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Defense gives alternate suspect theories in Sophie Sergie murder trial

Reuben Leake.jpg
Screenshot
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Alaska Court System
Witness Reuben Leake, far right, testifies Thursday about his former college roommate, Gregory Thornton. Image was screenshot with prior permission of Fairbanks Superior Court for use in this story.

Defense attorneys for defendant Steven Downs raised many theories about alternative suspects who may have killed Sophie Sergie in a college dormitory bathroom in 1993.

The defense attorneys for defendant Steven Downs raised many theories about alternative suspects who may have killed Sophie Sergie in a college dormitory bathroom in 1993. Downs is charged with 1st degree murder and 1st degree sexual assault. Closing arguments will be heard today (Friday) and jury deliberations may begin this afternoon.

Defense attorney James Howaniec says other men might have committed this crime, according to leads followed by investigators in the years after the murder. One was Kenneth Moto.

Moto testified Thursday he remembers being interviewed by James McCann, the Alaska State Trooper sergeant who led the investigation, when McCann flew to Kotzebue in 1996. Moto appeared in court on a muffled videoconference, saying he volunteered then to give a DNA sample because he wanted to help any way he could solve a crime against a Native person.

“I volunteered because I wanted to help, any way I can, you know. ‘Cause, if she’s Native, we can’t have that happen to Native people,” he said.

Howaniec says Moto matched a description given to investigators by a student who lived in Bartlett Hall in the spring of 1993. Melanie Manook, (now Sagoonick) described a man she saw coming out of the tub room in the women’s bathroom as 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with black hair and wearing a gray T-shirt.

McCann interviewed Moto two days later, and jotted in his notebook “the guy coming out of the bathroom.” But McCann testified on last week January 25th that note was just a hunch to help inform the interview.

Moto’s sister, Karen, had told Troopers in a 2009 interview that her brother said he confessed to the murder at UAF. But Karen Moto died in 2018. Defense attorney James Howaniec asked Moto about the conversation with his sister.

“And do you remember telling Karen at any point that you had killed Sophie Sergie?” he asked.

“Nope, never,” Moto replied.

“You never said that to her?” Howaniec asked.

“I remember we were watching something on cold cases in Alaska, it was some kind of show on TV. I told her I was a suspect in Sophie’s… I was a suspect in that one at UAF,” Moto said.

“If I just heard you correctly, you told your sister Karen, that you were a suspect in the Sophie Sergie murder?” Howaniec asked.

“Yep.”

“Okay,” Howaniec said.”But you never told her that you had killed Sophie Sergie?”

“Never did,” Moto replied.

“Okay. All right. Nothing further.”

Howaniec also raised the theory of another alternative suspect, Gregory Thornton. He was roommates on the 5th floor of Bartlett Hall in that school year with Reuben Leake. Leake testified Thursday he was familiar with guns and knew Thornton had a .22 caliber pistol.

“I could never say for certain that it was an H and R pistol. It had the shape and the look of an H&R, but I never read the writing on the side of the barrel to say exactly what it is. But it's a fairly distinct shape, weight, you know, dimensions,” he said.

The medical examiner concluded the cause of Sergie’s death was a bullet from a .22 caliber weapon.

Leake said Thornton was a white man with an olive complexion.

Thornton was one of two people a witness, Melanie Sagoonik, narrowed from a photo lineup a Trooper brought to her in Unalakleet in 2004.

She testified on January 19 she saw a white man with a darker complexion coming out of the woman’s bathroom, in the early hours of April 26, 1993, the day when Sergie was found dead hours later.

Prosecutors rested their case. Defense arguments will continue Friday and closing arguments are expected on Monday.

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.

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.