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Former Army employee charged with killing West Springfield woman in 1994

Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis holds a press conference to announce the arrest of a suspect in Robin Lawrence’s murder (via FCPD/Twitter)

Nearly three decades after she died, police say they know who killed Robin Lawrence.

Stephen Smerk, a 51-year-old man now living in Niskayuna, New York, has been charged with second-degree murder after recently confessing to killing Lawrence at her West Springfield home in 1994, Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis announced this afternoon (Monday).

Detectives connected Smerk to the case with the help of Parabon NanoLabs, a Reston-based DNA tech company that created a composite sketch and family tree for him based on forensic evidence saved from the crime scene.

“What you’re about to hear is a remarkable, remarkable story with an unanticipated ending that just happened a couple days ago,” Davis said at the press conference.

Lawrence, 37, was found dead with multiple stab wounds in the 8600 block of Reseca Lane around 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 20, 1994, according to Fairfax County Police Department Deputy Chief of Investigations Eli Cory.

Her body was discovered by a family friend who had gone to the house to check on her after her husband was unable to contact her while he was away on a work trip, Cory said, describing the scene as “heinous and tragic.”

Lawrence’s 2-year-old daughter was in the house at the time but found unharmed, police say.

Officers collected DNA evidence from the scene but found no matches to a potential suspect. While cold case detectives continued to investigate, it wasn’t until 2019 that technology had improved to the point where they decided to resubmit the DNA, according to Cory.

This time, they got a match.

“Pictures of Smerk from 1988 and 1998 were found and compared to a digital composite image created by Parabon NanoLabs,” the FCPD said. “Parabon NanoLabs…specializes in DNA phenotyping and genetic genealogy analysis: processes that predict physical appearance and biological relationships from unidentified DNA evidence.”

The detectives traveled north to Niskayuna, where Smerk lives and works as a software engineer. Upon encountering Smerk while he was taking out his trash, they talked to him, and he agreed “willingly and without question” to let them get a DNA swab, Cory said.

The detectives were preparing to return to Fairfax County with the sample when Smerk called, saying that he wanted to talk.

After turning himself in at the local police station, “he fully described his involvement,” Davis said. “He talked about killing Robin and some details that I won’t go into, but it was a full confession.”

At the time of Lawrence’s killing, Smerk was an active-duty servicemember working for the Army at Fort Myer — now known as Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall — in Arlington, police say.

Married with two children in high school, he has no other criminal history, according to Davis. Though he didn’t elaborate on a potential motive, the police chief said there’s no apparent relation between Smerk and Lawrence.

“He chose her seemingly randomly,” he said.

Smerk is currently in custody in Niskayuna, awaiting extradition to Fairfax County, Davis said.

Lawrence’s best friend and several family members, including her daughter, husband, sister and a cousin, attended the press conference where Davis announced Smerk’s arrest.

“We’re really honored by the fact that the family has chosen to join us today,” Davis said. “Their presence is beyond meaningful, and ultimately, we do this for them.”

Photo via FCPD/Twitter

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