.
“After nearly 30 years of work, Smerk is behind bars and will be held accountable for his actions,” Corey 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 will bring those responsible for crimes to justice.”