As a 51-year-old auto mechanic who had no apparent criminal history, Hans Alejandro Huitz seemed to be leading a staid, law-abiding life. He was married to a retired police officer and lived on a cul-de-sac just two miles from the ocean in Virginia Beach.

By early this month, though, police in Montgomery County, Md., had come to view Huitz as something else: the leading suspect in an unsolved homicide going back 28 years, when someone had walked into a country store, stabbed the owner 29 times with a broken wine bottle and possibly a knife, and fled with money from the cash register.

Authorities descended near Huitz’s home Wednesday morning and confronted him while he was inside his vehicle. As officers were negotiating his surrender, authorities said, Huitz brandished a gun and was shot dead by at least one of them.

Hans Alejandro Huitz, a primary suspect in a 1992 murder, was fatally shot by police on Feb. 12 after he brandished a gun outside his home in Virginia Beach. (Bill Lipps)

“We figured out the ‘who’ in this case,” Sgt. Chris Homrock, head of the Montgomery County police cold case squad, said Thursday. “But clearly, based on his decisions yesterday, we will never know the ‘why.’ ”

Investigations will continue into next week.

Virginia Beach police continue to probe the shooting of Huitz. The officers trying to arrest him, led by a U.S. Marshals Service task force, included police from Montgomery County.

Montgomery detectives want to tie up their murder mystery, even if they have no one to bring to trial. There was no indication, based on an arrest warrant they obtained this week charging Huitz with first-degree murder and robbery, that he had any accomplices in the 1992 case. Nor were there any signs, according to law enforcement officials, that Huitz’s family knew of his secret.

Police solved the case, they asserted in their warrant, by turning to a burgeoning investigative method they’ve used to close several cold cases recently — one that combines advances in DNA science with the traditional mapping of family trees using sources such as Census Bureau records and obituaries.

That method, police say, put Huitz directly at the crime scene. His family members could not be reached immediately for comment.

About 5:30 p.m. on March 22, 1992, Huitz entered the Sugarloaf Mountain Market in the northern part of Montgomery County, about three miles west of Interstate 270. It was chilly outside and starting to get dark. Huitz would have just turned 24 at the time, when real estate records indicate he lived in Northern Virginia, about 30 miles away.

The only person in the store was James Kweku Essel, a friendly 57-year-old who had traded in his banking career for the peace and quiet of running the shop, according to his family members. It reminded him, they said, of the serenity he’d had as a child growing up near the ocean in Ghana.

At exactly 5:39 p.m., according to store records, Essel rang up a sale for a bottle of wine. Moments later, detectives assert, the customer attacked Essel with the bottle — using its broken edges to stab and slash Essel in the chest, throat and back. Detectives have said a knife may have been used as well. The shopkeeper also suffered wounds to his left elbow and right hand, according to police, suggesting that he was trying to block the blows.

At 6 p.m., a customer walked in, saw Essel’s body on the floor surrounded by blood, ran out and called 911. Investigators collected blood samples from around Essel’s body and from a trail that led toward the front door — the latter thought to be left by the killer, who had perhaps been cut during the struggle.

They extracted a DNA profile from the blood trail and submitted it to national database that contained DNA profiles of convicted felons. The submission never produced a match.

In late 2018, Montgomery investigators asked Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Reston, Va., to determine whether the sample shared similarities with profiles submitted by anyone who’d submitted DNA for their family history research. Parabon reported at least one name back to the police.

From there, Montgomery police officer Steve “Smugs” Smugeresky, a longtime genealogy hobbyist who helps the department’s cold-case unit, began reviewing the case. He started building a family tree, eventually identifying men who had lived in the Maryland or Virginia area in 1992.

On Dec. 11, investigators paid a call to one such person, who said he had never been to the Sugarloaf Mountain Market and did not know Essel. The man allowed detectives to swab the inside of his mouth for a DNA sample.

As it turned out, that sample did not match the DNA left at the crime scene. But it had similarities, enough that investigators asked a different company, Bode Technology, to analyze whether and how the profiles were related. Bode’s tests showed that the man they’d just visited was probably a very close relative of the 1992 killer, according to an affidavit that detectives submitted for their arrest warrant.

“The results indicated that the suspect in the homicide was either a biological brother or the father,” detectives wrote. By then, they knew that the man’s father was dead and that he had only one biological brother: Hans Huitz.

Research didn’t appear to reveal prior convictions for Huitz, according to law enforcement officials and a review of online court records. He was married to a retired police officer, according to officials and to his and his wife’s Facebook pages.

On Tuesday, investigators went to Huitz’s workplace with a search warrant for his DNA and took a sample of saliva from the inside of his cheek, police said in their arrest warrant. Montgomery County officers then drove it 225 miles north to the department’s crime lab. Hours later, according to the warrant, the lab made a direct match to the 1992 crime scene.

About 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Montgomery detectives, joined by a U.S. Marshals Service task force, moved in on Huitz near his home along Maitland Drive.

Huitz “produced a handgun,” prompting officers to fire at him, the Marshals Service said in a statement. Huitz was pronounced dead at the scene.

Essel’s family could not immediately be reached.