Nearly 30 years after officials said a Virginia mother was brutally stabbed and killed, a man turned himself in to authorities after one conversation with detectives, police said.
Stephan Smerk, 51, of New York is facing charges of second-degree murder in the killing of 37-year-old Robin Lawrence in 1994. He was an active duty Army member at the time of her death, police said.
The case had been cold for years as Fairfax County police were unable to find DNA matches from the scene.
In November 1994, Lawrence’s husband was out of the country on a work trip and couldn’t get a hold of his wife, Fairfax County Police Department Deputy Chief Eli Cory said in a Sept. 11 news conference posted to the police department’s YouTube page. He asked a family friend to check on her, Cory said, and when they arrived to her Springfield home, they discovered Lawrence dead with multiple stab wounds.
“It was a heinous, heinous scene,” Fairfax County Police Department Chief Kevin Davis said in the news conference. “And I’ve seen a lot of crime scenes in person and photographs of one, and this one was particularly, particularly gruesome.”
Lawrence’s 2-year-old daughter was found in another room unharmed, Cory said.
The case would go unsolved for decades, leaving further investigation to the county’s cold case unit. Davis commended the cold case unit for its “doggedness” in solving Lawrence’s killing.
Davis said genetic genealogy largely contributed to detectives finding Smerk in New York.
Police collected DNA evidence during their initial investigation. But no matches were found around the time of the killing, Cory said, so they held onto the forensic evidence.
In 2019, detectives resubmitted that DNA to Parabon NanoLabs, a “DNA technology company in Northern Virginia that specializes in DNA phenotyping and genetic genealogy analysis,” according to a FCPD news release.
Using the crime scene DNA, the company developed a genetic profile and family tree that was shared with detectives, Cory said. After three years of working with the new information, it led them to investigate Smerk.
“The forensic evidence we kept after all these years,” Davis said. “It finally hit, and it hit big.”
Parabon NanoLabs also developed a composite image based on the DNA evidence, Cory said, which was then compared with photos of Smerk from his high school yearbook and DMV photos.
Fairfax detectives took a trip up to Niskayuna, New York, which is around 20 miles north of Albany, “in anticipation of furthering their investigation,” Davis said.
What the Virginia detectives didn’t anticipate was seeing Smerk outside of his house taking out the trash. The detectives engaged in a “consensual conversation” with Smerk about the case, Davis said, and Smerk “submitted willingly and without question to a DNA swab.”
His willingness to speak with police was “highly unusual,” Davis said. The detectives left their business card with Smerk, went to their hotel and made preparations to return to Fairfax County — but then the phone rang.
“It was Stephan Smerk on the other end of the phone,” Davis said.
Smerk called the detectives about his plan to turn himself into the local police department, where officials say he later confessed to killing Lawrence. He is under arrest and is awaiting extradition to Fairfax County.
Lawrence’s killing was a “randomly selected act,” Cory said, and police do not believe there is any connection between her and Smerk.
Smerk has “zero criminal history,” Davis said, and worked as a software engineer.
“We have no reason to believe at the moment that he’s suspected in any additional, similar crimes.” Davis said. “But we leave that open to possibility.”
Anyone with extra information on the case is encouraged to call the Fairfax County Major Crimes Bureau at 703-246-7800, according to the news release.
Springfield is around 10 miles southwest of Washington D.C.