Sudbury·Special Report

Renee Sweeney's murder suspect has 'good DNA profile' — but no hits yet

Sudbury police know almost everything about the man who murdered 23-year-old Renee Sweeney — except his name.

Investigators wonder if the DNA databank system is working as it should

Det. Sgt. David Toffoli keeps several banker's boxes of notes in the Renee Sweeney murder investigation. He says there are about 60 boxes altogether. (Greater Sudbury Police Service)
It's the first profile in our series "Gone but not Forgotten"... the seventeen year old murder of Renee Sweeney. She was stabbed to death while working at an Adult Only video store in Sudbury. We look at the status of the investigation. 7:23

Sudbury police know almost everything about the man who murdered 23-year-old Renee Sweeney — except his name.

They have his gloves and his windbreaker. They have a partial fingerprint and shoe print. They have his DNA.

It is that DNA, that one investigator believes may end up solving the murder.

Sergeant David Toffoli has a stack of banker's boxes of notes he took during the several years he worked on the case. They are a silent reminder in the corner of his small office. He said they're a fraction of the case file which filled sixty boxes.

The murder happened January 27, 1998. Police notes showed the temperature was -17 C and there was light snow. Renee was working the Adult Only Video store at 1500 Paris Street.

Her high school friend, Catherine Valiaho, said Renee didn't fit the stereotype of an adult video store clerk. She wasn't involved in the sex trade.

"It was just a job to her. She was very independent and kind and intelligent," said Valiaho. "It was a job, it wasn't a lifestyle or anything like that."

Sweeney was a music student at Laurentian University who was writing a thesis and also played trombone with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra.

This crime scene photo shows Renee Sweeney's car parked in front of the store where she was stabbed to death in January 1998. (Greater Sudbury Police Service)

Victim fought hard

At 11:27 on January 27, 1998, Renee's attacker entered the store, according to police. He stabbed her as she stood in front of the counter, then police believe he went to the washroom to rinse off some blood.

Renee had crawled around to the back of the counter where there was a phone. Her assailant struck her again, and fled, taking $200 from the till. Police counted thirty stab wounds.

Renee fought hard. She had skin from her attacker under her fingernails, said Toffoli.

"We have a good DNA profile of the suspect," said Toffoli. "And I believe there will be a tip that will lead us to the suspect and we can confirm that the suspect is that person through DNA."

So far, however, in 17 years, there have been no hits. 

There is a huge amount of physical evidence: a windbreaker-type jacket made in Korea and sold only in California, a diaper pin in the pocket, and a pair of white work gloves. Police have a partial fingerprint and footprint.

Police hired an OPP profiler who said the suspect was male, in his late teens or early twenties, lived in Sudbury, and worked in the service industry.

As much as Toffoli put his faith in the DNA databank, he said the lack of a match indicated the man who committed this crime just hasn't committed any other major crimes in Canada that would compel him to give DNA to the registry.

Is the DNA system working as it should?

That doesn't make sense to Mike Arntfield. He is a criminologist at the University of Western Ontario.

He looked at the Sweeney case for consideration for a television segment that he produced called "To Catch a Killer" that aired on Oprah Winfrey's network.
Sudbury's Renee Sweeney died violently at a video store on a busy street in 1998. (Supplied)

He decided against using the Sweeney case and said he was struck by the lack of DNA hits. It was extremely unusual that someone who committed such a violent crime did not commit any other violent crimes and didn't end up in the DNA registry, he said.

Violent people tend to continue to be violent until they're caught, Arntfield added.

"I see DNA in these cases," he said. "And I have to wonder whether the system is working as it should."

Meanwhile, back at the police station, Toffoli said on average, three tips a month come in on the Sweeney case. He said it's far from cold. And he has faith in the system to identify Renee Sweeney's murderer so he can answer to his crime.

Police are asking anyone who has a tip to give them a call: 705-675-9171, ext. 2300.

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