Skip to content

Tragic anniversary: A recap of the 20-year investigation into Renée Sweeney's murder and the ongoing court case

No longer a cold case, Robert Steven Wright faces charges for brutal 1998 killing

For more than two decades after it happened, the anniversary of the 1998 murder of Renée Sweeney was not only a day to honour her memory, it was a reminder of the mystery surrounding the events that fateful day.

Sweeney was just 23, a music student at Laurentian University, when she was stabbed multiple times while working as a clerk at Adults Only Video on Jan. 27, 1998. The suspect — at the time believed to be a white man in his early 20s — stabbed her at least 30 times, then went to the washroom to clean up.

But Sweeney wasn't dead. She managed to make her way to the telephone. When the suspect emerged from the washroom, he found her behind the counter. Investigators say Sweeney fought her murderer and managed to scratch her attacker — they found DNA under her fingernails. Officers also found a jacket he discarded after the murder, which also contained DNA, as well as a pair of white cotton gloves.

Despite the evidence, cracking the case proved to be a huge challenge. One man — John Fetterly — was charged with first-degree murder soon after, but it didn't take police long to realize they'd made a mistake and Fetterly was cleared of the crime, and released with an apology.

Although the case never officially went cold, there was little in the way of new information for the next 20 years, though police continued to plug away at the crime. By 2017, police had processed thousands of tips and ruled out 1,800 people. 

That year, they released a new composite image of the murder suspect produced by Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia. 

Using its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service, which predicts appearance and ancestry from information gleaned from DNA samples, a new image of the suspect was released, generating 360 new tips, eliminating another 200 persons of interest as a result.

As years passed, most people assumed the suspect would never be caught. So it was a shock in late 2018 when Greater Sudbury Police announced they had a suspect in custody. 

Robert Steven Wright, an 18-year-old Lockerby Composite School student at the time of the murder, now faces a second-degree murder charge. He was arrested in North Bay, where he worked as a lab tech.

“We've been actively investigating information and tips throughout the past 20 years and up until today,” said Police Chief Paul Pedersen at the time of Wright's arrest.

Wright has made a number of court appearances since then. He was denied bail in March 2019 following a three-day bail hearing in February. The Crown secured a direct indictment, meaning there will be no preliminary hearing taking place.

Wright's lawyers, Michael Venturi and Berk Keaney, are the focus of another motion from the Crown, which is seeking to have them removed as counsel, citing a conflict of interest in representing Wright.

On Dec. 11, 2019, Justice John Fregeau told the court he was reserving his decision on the matter. A publication ban means details of the application cannot be reported. 

Wright was also charged with one count of possession of child pornography, which his lawyers have said is based on a single typed document. They are confident the charge will be withdrawn, but the matter won't be returning to court until October.