In November 1994, a New York woman named Robin Warr Lawrence was living in Fairfax County, Virginia, when she was brutally murdered and her young daughter was left to roam the house unattended for days.

On Monday, Lawrence’s daughter Nicole, her best friend and her cousin sat in the front row of a press conference where Fairfax County police announced the murderer had been apprehended after nearly 30 years, thanks to evolving DNA-recognizing technology.

At the time, the DNA evidence matched none that were in the police department’s database.

Chief of Police Kevin Davis of the Fairfax County Police Department said at the conference that the case was solved because of the “doggedness” of the cold case detectives who sought the help of Parabon Nanolabs.

Parabon Nanolabs developed a DNA forensic tool that, using a DNA sample collected on that day in 1994 from the crime scene, could create a genetic profile of the perpetrator.

“Pictures of Stephan Smerk from 1988 and 1998 were found and compared to a digital composite image created by Parabon NanoLabs. Parabon NanoLabs is a DNA technology company in Northern Virginia that specializes in DNA phenotyping and genetic genealogy analysis: processes that predict physical appearance and biological relationships from unidentified DNA evidence.” | Parabon Nanolabs via Fairfax County Police Department

The face the technology drew looked similar to pictures of a then-26-year-old Stephan Smerk from Niskayuna, New York, per the PD’s press release. A “familial DNA match” identified Smerk and his working record at the local airbase during the time of the murder made him an interesting candidate.

Stephan Smerk (51) of Niskayuna, New York turned himself in to Fairfax County police for the 1994 murder of Robin Warr Lawrence. | Fairfax County Police Department

Police officers went to Smerk's home in New York where he was taking trash to the garbage can.

When approached and asked if the officers could take a DNA swab, now 51-year-old Smerk did so without any questions and one of the officers left their card.

As the detectives left, they received a call from Smerk who confessed to the murder of Robin Lawrence. While officers received a warrant for second-degree murder, Smerk turned himself in and is currently waiting to be extradited.

Lawrence’s husband, Ollie Lawrence, told The Washington Post he was “flabbergasted,” when he received the phone call about the arrest.

“You could have probably knocked me over with a feather,” he told the Post. “After all of this time, you have hope, but you also wonder: ‘Will they really find someone after 29 years?’”

He was away on a business trip when his wife was murdered, the Post reported. He remarried 12 years ago and retired to the south of France.

“It does resurrect the loss and grief,” Lawrence said.

“Our cold case detectives exhibit unparalleled dedication when it comes to closing a case with many unknowns,” Chief Davis said in a statement. “This case is but one example of how our department’s police work goes above and beyond, and it exemplifies our commitment to delivering justice regardless of the timeline.”

What is the penalty for murder in Virginia?

Virginia state law penalizes second-degree murder with imprisonment in a state correctional facility. Smerk stands to be imprisoned for anywhere between five to 40 years.

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