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Jury finds Sergie murderer guilty in Fairbanks cold case

Downs at evidentiary.jpg
Steven Downs leaves an evidentiary hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court 2021.

A Fairbanks jury convicted Steven H. Downs, 47 guilty of raping and killing Sophie Sergie in a dormitory bathroom in 1993.

This story will be updated.

Defendant Steven Downs has been convicted in the rape and murder of 20-year old Sophie Sergie whose body was found in a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory bathroom.

Tanana Chiefs Conference is partnering with the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center and the Fairbanks Native Association to host a community vigil in memory of Sergie at noon on Friday in front of the Rabinowitz Courthouse.

The jury deliberated 20 hours over four days. To protect the identity of the nine women and three men, Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple read the verdicts out loud.

“Murder in the first degree of SS. We, the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree of SS dated at Fairbanks Alaska, the 10th day of February, 2022. Sexual assault in the first degree of SS. We, the jury find the defendant guilty of sexual assault in the first degree of SS dated at Fairbanks Alaska this ninth day of February, 2022, signed by the jury foreperson.”

Temple then polled the jurors individually to make sure the verdicts were indeed unanimous.

Downs verdict read by Thomas Temple
Alaska Court System
Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple, on bench at right, reads the jury's verdicts in the rape and murder case of State of Alaska vs. Steven Downs, just after 10:30 Thursday morning. The jury had been deliberating since Monday afternoon. Image obtained with prior permission of the court for use in this story.

Steven Downs was an 18-year-old first-year student at U-A-F in 1993, and had no obvious connection to the victim, Sophie Sergie.

The 20-year-old Sergie had been a marine biology student at the university, but had taken the semester off to work and save money, the court heard at trial She returned to Fairbanks the weekend of April 25 for an orthodontist appointment on that Monday. She stayed in the dorm with a friend who knew her from their time together in Native youth leadership organizations. She was last seen after midnight Sunday on her way to have a cigarette.

She was found Monday afternoon in the bathtub off the shower stalls in a restroom down the hall. She had been raped and shot in the head.

Downs lived one floor above. He was never suspected of the crime until 25 years later, when DNA collected from the crime scene was partially matched to a profile in a commercial genealogy database in 2018. That profile was Downs’ aunt. Alaska State Troopers traced the genealogy to Downs, who was a UAF student that spring in 1993.

Defense attorney James Howaniec responded by text to the Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal after today's court session saying he’s obviously disappointed by the guilty verdict. He didn’t indicate whether Downs would appeal.

“We are obviously disappointed at the verdict. 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,“he said.

Fairbanks Superior Court closed the courtroom to the public but broadcast the trial on its website. We have prior permission to use recordings from the trial for this story.

Sophie Sergie photo by Joann Sundown.jpg
Joann Sundown
Used by permission
Obtained by prior permission of the Alaska Court System, this photo of Sophie Sergie was taken by her friend, Joann Sundown on April 24, 1993.

The victim’s two brothers listened in to the verdict remotely from St. Mary's, in the Yukon River delta. Older brother Alexie Sergie said in an interview that he feels relieved.

“With the DNA, I'm pretty sure it's the right guy. Nowadays. nowadays DNA won't lie to you,” he said.

Alexie Sergie said he forgave the perpetrator decades ago in an effort towards closure.

“My religion, you know, I'm Russian Orthodox. You’re supposed to pray for all your enemies – forgive them for everything. I forgave him for what he did. But I will never forget.”

The judge scheduled sentencing for Monday, September 26 and 27.

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.