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Cold case trial begins in Fairbanks murder of Sophie Sergie

Obtained with special permission of the court, this screenshot shows images projected to the jury. This photo of Sophie Sergie was taken on Murphy Dome the night she died.
Joann Sundown
Alaska Court System
Obtained with special permission of the court, this screenshot shows images projected to the jury. This photo of Sophie Sergie was taken on Murphy Dome the night she died.

Steven H. Downs is accused of rape and murder

A cold case murder trial opened yesterday in Fairbanks. Steven Downs was arrested at his home in Maine in 2019 and is accused of killing Sophie Sergie in a university dormitory in 1993.

The prosecution and defense made opening statements Wednesday in the trial of Steven Harris Downs. Now 47 years old, Downs was only 18 and finishing his first year at University of Alaska Fairbanks at the time of the crime. He was a resident in Bartlett Hall, where Sophie Sergie’s body was found in a bathtub on the second floor of the dorm.

Both sides described the victim as vibrant, academically inclined, sober, and friendly. She had been studying marine biology, but was not enrolled that spring of 1993 – she was taking time off from school to work and raise money. She had come to Fairbanks that weekend for an orthodontic appointment she had on Monday, and stayed with friends on the second floor, one of the women’s floors, of the dorm.

John Christopher Darnell, Assistant Attorney General in the Alaska Office of Special Prosecutions reminded the jury the case will rest on DNA that investigators found on the victim’s body and clothes.

"They're going to tell you about the quantity of DNA from that. They were able to obtain: male DNA profile. They found that same profile taken from her sweatpants and taken from her thigh."

Darnell traced how that case will use that male DNA profile, ending with the connection made by cold case Investigator Randy McPherron in 2018.

"Investigator McPherron submitted a profile to genetic genealogy company and got information pointed them towards Mr. Downs."

Downs’ attorney from Maine, James P. Howaniec, described evidence that would be brought up in the trial, such as unknown male fingerprints found at the scene that don’t match the defendant.

“There is additional DNA…”

He listed male pubic hairs found on Sergie’s body and DNA found on her chest.

“…that DNA does not match Steven Downs.”

He says the gun that police found at Steven Downs’ home in Auburn, Maine in 2019 is not the same weapon that killed Sergie in 1993.

“The ballistics of that gun don’t match the bullet that was found in Sophie’s body.”

Howaniec also told the jury Downs was an unlikely suspect because he was in his girlfriend’s room on the fourth floor watching a movie, and had no reason to go to the women’s bathroom on the second floor.

“A freshman student, Dean’s List student here at UAF, had a girlfriend who he was with that night.”

Also on Wednesday, the jury heard from the first witness for the prosecution, Shirley Akelkok grew up in Kotlik, in the same school district as Sophie Sergie, who lived in the very small village of Pitka’s Point in Southwest Alaska.

“If you were going to be a future leader for the community, it was known when you were young, you know, and everyone knew that that would be her.”

Akelkok, who was Shirley Wasulie growing up, began to tell her story of hosting Sophie Sergie that weekend in 1993, when she last saw her friend walking down the hall to have a cigarette.

There is no public seating or media allowed in the courtroom to protect the parties from COVID-19. Judge Thomas Temple has applied strict rules to media recording, giving permission on a case-by-case basis. The court granted prior permission for KUAC to record.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.