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Crime News Dateline

16-Year-Old Dancer Found Stabbed to Death in Her Own Home: "Hug Your Children"

Teenage dancer Meghan Landowski was found stabbed 40 times in her Portsmouth, Virginia home on April 10, 2008.

By Jill Sederstrom

When beautiful teenage dancer Meghan Landowski was found brutally murdered in her home, police quickly focused on an obvious suspect.

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But when that suspect was ruled out, investigators were left with few clues about who could have wanted the popular high school student dead, according to Dateline: Secrets Uncovered

As suspect after suspect was eliminated, investigators and Landwoski’s family were growing increasingly frustrated until a memorial walk in Landowski’s honor triggered the memory of a tipster who brought the case in an entirely new direction.

When the surprising killer was finally revealed, it sent shockwaves through the stunned Portsmouth, Virginia community.

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Who was Megan Landowski?

Landowski was a teen who formed friendships with nearly everyone she met. The 16-year-old took martial arts classes and was a dedicated student, but her family believes she was the happiest when she was dancing.

“She was really good at it and she was so small, she was so tiny and she would just float across that stage and she was beautiful, just beautiful,” her mom Angie Shortt recalled.

Landowski even spent her freshman year at a special arts high school where she was surrounded by talented dancers, singers, and musicians. 

But those who knew the bubbly, vivacious teen, said that halfway through her freshman year there was a notable shift in her demeanor. Landowski’s grades began to drop and she seemed to withdraw from her friends and family. Her parents transferred her to a closer high school to begin her sophomore year, but Landowski continued to struggle. 

Allegations of Sexual Abuse Emerge

Eventually Landowski’s stepfather Chris Shortt got her to reveal a troubling secret. Landowski alleged that Chris’ best friend Robert Hicke — a married father of four — had an inappropriate sexual relationship with her when she was just 15-years-old. 

"This is my best friend and I trusted him more than I would trust just about anybody else,” Chris said of discovering the devastating betrayal.

Angie and Chris encouraged Landowski to go to the police and an investigation was launched into Hicke’s alleged behavior. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service eventually took over the case because Hicke — a naval officer at the time — could have faced stronger punishment through their system. 

Hicke, who has continued to proclaim his innocence, was facing a potential court martial that threatened to destroy his career when Landowski was found brutally murdered inside her home on April 10, 2008.

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How did Megan Landowski die? 

Chris walked into the family’s small Portsmouth, Virginia home after getting off work and discovered Landowski dead on the kitchen floor. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed approximately 40 times.

“My daughter — she’s um, looks like she’s been sexually assaulted, and she is bleeding to death,” a frantic Chris told the 911 dispatcher. 

Police Sgt. Robert McDaniel was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene and made the heartbreaking discovery that Landowski was the victim. He had already formed a close bond with the teen and her family while investigating the alleged sexual abuse case.

"You can’t get it out of your head,” McDaniel remembered through tears.“You just want to go home and hug your children.”

Crime scene investigators would later conclude that someone had climbed through a downstairs bedroom window and forced Landowski upstairs where they bound her with tape and sexually assaulted her. Her skirt and underwear were found thrown on the floor.

Investigators believe that at some point during the harrowing attack, Landowski made her way to the kitchen where she was stabbed to death with two different knives from a butcher block on the counter.

It appeared during the attack that the killer had cut himself leaving behind blood and DNA at the crime scene.

Steve and Angie Shortt featured on Dateline Secrets Uncovered Episode 1216

Was Megan Landowski’s death related to the sexual assault investigation?

Investigators quickly honed in on Hicke as a possible suspect in the slaying. With her death, the pending case against him suddenly disappeared.

“His case vanishes because he has a right to confront his accuser, so he can no longer do that because she’s dead,” Dana Shutt, a special agent with NCIS explained.

Landowski’s parents were also convinced Hicke had played a role in their daughter’s death. 

But when police brought him in for questioning, Hicke told authorities he had been at work all day before heading to a marriage counselor with his wife. 

"I can tell you from the time I got up to the time that you saw me, I was with someone every second of the entire day,” he said in a recording of the interrogation.  “Except for the moment I went to the bathroom.”

Not only did the alibi check out, he voluntarily gave a sample of his DNA which did not match the DNA left behind at the crime scene

“It’s frustrating because what you think you have, you don’t,” McDaniel said of the roadblock.

With Hicke officially cleared of the murder, investigators were forced to go back to square one and take a close look at everyone that had been in the teen’s life at the time.

Investigators spent months conducting interviews and collecting more than 80 voluntary DNA samples, but none matched the killer. Each time a potential suspect would pop up — whether it was a neighbor, former love interest, or instructors she had known — they were quickly cleared. 

A DNA lab in Florida was eventually able to determine through tracing the killer’s genetic profile that the perpetrator was likely a Black male, but authorities had few other clues to go on.

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Who killed Megan Landowski? 

It wasn’t until Landowski’s dance teacher decided to hold a memorial walk in her honor to drum up interest in the case that a new tipster came forward with an explosive new lead in the case. 

The tipster told police to talk with the bus driver who drove Landowski during her freshman year at the prestigious art school.

The bus driver told police there had been a young teen on the bus named Robert Barnes who seemed interested in Landowski. The driver didn’t believe Landowski felt the same way about Barnes, a talented violinist.

"He’d practice on the bus with us on the way home,” one of Landowski’s friends recalled. "He was really, really good. He was a nice guy. He was normal, he blended in, and he made good grades.”

Landowski may not have had any romantic interest in Barnes, but the two were friends and he even came over to her house to hang out after school on several occasions. 

McDaniel went to talk to Barnes at the high school and said although he “didn’t do anything out of the way” during their discussion, he couldn’t shake the thought that Barnes was putting up a “facade.” 

"War Room" Established by Portsmouth Police in Stabbing Death of Teenager

The next day during another discussion at the school, Barnes agreed to hand over a piece of his chewing gum for DNA testing, but authorities were stunned when the sample showed it had been chewed by a female. 

McDaniel realized Barnes had somehow switched out the gum with a sample from someone else to throw investigators off his trail. 

They brought him into the station, and after a brief conversation with his mom, Barnes told McDaniel a bizarre story about the day of Landowski’s death. He claimed he had plans to hang out with her that day but when he arrived and knocked on the door, she never came. Concerned, he said he went through a bedroom window and found Landowski upstairs with a masked man holding her at gunpoint. 

He claimed the man forced him to have sex with Landowski and then stabbed her right in front of him, before threatening him and sending Barnes on his way.

Investigators didn’t buy the story, however, since all of the evidence, including DNA, blood, and fingerprints, matched to only Barnes. Investigators also discovered troubling material on his computer that showed the responsible student was also “very much into a fantasy world of breaking into houses and committing rape.” 

Barnes had even photoshopped his own picture into a news article about an elderly woman getting raped during a burglary. 

He ultimately accepted a plea and plead guilty to first-degree murder, attempted rape, aggravated sexual battery, abduction, and statutory rape. In exchange for the plea, he will be eligible for parole after serving 42 years behind bars. 

Barnes’ arrest shocked the community and left Landowski’s family stunned. 

“I don’t understand why,” her mom Angie said through tears at the sentencing hearing. “She never did anything to hurt anybody.”