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Stories related to the investigation and trial

Suspect's college girlfriend testifies in Sophie Sergie murder trial

Katherine Deschwienetz Lee Screenshot 2022-01-25 105746.jpg
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Alaska Court System
Katherine deSchweinitz Lee appears in videoconference testimony in Fairbanks Superior Court on Tuesday. Prior permission to screenshot from video stream was granted to KUAC for use in this story.

Katherine deSchweinitz, now Katherine deSchweinitz Lee, dated and lived with Steven Downs over her time at UAF in the 1990s

The lead investigator in the murder of Sophie Sergie and the college girlfriend of the defendant each took the witness stand in a cold-case murder trial in Fairbanks Tuesday. Steven Downs is accused of killing Sergie in a dormitory bathroom in 1993.

Almost 29 years after the crime, prosecutors and defense attorneys are relying heavily on law enforcement reports and notes. Jim McCann led the Alaska State Trooper team that investigated the scene on the second floor of Bartlett Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. He testified in court Tuesday that he followed up every lead from the case, and questioned hundreds of students, but eventually ruled them out as suspects.

Jim McCann in court
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Alaska Superior Court
Former Alaska State Trooper, James McCann, far right, reviews his notes from the 1993 Sophie Sergie murder case. Permission to obtain this screenshot was granted by the Fairbanks Superior Court.

Defense attorney James Howaniec asked McCann about young soldiers or airmen who were frequent visitors to the women’s floors of the dorms.

“There was also some concerns about GIs from Fort Wainwright and possibly the Air Force Base?"

" There always is.”

In a pretrial motion, the defense sought to link men other than Downs to the murder as alternative suspects.

Defense attorney James Howaniec asked McCann why he didn’t persue another student as a suspect, Kenneth Moto, who was seen near stairs or an elevator. McCann interviewed him the day after the murder.

McCann testified that he sometimes tricked people into revealing information by making things up, and asking them about false facts.

“If this transcript of that interview the next day with Kenny Moto, telling him that somebody told you that he was seen coming out of the bathroom, with a gray shirt, would it be possible that somebody did tell you that?"

"Well, it's something I would also use as a way to see what his affect would be - how he's going to react to that.”

The courtroom is closed to the public to prevent COVID-19 sickness. But the court is video streaming the trial on the Alaska Court System website. Prior permission to record the proceeding for this story was granted.

Also on Tuesday, the defendants’ college girlfriend told of her relationship with Steve Downs.

Katherine deSchweinitz Lee (duh-SCHWINE-etz) testified from Palmer by videoconference. She said their romance ramped up during the spring semester of 1993, and Steve Downs spent some nights in her room.

She confirmed that Downs and other friends were in her 4th floor room on Sunday evening, April 25 watching movies on a VCR, and drinking.

“What I recall about that night is that there was a TV in my room and people were watching movies, and people were coming and going, until late.”

She recalled that both Steven Downs, and his roommate, Nick Dazer, were in and out of that party that evening.

Years later she was interviewed by Alaska Trooper investigators who asked her about Downs owning a gun. According to that 2009 interview, she recalled walking to the woods near campus one spring day in 1993 to go target shooting with Downs.

Well, again, in my fuzzy 30-year-old memories; he had this little .22 pistol and he wanted to go out in the woods and target shoot. So I went with him. It looked old. It was a hand gun, I believe a revolver, and it was kinda old and beat up.

Lee could not recall if the gun they used that day was owned or borrowed. She continued her relationship with Downs for three years, and testified that in that time, there was nothing about him she would connect to a crime.

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.