SUDBURY — The night before Renée Sweeney's murder on Jan. 27, 1998, she and her sister, Kim Sweeney, stayed up until 12:30 a.m., talking on the phone.
Given what happened to Renée later that morning, it's something that Kim has always been glad about.
The sisters — then both post-secondary students in Sudbury — squabbled as youngsters, but grew closer as they grew into adulthood.
“We'd hang out all the time and go for supper and stuff like that,” said Kim, three years her sister's junior. “I'd go visit her at work and she'd stop by my work … We were really close, and we got closer as we got older.”
It's been 20 years since Kim has heard Renée's voice, two decades since she's been able to call her up and chat.
Renée, a 23-year-old Laurentian University student, was stabbed to death around 11 a.m. Jan. 27, 1998, while working at Adults Only Video on Paris Street.
The suspect, a white man in his early 20s, left his DNA on Renée's body, as well as on a jacket he discarded after the murder. The DNA collected at the scene has never been matched to anyone in the available DNA databases. The case remains unsolved.
Asked about her feelings on the 20th anniversary, Kim sums it up in a word: "Horrible."
“He's still out there,” she said. “It feels like forever, and yet it feels like it was just yesterday. Life goes on, and you have to pluck through life anyway and go from there.”
Kim, who recently turned 40, said she has very few close family members left. Her dad died in 1990. Her mom, who lived with MS and whose condition deteriorated after Renée's murder, passed on in recent years, as has her stepdad.
She said she wishes the killer had been caught before they died. “I wish my mom would have been able to have that closure,” Kim said.
Kim's two kids missed out on having their auntie around. “It's too bad they didn't get to know her, because they would have been spoiled by her,” Kim said.
Renée was a talented trombone player and a member of the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra who studied history and music at Laurentian University. She was just a few months away from graduation, and planned to become a teacher.
During a recent visit by Sudbury.com to Kim's home, she brought out her sister's carefully-curated high school photo albums.
They're filled with pictures of happy teens from years gone by — Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School students on 1990s band trips to Costa Rica and San Francisco.
Kim said her sister was funny and had a great personality. “She had a lot of friends, but she was also quiet,” she said. “She wasn't out drinking and partying all the time. She went to work and she went to school.”
Working at Adults Only Video was “just a job” that fit well with her sister's schedule and paid her bills, Kim said.
She wasn't even supposed to work the day of her death – she'd changed her schedule so she could attend a symphony performance that coming Saturday evening.
A year ago, Greater Sudbury Police released a new composite image of the murder suspect.
It was produced by Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia, using its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service. The technology attempts to predict appearance and ancestry from DNA samples.
The Sweeney murder suspect composite shows that the suspect is a male of northern European ancestry, with fair skin, blue/green eyes, brown/blond hair and a few freckles.
Eyeglasses were added to the composite based on the description of eyewitnesses.
“We actually had an overwhelming response from the public in response to the media conference last January,” said Det. Sgt. Bob Weston, the Greater Sudbury Police officer now in charge of the case.
Before releasing the new composite image in 2017, police had already eliminated 1,800 people of interest. They received another 360 tips over the past year.
“Out of these 360 tips, approximately 200 people have been eliminated through DNA or other means,” he said. “We have approximately 150 tips that are still outstanding.”
While every tip is helpful, Weston said he wishes people could provide more detail. He reminds people that while the composite image shows a young man, the killer would probably be in his 40s now.
He wants people to think about people they knew back in 1998.
While it has been two decades, Weston said he's confident the case will be solved someday. Police just need that crucial information to lead them in the right direction.
“At the end of the day it's going to be the DNA databank that's going to allow us to catch them,” he said.
“I'm very confident in the sample of DNA that we have. The science behind it has proven to be successful. I remain confident that this person is going to be identified and the case will be solved.
“However, police can't do this alone. We need the assistance of the public to achieve this, because somebody knows something.”
The new tips, Kim said, are encouraging. On the 20th anniversary of Renée's murder, she has a plea to the public.
“If somebody has information, just give it,” she said. “It's the right thing to do. Then we can get closure. Twenty years is a long time, but it still hurts every day.”
Citizens with new information regarding the incident or the suspect are urged to contact the Greater Sudbury Police Tip Line at 705-675-9171, ext. 2320.
They can also provide information anonymously through Sudbury Rainbow Crime Stoppers at 705-222-TIPS (8477).
After Renée Sweeney's murder, a $25,000 reward was set up for information leading to a conviction. Crime Stoppers confirms this reward has been held in trust for the past 20 years, and with interest, now amounts to more than $30,000.