Former Army service member arrested in 1994 cold-case killing of Fairfax Co. mother

Robin Lawrence, 37, was killed in November 1994. (Courtesy Fairfax County police)

Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, have made an arrest in the cold-case slaying of a mother who was stabbed to death a few days before Thanksgiving in 1994 while her toddler daughter was in the next room.

Stephan Smerk, 51, of Niskayuna, New York, is awaiting extradition to Virginia on second-degree murder charges in the killing of 37-year-old Robin Lawrence, police announced at a news conference Monday.

Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis said Smerk has “zero criminal history whatsoever” and was an active-duty U.S. Army service member living on the Fort Myer Army post at the time of the killing. Davis said there was no apparent connection between Smerk and the Fairfax County mother he’s now charged with killing.

Davis, who called the case a “remarkable story with an extraordinary, unanticipated ending” during the news conference, said detectives used genetic genealogy techniques on decades-old crime scene evidence to develop new leads in the case. And when detectives traveled to upstate New York to follow up on those leads, Davis said Smerk agreed to allow detectives to take swab of his DNA — and then he confessed.

Cold case

Lawrence’s killing had stumped investigators for years. Her body was discovered inside her home on a leafy cul-de-sac of Reseca Lane in the West Springfield area of the county on Nov. 20, 1994. Her husband was out of the country on a business trip and when he couldn’t reach her, he became worried and asked a family friend to check in.

“And that family friend discovered this heinous and tragic scene,” said Deputy Chief Eli Cory. “Robin was stabbed multiple times to death with her 2-year-old daughter just in another room in the house. Luckily, she was unharmed.”

Detectives collected DNA evidence at the time and uploaded it to the national CODIS database of DNA profiles — but there were no matches, and the case eventually grew cold.

Then in 2019, investigators tried a different tack, working with Reston, Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company that has helped police departments in the D.C. area finally solve several other cold cases.

The company created a digital composite of what the suspect would have looked like based on his DNA profile. (The digital image would later be compared with a photo from a 1988 yearbook and a department of motor vehicles photo, shown below).

(Courtesy Fairfax County police)

Parabon investigators and detectives also began searching online genealogical databases to build a family tree that could help point to a suspect.

“For three years, our detectives worked with that family tree to try to put things together,” Cory said. “Ultimately, that led them that to Stephen Smerk, who was currently living in New York.”

‘I want to talk’

Eventually, Fairfax County detectives Melissa Wallace and JD Long traveled the 400 miles to upstate New York “in anticipation of furthering their investigation,” the police chief said.

When the detectives arrived at Smerk’s home, he was in his driveway taking the trash to the curb. He spoke to detectives and agreed to having them take a DNA sample at his home, according to Davis. The detectives left a business card with a cellphone number.

“Our two detectives simply went back to their hotel and we’re preparing to come back to Fairfax County when the phone rang,” Davis said. “And it was our killer — it was Stephen Smerk on the other end of the phone … Stephen Smerk said, ‘I want to talk, and I want to talk right now.'”

Inside the Niskayuna police station, Smerk “fully described his involvement” in the 1994 slaying. “He talked about killing Robin,” Davis said, and also provided other details. “It was a full confession,” Davis added.

Smerk is now being held in New York as a fugitive from justice and will be extradited to Virginia, Davis said.

At the news conference Monday, members of Lawrence’s family, including her now adult daughter, were seated in the front row. However, they did not provide any public comments. In a brief statement, a friend of the family thanked police for their work on the case and said the family members look forward to learning more about the process and next steps.

‘No relationship … between the victim and the killer’

After nearly three decades, there are still some aspects of the case that remain a mystery.

Asked by reporters whether Smerk provided a motive for the killing in his interview with police, the police chief declined to get into specifics.

“But I can just tell you that there’s no relationship whatsoever between the victim and the killer,” Davis said. “None whatsoever … The typical motives that we normally associated with murders — disputes, domestic violence — none of that was in play here.”

Davis said police don’t currently have reason to believe Smerk is suspected in any other similar crimes in the area. “But we leave that open to possibility,” he said, adding that news coverage of Smerk’s arrest could lead to more tips coming in.

“We anticipate that we’ll get some phone calls,” Davis said.

Police said they are still awaiting the results of the DNA swabs they took of Smerk the day they interviewed him, which could take a few more weeks.

Smerk who was honorably discharged from the Army, is now married and has two high school-aged children, Davis said.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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