DNA evidence has connected a Maine man to the 1993 sexual assault and killing of a young Alaska student murdered while staying with a friend in a college residence hall, officials said.
Steven Harris Downs, 44, was arrested Friday after police said new DNA technology linked him to the gruesome murder of Sophie Sergie, a Native Alaskan woman from Pitkas Point who was just 20 years old when her body was found in a bathtub at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) on April 26, 1993.
She had flown to Fairbanks two days earlier with plans to stay with friends at Bartlett Hall over the weekend and get much-needed dental work that Monday before flying back home. Sergie, who had previously attended UAF but left school in 1992 to earn money for the orthodontic work, spent that Sunday with friends, going to the movies and on a drive before returning to the dorm.
Sergie returned to Bartlett Hall sometime after midnight, where she had pizza with the friend whose dorm she was staying in and her friend’s boyfriend before saying she wanted to have a cigarette. Her friend noted it was too cold to go outside and told her to go the tub room of the women’s bathroom. It was the last time she was seen alive.
Sergie’s friend went with her boyfriend to his room to spend the night about 1:30 a.m., leaving a note on her door letting Sergie know where she went. When the friend returned to her room the next morning, she saw the note was still on the door and the room appeared undisturbed. The friend searched for Sergie but was unable to find her. She later called the orthodontist and learned Sergie never made it to her appointment.
Janitors cleaning the bathroom on the east side of the second floor of Bartlett Hall discovered Sergie’s body in a bloody bathtub at 2:42 p.m., police said.
She had been sexually assaulted, brutally murdered and left in a bathtub with her pants and underwear pulled down, and her sweater and part of her bra pushed up. She died from a gunshot to the back of the head, but was still alive when she was stabbed twice in the corner of her right eye, a medical examiner determined. The piercing to her right cheek likely came after she died, officials said. Her cigarette lighter was found under her body, which her attacker had put in the tub before running the water, cops said.
A resident of Bartlett Hall said she was in a shower stall that shared a wall with the tub room when she heard thumping and muffled voices coming from the tub room about 1:30 a.m.
“Whoever did this is very, very angry at women,” Alaska trooper Sgt. Jim McCann told the Daily News-Miner at the time of the killing, saying he believed Sergie may have been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Though DNA technology was not yet being used in Alaska in 1993, investigators were able to obtain DNA not belonging to Sergie from the crime scene. They also recovered a bullet from the scene that was consistent with that fired from a .22 caliber handgun.
Police also spoke with students at the University, including Steven Downs, who lived on the third floor of Bartlett Hall. He said during a brief interview he never met Sergie, but his name came up in the investigation in 2010 when his former roommate told police Downs owned a .22 caliber revolver he kept in their room at the time of Sergie’s murder.
Though a firearms expert confirmed the bullet used to kill Sergie could have been fired from the type of firearm Downs owned, they also noted a large number of other .22 caliber firearms use that kind of bullet, and the case again went cold.
A breakthrough came in 2018, when the Alaska state trooper’s cold case unit tapped Parabon NanoLab, the DNA technology company whose breakthroughs in genetic analysis have helped law enforcement agencies make arrests and identify suspects in decades-old unsolved murders.
The same technique was used to identify and arrest California man Joseph James DeAngelo, who is suspected to be California’s Golden State Killer. DeAngelo was charged with murder in April 2018 and has not entered a plea yet.
The NanoLab determined the DNA found at the UAF crime scene belongs to a man whose aunt submitted her DNA to a public genealogy database.
“On Dec. 18, 2018, the lab determined the known relative to the DNA profile had one possible second-degree relationship with a male relative, her nephew, Steven Downs,” police said in a charging document.
During an interview with Maine State Police Wednesday, Downs allegedly said he remembered hearing about a woman being murdered at his dorm at UAF but said he had never met her.
After being shown Sergie’s photo, Downs said he recognized her from the posters hung on campus around the time of her murder. “I remember the pictures, it’s terrible, poor girl.”
Police said Downs told them he didn’t think he had ever been on the second floor of the building, having spent the majority of his time with his girlfriend, who lived on the fourth floor of Bartlett Hall. Downs, who was 18 at the time of Sergie’s death, allegedly said he believed he was with his girlfriend in her room for most of the evening that Sergie was killed and assured detectives that if he knew anything about the case, he “would have been forthright from the jump.”
“I never knew or saw anything to begin with,” police said Downs told them.
Investigators obtained a search warrant to collect Downs’ DNA on Thursday and they said that within 24 hours, it came back a match to the DNA sample collected from Sergie.
Downs was charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. He was arrested by Maine State Police outside an Auburn business Friday and will be extradited to Alaska. A grand jury will be held upon his return to Alaska, officials said.
Downs enrolled in UAF in 1992 and, after graduating in 1996, lived for a period of time in Arizona before returning to his home state of Maine. He was most recently employed as a nurse and lived in Auburn, police said.
He has no previous arrests.
“As a director of this agency and a member of the investigative team that originally worked this case, I am both honored and humbled to help bring some closure to Sophie’s family,” Alaska State Troopers Col. Barry Wilson told reporters Friday.
Sophie Sergie’s brother, Stephen Sergie, and her cousin, Olga Tinker-John, stood by the side of Sophie Sergie’s mother, Elena Sergie, who remained seated and wiped tears from behind her glasses as Wilson spoke.
“Justice for Sophie is finally within reach,” Wilson said.