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Sudbury, Ont., murder suspect denies killing victim, says he fled crime scene in fear and panic

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For the first time, Robert Steven Wright has given his version of events of the morning of Jan. 27, 1998, the day Renee Sweeney was stabbed to death in a Sudbury, Ont., video store.

Wright was charged with her murder in 2018, more than 20 years later, and has been in jail ever since.

Police downgraded his first-degree murder charge to second-degree in August 2019.

Wright told jurors in a Sudbury courtroom on Monday afternoon that he stumbled upon Sweeney’s bloody body lying on the floor and panicked. So he ran away, describing it as the “worst decision” he ever made.

Testifying on Monday in front of a packed courtroom, Wright confirmed he was at the Adults Only Video store the morning of the murder and that he was the person witnesses saw running from the scene.

“I was wearing the jacket that were seen in the pictures,” Wright said, of the teal jacket that was found by a canine track with bloodstains shortly after the murder.

“I was also wearing the gloves seen in the pictures.”

Wright was already sitting in the witness box when the jury came in Monday, wearing a burgundy shirt, black pants, glasses with a trimmed beard and shaved head. He is on trial for second-degree murder.

“Our first witness is Robert Steven Wright,” said defence attorney Michael Lacy, as the packed courtroom became almost silent.

“Did you kill Renee Sweeney?” Lacy asked.

“I did not,” Wright replied, also denying that he stabbed her, that he knew her and that he knew who the killer was.

Wright said that he was an 18-year-old student at nearby Lockerby Composite School, a short walk from the video store on Paris Street.

That morning, he wrote an exam that finished no later than 11 a.m., but his bus home wasn’t arriving until 3 p.m.

“I was trying to decide what to do until the bus picked me up,” he said, eventually deciding to head to the Adults Only Video store.

While he had rented adult movies before, Wright said he had never been to AOV and didn’t have a membership there.

He entered the store and said he didn’t notice anything at first. He saw video boxes on the floor, but thought they were doing an inventory.

“I saw, when I moved further in, I saw something spilled,” he said.

As he walked toward the counter, he said he could “see someone on the floor.”

“On the right-hand side, my recollection is that I could see the body as I came around the racks on the right-hand side toward the counter,” Wright said.

“Hey, are you OK?” he said he shouted.

“I didn’t get any response,” he said, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry. It still bothers me.”

Robert Steven Wright is seen in photos from around the time of Renee Sweeney’s murder in January 1998. Wright testified Monday that he panicked and fled the crime scene that morning, but didn’t kill Sweeney. Running away is something he said was the “worst decision” of his life. (File)

He said Sweeney was not moving and so his first aid training kicked in and he checked her vital signs.

“I checked for breathing -- I could find no breath. I checked for a pulse -- there was no pulse.”

At that point he moved closer to Sweeney’s body and repeated the question, shaking her right shoulder as he did so.

He said he put his ear close to her mouth to see if he could hear her breathe.

“I couldn’t hear anything,” he said.

“After that, I realized my gloves were all bloody.”

So he removed his jacket and gloves and placed them on the ground.

When he checked for a pulse, he said anxiety was starting to take over and he had to steady his one hand to do it.

“I was shaking and overwhelmed at that point,” Wright said.

“At that point I was freaking out. I wanted to get out of there.”

He felt unsteady and said he grabbed something in the counter area to stop himself from falling over, although he is not sure what he grabbed

“I can’t describe what was going through my mind,” he said.

“I was completely overwhelmed at that point. I just wanted out of there.”

Lacy asked him whether he knew his fingerprints were found on the top of the cash tray at the store, as well as on the bottom.

“I don’t know whether I touched that or not,” Wright said.

But he denied taking cash from the tray, flipping up the metal clips on the tray or rummaging through it.

Next, Wright said he crouched down to pick up his jacket and gloves and put them in a ball.

Paulette Taillefer's description formed the basis of the initial sketch released by police, left, and the couple from Laurentian University's descriptions form the basis for another police sketch, right. Robert Steven Wright confirmed Monday he was the person the sketches were based upon. (Composite Image by Dan Bertrand/CTV News Northern Ontario; source images supplied)

“That’s when people came into the store,” Wright said.

“I was completely freaked out. I just wanted out of there … I just ran.”

Lacy asked him why he ran away.

“I wasn’t thinking,” he said.

“I wish now I had stayed. It was the worst decision of my life to run. I don’t even know if I consciously made that decision.”

Lacy asked him if he took the money or magazines that were discovered missing from the store.

“I did not,” he said.

With bloody footprints discovered in the bathroom with a ‘Brooks’ brand imprint, Lacy asked him if he went into the bathroom to clean up.

“I did not,” Wright said, adding he didn’t go into the bathroom at all.

He also said he was a size 12 shoe in 1998, the same size he is today and he has never owned a Brooks running shoe.

“Where did you go (at that point)?” Lacy asked.

The Jan. 27, 1998, murder of Renee Sweeney, 23, took place in an era when security cameras weren’t everywhere, as they are today. The killer managed, in broad daylight, to commit the crime and leave the video store without being caught on tape. (File photo)

Wright said he ran out of the store, up along the sidewalk in front of the strip mall and ran up Paris Street.

He didn’t remember exactly where he went after that but he said he did dump the balled-up jacket and gloves.

“I realized at that point I had run from a crime scene and I was terrified I would be accused,” he said.

“I wanted to forget about the whole traumatic incident.”

When Lacy asked whether he threw a knife away, too, Wright replied, “I did not have a knife. I did not throw a knife away.”

He said he headed to Regent Street and made his way downtown. Once there, Wright said he waited at the mall -- then called the City Centre -- for the bus home at 3 p.m.

He said he didn’t speak to anyone or call anyone.

“I didn’t want to involve anyone else in this,” Wright said.

'I JUST WANTED TO GO HOME'

“I just wanted to go home.”

He arrived home to an empty house sometime in the afternoon. Wright said he didn’t tell anyone what he had experienced.

“I just wanted to distance myself from the whole thing and forget about it,” he said.

“It was very traumatizing ... I was also ashamed for running and not staying ... I ran because I was terrified. I wasn’t thinking. I was a stupid kid. I wish I had stayed.”

In his cross-examination, Crown prosecutor Rob Parsons focused on how Wright’s fingerprint ended up underneath the cash tray.

Wright testified that he was overwhelmed and needed to grab something to steady himself, Parsons said.

“What did you touch?” Parsons asked.

Wright said he couldn’t remember anything “specific” but couldn’t rule out grabbing the cash tray.

“Just something that was around the counter and shelving,” he said.

But why, Parsons asked, would his fingerprint be found underneath the cash box?

“I have no explanation other than that’s where I grabbed it,” he said.

“You need to hold yourself up, you probably grab something from the top, wouldn’t you?” Parsons asked.

“Probably,” Wright said.

So he was falling, Parsons asked, trying to grab something to steady himself and he grabs the bottom of the cash tray?

“It’s possible,” Wright said, adding again that he doesn’t remember what he grabbed.

The trial resumes Tuesday morning, when the Crown is expected to resume its cross-examination. CTV Northern Ontario will continue our coverage Tuesday.

Find all of the previous trial coverage here.

Background

The brutal stabbing death of 23-year-old Renee Sweeney rocked the City of Sudbury to its core on Jan. 27, 1998.

Police searched for her killer for two decades and finally charged Robert Steven Wright, who was 18 years old at the time of the murder. He has been held in jail since his arrest in Dec. 2018.

After several delays, the trial began Feb. 21, 2023, just after the 25th anniversary of Sweeney's death.

CTV News Digital content producer Darren MacDonald is bringing the latest from the courtroom every day and will have full coverage of the trial here.

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