April 17, 2024

A DNA breakthrough has helped solve a decades-old cold case in Virginia and led to second-degree murder charges being filed against a New York man, police said in a news release.

In November 1994, 37-year-old Robin Lawrence was found stabbed to death inside her home in Springfield, Virginia. While investigating the case, crime scene Det. Mark Garmin collected a piece of forensic evidence that was kept for decades and is “why our killer is in custody three decades later,” Fairfax County Police Department Chief Kevin Davis said in a news conference on Monday.

Eli Cory, deputy chief of investigations, said during the same news conference that Lawrence was found stabbed multiple times, with her 2-year-old daughter in another room of the home. When detectives began to process the scene, they collected DNA evidence that at the time, did not match any sources in the police’s database, but in 2019, the DNA was submitted to a DNA testing company in Virginia.

Using the DNA, Cory said, the company “developed a profile … and began searching genealogical databases,” which allowed them to establish a family tree.

For three years, detectives used the family tree “to try to put things together,” Cory said, and ultimately, they were led to Steven Smerk, 51, of Niskayuna, New York.

Once Smerk was identified, police used digital composite sketches from the DNA technology company Parabon NanoLabs to estimate what Smerk may have looked like at the time of the crime. That image was compared to photos of Smerk as a younger man.

Parabon Nanolabs' digital image, left, compared to photos of Smerk.  / Credit: Parabon NanoLabs

Parabon Nanolabs’ digital image, left, compared to photos of Smerk. / Credit: Parabon NanoLabs

Detectives traveled to New York, spoke to Smerk and collected a DNA sample. Davis said that the detectives also left a business card with Smerk. When they returned to their hotel, Smerk called and confessed to the crime.

“Steven Smerk said ‘I want to talk and I want to talk right now,'” Davis said. Smerk then went to the local police station and turned himself in. Detectives then had a “consensual conversation with him” where Smerk confessed to and fully described his “killing” and “robbing” of Lawrence.

“It was a full confession … with more than enough details, coupled with a genetic genealogy research,” Davis said. “All of this came together very, very quickly.”

Cory said that the crime was “a randomly selected act,” with no connection between Smerk and Lawrence. Davis said there is “no relationship” between the two, and that Lawrence was targeted “seemingly randomly.” Davis added that Smerk has “zero criminal history,” and that this is the first time he has been arrested.

Cory said that Smerk will be extradited from New York to Virginia. Cory said that Smerk is not a person of interest or suspect in any other crimes that the department is aware of.

“After almost 30 years of work, Smerk is behind bars and he’s going to be held accountable for his actions,” Cory said.

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