Friday, April 12

Auburn man convicted of sexually assaulting and killing Alaska woman in 1993


It took nearly 30 years since the brutal murder and sexual assault of an Alaska Native woman on the campus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to bring her killer, Steven H. Downs of Auburn, Maine, to justice.

On Thursday, it took a jury of three men and nine women 20 hours over four days of deliberations to convict Downs, 47, in the cold case that was revived in 2018 when the DNA of his aunt was a random hit to semen found inside Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska.

He will be held without bail until his sentencing in September.

“We are obviously disappointed at the verdict,” lead defense attorney James Howaniec of Lewiston, Maine, said. “We had a thoughtful jury that examined the evidence over four days. A number of them were clearly very emotional during the verdict. We respect their verdict. It was a very difficult case for all involved. We are going to take a step back and assess Steven’s options from here.”

Sergie’s older brother, Alexie, told KUAC public radio in Fairbanks on Thursday after hearing the verdict that he had forgiven the perpetrator of the crimes against his sister back in the 1990s and that he’d been motivated to do so by his Russian Orthodox religion. He also said DNA doesn’t lie.

Downs had been a student at the school at the time of the murder, his dorm room was one floor above where Sergie’s body was found.

Over three full weeks of testimony, more than 40 witnesses appeared in Fairbanks Superior Court in person or by videoconference on a TV monitor in the courtroom. Live witnesses sat at a table surrounded by plexiglass, some of them masked due to COVID-19 concerns. Everyone else in the courtroom was masked. The trial was twice delayed by exposures of attorneys and jurors to the virus.

Jurors were allowed to take notes during the trial, which got underway in mid-January.

The jury heard testimony from then-students at the university who recalled what they saw and heard at the time investigators believe Sergie was killed, including an eyewitness account of a man leaving the bathroom at the time Sergie was killed.

Police said Sergie had been last seen alive when she left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette late on the night of April 25, 1993, on the second floor of Bartlett Hall.

Custodial staff found her body in the bathtub of a women’s bathroom on the second floor the next afternoon. She’s believed to have been killed at roughly 1:30 a.m. on April 26, 1993.

Investigators said Sergie had been fatally shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in the cheek and eye, struck with a blunt object, gagged with a ligature and possibly shocked with a stun gun.

In 2000, a DNA profile had been built from evidence of foreign bodily fluids found inside Sergie. That profile had been loaded into the national DNA database of offenders with no matches.

Police had submitted the crime scene DNA from Sergie’s killing in September 2018 for a new technique of so-called “genetic genealogy” analysis that had recently helped solve a double-murder cold case in Washington state.

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In December of that year, Downs’ name came back from the analysis through a random hit after his aunt had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

He was arrested at his home in Auburn in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks, where he has been held at the local jail. His bail was revoked and he will be held until sentencing in September.

Police secured search warrants for Downs’ DNA, fingerprints and home.

A forensics expert at the crime lab in Alaska testified Downs’ DNA profile was a one-in-330-billion match for the semen found in Sergie’s vagina.

Downs told police he had never known nor even met Sergie. The DNA match was a “mistake” and would be explained by a lab or investigative error, he told investigators.

He said he hadn’t owned a gun at the time of Sergie’s murder, but his roommate, Nicholas Dazer, named by defense as an alternative suspect, told police years later that Downs had owned a .22-caliber revolver at the time.

Downs told police he’d been with his then-girlfriend (now Katherine Lee) the night Sergie was killed. Lee testified at trial that Downs had been “in and out” of her room, which was on the fourth floor of Bartlett Hall.

She also testified years later that she and Downs had gone target shooting around the time of the murder, describing the gun used as a .22-caliber revolver. But Lee said she didn’t believe he had owned any weapons and thought he had borrowed the gun.

She and Dazer testified that they hadn’t noticed any change in Downs’ demeanor around the time of Sergie’s murder.

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Police found a .22-caliber revolver in Downs’ home shortly before his arrest, but he told police he’d bought that gun from a Turner, Maine, dealer in 2015, an account confirmed at the trial by that dealer.

A then-student who dated Downs early in his freshman year testified at the trial that Downs had a “fixed-blade” hunting knife in his room, but she said she didn’t think much about it because she came from a part of Alaska where most people had similar knives.

The defense named three men as alternative suspects during the trial in an effort to raise reasonable doubt about Downs’ guilt, including Downs’ former roommate.

No DNA matching anyone other than Downs and Sergie was found at the crime scene, prosecutors showed at trial.

The defense said only semen found in Sergie was matched to Downs and that none of the other physical evidence collected at the crime scene and at Sergie’s autopsy was linked to him.

His defense team included James Howaniec and two other Maine lawyers, as well as a Fairbanks attorney.


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