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21st anniversary of Renée Sweeney murder: Police have a suspect in custody this year

Sweeney's sister 'numb with shock' an arrest has been made after so many years
Renée Sweeney was murdered 21 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1998, while working at Adults Only Video on Paris Street.

It was 21 years ago today, on Jan. 27, 1998, that 23-year-old Renée Sweeney, a fourth-year Laurentian University student, was stabbed to death at her workplace, Adults Only Video on Paris Street.

Unlike a year ago, when the city marked the 20th anniversary of her unsolved slaying, Greater Sudbury Police have a man in custody they believe to be her murderer.

On Dec. 11, 2018, Sudbury police finally got the crack in the case they were hoping for.

Robert Steven Wright, 39, of North Bay was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in Sweeney's death. He was an 18-year-old Lockerby Composite School student at the time of the murder. 

"At the beginning of November, our detectives identified a person of interest, and through investigative techniques gathered forensic evidence," said GSPS Det. Sgt. Sandra Dicaire at the December press conference. 

"The forensic evidence provided the service with reasonable grounds to affect an arrest and obtain a search warrant; both were carried out earlier today in North Bay."

Despite the length of time that had passed since the young woman's murder, Greater Sudbury Police Chief Paul Pedersen said the police service never considered the Sweeney case a “cold case.”

"This has been actively investigated with hope all the way through, and so there's a feeling of satisfaction that we can get to this stage,” he said.

Police have been tight-lipped about evidence in the case.

Wright has had several court appearances so far, and a bail hearing begins Feb. 19. His lawyer, Berk Keaney, issued a written short statement the day after his arrest. 

"It appears that it is the public's perception that the case is solved," Keaney wrote. "To jump to that conclusion would be a huge mistake. We will be making no further public comment while this matter is before the courts."

Kim Sweeney, Renée Sweeney's sister and closest living relative, also issued a written statement through Greater Sudbury Police a few days after Wright's arrest.

She thanked Greater Sudbury Police for their commitment to the case, as well as the “love and support” the public has shown her family since her sister's murder.

“It has been a very long 20 years. I am so grateful that throughout this time, you have never forgotten my sister, Renée,” her statement reads. “Not only was she my amazing sister, but she was also my best friend.

“It’s so hard to relive this and I’m still very numb with shock, but with all the love and support I have received, it’s just made it a little bit easier. I would like to thank each and every one of you who have come forward with information in regards to Renée.”

The murder occurred at around 11 a.m. Jan. 27, 1998.

The suspect, at the time believed to be a white man in his early 20s, left his DNA on Renée's body, as well as on a jacket he discarded after the murder.

He stabbed her at least 30 times, and went to the washroom to clean up, thinking he'd killed her. He was wrong.

Sweeney, somehow, made it to the telephone, and that's when her killer came out of the washroom, found her behind the counter, where police think he killed her.

“Renée fought him, and fought him hard,” Sgt. David Toffoli of the Greater Sudbury Police Service, then the lead investigator on the case, told Northern Life in 2010.

He explained that DNA under the young woman’s fingernails indicated she had scratched the killer several times. As the killer was fully clothed, except for his face and neck, the scratches would have likely been visible.

It appeared someone may have been harassing or stalking Sweeney in the weeks leading up to her death, investigators discovered.

“Renée had received a number of hang-up phone calls (at home) during the two weeks prior to her murder,” Toffoli said. “She had a different behaviour. She used to park her car at work on the opposite side of the parking lot, but it was a dark area of the parking lot. In the week prior to the murder, she changed the location of her parking, and she parked directly in front of the store, which she had never done before.

“We’re assuming she did this because she was scared of someone, or something happening to her.  We’ve never found out what she was scared of. She never told her family, her friends, or her co-workers.”

Cash and other items were missing from the store. A short distance from the scene, the suspect abandoned a lightweight jacket and white cotton gloves, which were located by a police dog.

Shortly after the murder, Greater Sudbury Police arrested John Fetterly, 31, and charged him with first degree murder in the case, but later admitted they'd wrongly accused him, and issued an apology.

There would not be another arrest in the case for nearly another 21 years.

In early 2017, Greater Sudbury Police released a new composite image of the murder suspect.

It was produced by Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia, U.S.A., using its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service. The technology attempts to predict appearance and ancestry from DNA samples.

The Sweeney murder suspect composite showed that the suspect is a male of northern European ancestry, with fair skin, blue/green eyes, brown/blond hair and a few freckles.

Eyeglasses were added to the composite based on the description of eyewitnesses.

Many tips poured in after Greater Sudbury Police released the new composite image.

Police were also hopeful earlier in 2018 a law that recently came into effect that expands Canada's national DNA databank would provide another tool that could crack the Sweeney case.

Lindsey's Law, named after 14-year-old Lindsey Nicholls, who went missing on Vancouver Island in 1993, expands the databank to include DNA from missing persons, collected from personal effects such as toothbrushes.

It now also includes DNA profiles from relatives of missing persons who have voluntarily made contributions, as well as from unidentified human remains.

The previously existing DNA databank includes DNA from convicted offenders, as well as DNA collected from crime scenes.

“The Renée Sweeney suspect DNA is already in the crime scene index,” said Greater Sudbury Police Det. Staff Sgt. Jordan Buchanan, adding that it would be checked against the DNA of missing persons and human remains.