As It Happens

Detective hopes lifelike DNA mugshot will lead to break in Sudbury cold case

In the nearly 20 years since Renee Sweeney was murdered, her case has remained unsolved. But police are hoping new technology will prompt fresh leads. They've released a computer-generated image of the suspect created using DNA from the crime scene.
A composite image, left, of the man suspected of killing Renee Sweeney, right. The image was created using DNA samples collected at the crime scene in 1998. (Supplied/Greater Sudbury Police Services)

Read Story Transcript

In the nearly 20 years since Renee Sweeney was murdered in Sudbury, her case has remained cold.

The 23-year-old university student was at work at an adult video store when an a man came in and stabbed her repeatedly. The crime shook the northern Ontario city, but no one was ever charged with the murder.

It's one of the most violent cases I've come across in 29 years. It was a violent attack on a totally innocent person and I've never seen anything else like it.- Det. Sgt. David Toffoli

But Sudbury police are hoping new technology will give them a much-needed break in the case. With the help of an American DNA technology company, the force has produced a surprisingly lifelike image of the suspect, as he may have appeared at the time, using DNA samples gathered at the crime scene.

Det. Sgt. David Toffoli was among the first officers to arrive at the crime scene. He's been the lead investigator on the case for nearly 10 years. He spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the case.

Renee Sweeney was stabbed to death in January 1998 while working in a store in Sudbury. (Supplied)

HELEN MANN: Det. Sgt. Toffoli, after all of these years, how often do you think about the Renee Sweeney murder case?

DT: Quite often, every day. It's a case that I've been involved with in one way or another for the past 19 years. So I think about it often, I'm asked about it often. When I'm at work and when I'm not at work, people are always enquiring about the murder and will it ever be solved.

HM: Is it unusual for you to think of a case you've had in the past that often?

DT: You know, it's one of the most violent cases I've come across in 29 years. It was a violent attack on a totally innocent person and I've never seen anything else like it.

Sudbury Police have created what they think might be a sketch of Renee Sweeney's killer (left.) The original artist's sketch after her 1998 murder (right.) (Greater Sudbury Police Service)

HM: Can you tell us exactly what happened to Renee?

DT: Renee was working alone in an adult video store and the suspect came into the store some time between 11:15 and 11:30. There was some type of physical confrontation between them in the centre of the store. She was stabbed in that area. It looks as if the suspect then went to clean up in the bathroom, assuming that Renee was probably deceased. Renee was able to crawl back in behind the counter, most likely in an attempt to get to the phone or to hit the panic button. And that's where the suspect attacked her and eventually killed her.

Det. Sgt. David Toffoli has been involved in Renee Sweeney's case from the beginning, and is now the lead investigator. (Greater Sudbury Police Service)

HM: How did it affect people living in Sudbury? 

DT: People were in fear. It's something that doesn't normally happen in Sudbury and it's really left a scar on the community.

HM: You have now released a composite image, which looks remarkably realistic — it feels like I'm looking at a photo here. Can you tell us a bit about the science behind it?

DT: What Parabon [the company that created the image] does is they look at genetic information in the DNA at different DNA markers. And, in looking at those markers, they're able to determine the physical appearance of the individual and the end result of it is the composite that they've created for us.

People were in fear. It's something that doesn't normally happen in Sudbury and it's really left a scar on the community.- Det. Sgt. David Toffoli

HM: How accurate can an image like this be, considering that it's only created with DNA? Do you have any evidence as to how these things have actually performed in the past?

DT: Parabon has a number of examples where they've done the same things. It's been successful in the States in solving a number of homicides. And it's often used on found human remains. They can develop the same type of profile from the DNA. The science behind it has proven to be successful and we're confident that this composite definitely has a resemblance to our suspect.

This transcript has been condensed and edited. For the full story, listen to the interview with David Toffoli. 

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