SUDBURY - Two Sudbury Police officers, one retired, one current, testified today in the Robert Steven Wright murder trial, taking the jury from the day of the crime to the day Wright was arrested in 2018.
Wright was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Renée Sweeney, who died on Jan. 27, 1998 at her workplace, a video store located in a shopping plaza at 1500 Paris Street. Wright was an 18-year-old high school student in 1998 who lived at home with his parents in Val Caron, but attended a high school a short walk from the plaza at 1500 Paris Street.
Though a man named John Fetterly was arrested for the murder on Feb. 11 of that year (and released the next day with an apology from Sudbury Regional Police), it was not until Dec. 11, 2018, that an arrest was made and charges laid for the then 20-year-old crime. Greater Sudbury Police said at the time of Wright’s arrest that it was the weight of forensic evidence that tied the now 43-year-old man to Sweeney’s murder.
Since his arrest, he has been denied bail four times.
Sergeant Rick Waugh was back on the witness stand today, March 8, for the remainder of co-defense counsel Michael Lacy’s cross-examination, which began yesterday, March 7, as well as re-examination by Crown attorney Kevin Ludgate.
Waugh testified for the entirety of the day yesterday, providing details of the work he did as the forensic officer in charge of evidence in the early days of the Sweeney investigation. The major takeaway from Waugh’s testimony on Tuesday was that he admitted to falsifying his duty notes at the request of a superior officer, Bill Evanochko. The falsified notes state it was Waugh who confirmed fingerprints found on a cash tray at the crime scene belonged to John Fetterly, which led to his short arrest for the murder.
Now, Waugh says he was not the one who made the match. In fact, he said he was “shocked” when the co-called match led to Fetterly’s arrest.
Waugh added to yesterday's testimony today by stating that it was forensics officer Evanochko who made the match and pressured him to change his notes. He added that Evanochko was no longer an officer with Sudbury Regional Police at the time of the crime, but had been brought back to assist with the case.
Waugh testified his falsification was a “critical mistake.”
During his cross-examination of Waugh today, Lacy asked for an explanation of Waugh’s travel time to Mildmay, near Bruce County in southern Ontario, where Waugh had been sent to search a residence on Absalom Street that was registered to Fetterly.
Waugh read from his notes that he left at 17:30 hours (5:30 p.m.) and arrived at his hotel at 01:00 hours (1:00 a.m.). Lacy confirmed that this was a seven-and-a-half-hour time span, and asked Waugh to account for his time, suggesting it took considerably longer than Lacy felt it should have. After continued questioning, Waugh said he remembered that he went home to get an overnight bag, and that he may not have included that, and other stops, like bathroom breaks, in his notes.
“Clearly there must have been something else going on that slowed your travel,” said Lacy.
“If notes reflect travel time, I can’t account for seven and a half hours,” said Waugh.
Then Lacy questioned Waugh about the cash tray, asking if Waugh had moved the spring clips that hold the paper bills down. Waugh said he did not. Lacy referred to a photo from the store showing the clips in an upright position, but in another evidence photo, the clips were down.
Waugh testified that no other bloodied fingerprints were found on the cash tray, despite using Cyanoacrylate fuming, also known as a glue chamber. It is a forensic technique used to raise liquids from surfaces to reveal fingerprints, including blood, sweat and finger oils.
Waugh testified he was transitioned off the case in late February, 1998.
“I did still have some involvement, but another forensic officer took over the exhibits list and exhibits,” he said.
Lacy asked if Waugh was taken off the case because of his conduct in the false arrest of Fetterly.
Waugh testified that wasn’t the specific reason given, “but that was the reason.”
During his re-examination, Ludgate began to ask Waugh about fingerprints on the underside of the cash tray, but the jury was quickly excused and the attorneys and Justice Robbie D. Gordon began a voir dire, the details of which can’t be reported. A voir dire is a separate hearing in which the judge makes rulings on the law and evidence when the jury is not present.
When the jury returned, Gordon told them, “there isn’t any significance to the prints on the underside of the tray.”
Waugh was then excused.
Next to testify was the current primary investigator, GSPS Sergeant Robert Weston, who has been the primary investigator on the case since October, 2013. He took over for GSPS Det. Sgt. David Toffoli.
Weston testified he was a Laurentian University student when the murder occurred.
“It was a hot topic there,” said Weston. “Teachers and students were talking about it, posters throughout the university, in grocery stores on the corkboard when you're checking out. It was something that had always been in the face of the community, in the public eye, since 1998.”
It was Weston who made the 2018 arrest of Wright.
Questioned by Crown co-attorney Rob Parsons, Weston first detailed the length and breadth of the case since the day of the crime. Weston detailed several press releases issued by the Sudbury Regional Police and Greater Sudbury Police Service, often on the yearly anniversary of the crime, detailing the items police had recovered, including the blue nylon jacket and white garden gloves, and the composite sketch created by witnesses.
At the end of each press release, Weston testified, was a plea to contact police or Crime Stoppers. As technology changed, so too did the ways to communicate with police, he testified, including a website, tip line, and at one time a $25,000 reward for information that led to an arrest.
Weston testified the Sweeney murder is the largest police investigation in Sudbury’s history. He said that in the years since the crime, police had received and followed up on in excess of 2,000 tips, and had eliminated 1,800 people as suspects, either through DNA recovered from under Sweeney’s fingernails or other means (he did not specify).
“There are 100 bankers boxes of paper documents on this case,” he said.
Weston testified that he was on holidays, drinking coffee in the summer of 2016 when he heard of a company called Parabon Nanolabs.
Using DNA collected at the murder scene, the company offered to create, for free, a composite image with its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service. Snapshot is billed as the first software application in the world that can predict the appearance and ancestry of someone based solely on DNA samples.
In Sept. 2018, Parabon compiled a report for GSPS that detailed ancestral testing they had done with the DNA sample. The report comes back with two last names that have ancestral ties to this DNA, Weston testified; those names are ‘Secord’ and ‘McAllister’.
They were not related, Weston testified, but had a common descendant. Weston testified his job, as he saw it, was to find the descendent link.
He first found a relative on the Secord side, who kept detailed genealogical notes, Weston said. Next was a McAllister relative, who was also passionate about genealogy. Both were building family trees.
Ultimately, Weston said he found the point where the Secord and McAllister family tree’s met. Then, as per the details in the Parabon report, he confirmed the crime scene DNA would be from descendants of the link.
Weston said that link was Wright’s father, also named Robert, and his descendents, two sons, the oldest being Robert Steven, who goes by Steven, who was living in North Bay in 2018.
Weston was asked if he saw the person he arrested on Dec. 11, 2018 in the courtroom. He answered, “Yes, I do. The person in the burgundy-collared shirt.”
Weston pointed at Wright, who was sitting at the defense table.
When Parsons finished his questioning, co-defense attorney Bryan Badali said the defence had no questions for the witness. Defence co-counsel Lacy then asked for a voir dire in relation to Weston’s testimony. The jury was then excused. As explained earlier, a publication ban prevents the media from reporting on the substance of a voir dire, so Sudbury.com can’t get into the reasons Lacy asked for one.
When the jurors were re-seated in the courtroom, Justice Gordon explained that Weston’s testimony contained hearsay (things that were told to him, not things he learned directly), and that his testimony would be allowed as it offered a “narrative, letting you know how Wright’s arrest came to be,” but that “you do not have to accept the truth of what others told him (Weston), it just provides a narrative for you.”
Weston was then excused from the stand. Court will resume tomorrow, March 9, at 10 a.m.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter at Sudbury.com.
**Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Robert Steven Wright lived with his parents within walking distance of the murder scene.