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'Renée fought him, and fought him hard': The history of the Sweeney murder case

A man who was an 18-year-old Lockerby Composite School student at the time of the murder has been arrested, nearly 21 years after Renée Sweeney's death

On Tuesday, Jan. 27, 1998, at 11 a.m., 23-year-old Renée Sweeney, a fourth-year Laurentian University student, was working at Adults Only Video on Paris Street when she was stabbed to death.

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.

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.”

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.

“We actually had an overwhelming response from the public in response to the media conference last January,” said Det. Sgt. Bob Weston, the Greater Sudbury Police officer now in charge of the case, in early 2018.

Before releasing the new composite image in 2017, police had already eliminated 1,800 people of interest. They had received another 360 tips as of January 2018.

“Out of these 360 tips, approximately 200 people have been eliminated through DNA or other means,” Weston said at the time. “We have approximately 150 tips that are still outstanding.”

Police were hopeful earlier this year 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.

“As the two new indexes that we can compare with start filling up with DNA, if that person was ever reported missing and that DNA collected, it will match to our crime scene.

“Or if human remains have been found anywhere in Canada, and that DNA is loaded into that index, it will match with our crime scene, and we'll know we've located the identity of the killer.”

On Dec. 11, 2018, Greater 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. will have more on Wright later today.

"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. "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." 


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