Greater Sudbury Police Criminal Investigations detectives arrested and charged 39-year-old Robert Steven Wright on Dec. 11 in connection with the Renée Sweeney homicide case.
Wright has been charged with first degree murder and is in police custody in North Bay, where he was arrested at 11:14 a.m. on Dec. 11. He will be transported to Sudbury to appear in bail court on Dec. 12.
On Jan. 27, 1998, Renée Sweeney, 23, was brutally attacked at her workplace; an adult video store on Paris Street, where she sustained multiple stab wounds and succumbed to her injuries. Robert "Steve" Wright was 18 years old at the time of Sweeney's murder and was a resident of Sudbury and a student at Lockerby Composite School, GSPS said today at a news conference where they announced the arrest.
Watch the press conference below.
"This horrific event rocked the community to its core then, and is still very much part of our life today," said GSPS Chief Paul Pedersen today. "I wasn't living in Sudbury at the time when this incident occurred, but from the moment that I became chief of police in this community, this organization made it very clear to me that this case took priority."
Pedersen stressed to those in attendance at a media conference at GSPS headquarters on Dec. 11 that Sweeney's case was never considered to be a cold case and that the police service was always determined to solve the murder and bring her killer to justice.
"We've been actively investigating information and tips throughout the past 20 years and up until today," said Pedersen.
Due to the fact that the investigation is ongoing and court proceedings have yet to take place, Pedersen was unable to disclose much information about the nature of the investigation and what ultimately brought about Wright's arrest and subsequent first degree murder charge.
Pedersen did confirm that he was not aware of any past criminal record for Wright or if there had been any past contact with the police.
"I'm afraid I don't know what his occupation is, I don't have this information, it's only a few hours ago that he was arrested. I imagine that information will come out," said Pedersen.
Greater Sudbury Police Services received more than 2,000 tips and eliminated more than 1,500 people as suspects over the course of the investigation. Police made numerous public appeals, released evidentiary photos, and employed innovative investigation techniques as information and technology advanced.
"At the beginning of November, our detectives identified a person of interest, and through investigative techniques gathered forensic evidence," said GSPS detective 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."
The investigation is ongoing and anyone with information related to the incident or Robert Steven Wright is asked to contact detectives in the Criminal Investigations Division at 705-675-9171 ext. 2230.
"We understand that this community and the media have a vested interest in this case and we greatly appreciate your support an assistance over the years," said Dicaire. "We are now at a stage where we must protect the integrity of the investigation and ensure that the court process is not jeopardized by what we release at this time."
Chief Pederson spoke on behalf of Sweeney's sister, Kim, who is asking for privacy at this time.
"I've had the opportunity to speak personally with Kim. As you can imagine, she's overwhelmed with a variety of emotions," said Pederson. "She's asked me to extend her most since appreciation to everyone in the Greater Sudbury Police, especially the lead investigator, Sgt. Bob Weston for all the work and contact and the support over the years. Also to the community for all their help and support. At this time she is asking everyone to respect her privacy. Kim said 'today was not about her, it's about her sister, Renée'."
The feeling of closure felt by the Sweeney family was shared by those in the Greater Sudbury Police Service says Pedersen, though there is still work to be done as the investigation continues.
"Suffice to say that it's the same type of emotions around the organization that there's a piece of closure, a piece of satisfaction but we know there's still a lot of work ahead of us," said Pedersen.
"To get to this point, as we've said all along we've never called this 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."
On Jan. 27, 1998, Sweeney, a 23-year-old Laurentian University student, was stabbed to death while working at Adults Only Video in Sudbury. The case remains unsolved.
The suspect, a white man in his early 20s, left his DNA on Sweeney's body, as well as on a jacket he discarded after the murder.
In March, Greater Sudbury Police said a law that recently came into effect that expands Canada's national DNA databank provides another tool that could crack the 20-year-old Renée Sweeney murder case.
Lindsay's Law, named after 14-year-old Lindsay 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 will also include DNA profiles from relatives of missing persons who have voluntarily made contributions, as well as from unidentified human remains.
The current DNA databank includes DNA from convicted offenders, as well as DNA collected from crime scenes.
The DNA collected at the scene has never been matched to anyone in the available DNA databases. The case remains unsolved.
“The Renée Sweeney suspect DNA is already in the crime scene index,” said Greater Sudbury Police Det. Staff Sgt. Jordan Buchanan.
Now that the new DNA databank is in place, Buchanan said Greater Sudbury Police will also be loading in all of the DNA from its historical unsolved missing persons cases — there's 10 stretching back to 1974.
In 2017, the DNA collected at the scene of Sweeney's murder was used to produce a new composite sketch of what the suspect may look like.
Using DNA collected at the murder scene, the composite image was produced by Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia, with its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service.
Steven Armentrout, president of Parabon NanoLabs, explained via videochat that Snapshot is the first software application in the world that can predict appearance and ancestry from DNA samples.
“It's an investigative tool to allow police to operate more efficiently,” he said, adding that police can narrow suspect lists by eliminating people whose appearance and ancestry is inconsistent with the Snapshot analysis.
From there, police can use traditional DNA analysis and other investigative techniques to make arrests.
-With files from Heidi Ulrichsen and Darren MacDonald