On a cool spring night exactly 16 years ago, UAF's Bartlett Hall was alive with life, with classes almost out for summer and students watching movies, sipping beers, smoking cigarettes and packing bags for home.
In the midst of it all, a 20-year-old student named Sophie Sergie stepped outside and posed for a picture snapped by a friend. The image showed her arms outstretched in the dark, eyes lit in a smile.
In just a few hours she was dead, brutally raped and murdered in the crowded campus dorm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her body was left in a bathtub in a common area bathroom.
Her killer was never caught. But the case has not been forgotten.
"It's been one of the larger mysteries," Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. "This is a true whodunit."
Through the years, investigators have kicked the case around, most recently hitting the files hard and re-interviewing witnesses beginning in 2007. Now, they say they've uncovered some evidence indicating that Sophie Sergie might not have been killed in the bathroom where she was found, that it's possible her killer moved her body.
Armed with that information, a DNA sample from the killer and sophisticated testing methods not available in 1993, investigators from the cold case unit are renewing their pleas for people who were there the night she died to come forward.
The reinvigorated effort is welcome, said Elena Sergie, Sophie's mother, who along with family friend Leslie Hunter planned to travel to Fairbanks this weekend to attend an annual memorial service for Sophie and other victims of unsolved murders.
"She needs closure. She needs closure," Hunter said in a sometimes tearful interview in their Anchorage condo. "I live with her, and she's hard to live with sometimes."
"Because of it," Sergie cut in.
"There's anger in her yet," Hunter said.
Sophie Sergie was 20 years old when she was murdered early on April 26, 1993. A scholarship student since 1990, she was not attending classes that spring, having chosen to take a year off, her mother said. She had arrived in Fairbanks just two days earlier from her hometown of Pitkas Point.
Sergie remembered last talking to her daughter at about 4 o'clock the afternoon before her death. Before she had left Pitkas Point, Sophie had bought her then 3-year-old brother an old, unwanted kite from a local store -- promising to get him a better one if he behaved while she was gone -- and Sergie told her during that last conversation that a friend had taken it out to fly.
"We were laughing about it," Sergie said. "That was the last time I talked to her, late Sunday afternoon. We were talking about that kite."
Sophie, who was working as a teacher's assistant at the Pitkas Point school, had flown into Fairbanks for a dental appointment and was supposed to fly home afterward. In Fairbanks, she was staying in the Bartlett Hall dorm room of one of her best friends from back home, Shirley Wasuli.
The night of Sophie's death, the pair had watched a movie, and a little after midnight Sophie left to smoke a cigarette in the shower room, Wasuli said in an interview last week. Wasuli left to spend the night with a boyfriend and Sophie had the room to herself.
The next day, Wasuli came back and found her dorm room unlocked and Sophie gone. Wasuli said she thought Sophie was taking a long shower, and she left.
"I was little bit agitated that she had left my door unlocked, and in hindsight I look back on it and, when I walked in, my bed was still (made)," Wasuli said. "She hadn't slept on it, and odd things like that, that I didn't right away notice when I walked in."
Sophie's dental appointment was on Monday. A janitor found her body in the bathroom at about 2 p.m. that day.
According to troopers, she was last seen alive wearing a bright, striped sweater while smoking a cigarette with a group of people in front of Hess Commons, which joins Moore, Bartlett and Skarland dormitories. That was about midnight Sunday.
Sometime between 1 and 5 a.m., investigators believe, Sophie was raped and shot, then left for dead in the bathtub in a second-floor common bathroom at Bartlett Hall.
"Sophie was truly a victim," cold case investigator Jim Stogsdill said. "As far as we know, (she) wasn't doing anything dangerous, wasn't out at bars, or doing anything that might precipitate some sort of violence."
For a long time, the bathroom was viewed as the sole crime scene. But a recent external review of the case by an independent forensic examiner concluded that might not be the case.
Investigators wouldn't say what specific evidence pointed to that possibility, and they acknowledged they were far from certain it was the case. But they are hoping it might help jog the dusty memories of those who were there so long ago.
"We think if she was brought to the bathroom after her death, then she was killed someplace else in Bartlett Hall, which naturally would mean a dormitory room," Stogsdill said. "If that's the case, and she was killed in one of the upper floors, then there's people up there who may have heard or saw something that they didn't put any significance to, believing that the crime occurred on the second floor when in fact it could have occurred right down the hall from them."
It may seem hard to believe that a woman could be raped and shot to death mere feet from dorm rooms crowded with students without drawing anyone's attention. Investigators have pondered that question for 16 years and still aren't satisfied no one heard or saw anything, cold case investigator Lindy Minnick said.
"There's quite a bit of movement late at night" in a dorm, she said.
Some of the people Sophie was outside smoking with -- the last known group to have seen her alive -- have been interviewed. But not all.
From the beginning, tracking down witnesses proved painstaking. It was right around finals week, and once finished, students who hadn't yet spoken to investigators scattered, some never to return, Stogsdill said.
Now, all these years later, things haven't gotten any easier. Investigators are now trying to track down people who have long since left Fairbanks and even the state.
"We do have rosters from the university of the students that were in some of the dormitories at the time," Minnick said. "However, we are learning from a lot of the students that lived there that there was a lot of switching around of rooms and some people were not always in the rooms that they were listed as being in."
The full dorm was never locked down and searched for signs of a struggle somewhere other than the bathroom immediately following the killing, she said. And investigators never did recover the murder weapon.
But they did collect DNA evidence from the crime scene and have been taking advantage of more sophisticated tests that weren't available in 1993, she said.
Minnick said investigators think the killer was probably someone who lived in one of the dorms, was familiar with the campus and was able to blend in.
Investigators, however, won't say whether they have ever eyed a specific suspect or whether they might have someone in their sights now.
Sergie said she hopes their efforts pay off. For 16 long years, her family has waited, and hoped, and wondered what happened that night.
"Especially, we don't know who did it and why," Sergie said. "How come her?"
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.
Who to contact with information
Anyone who was in the area of Hess Commons or the Moore, Bartlett and Skarland halls on April 26, 1993, is asked to contact authorities. • Jim Stogsdill and Lindy Minnick can be reached in Soldotna at 260-2716 or 260-2710 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. • Investigators Tim Hunyor or James Gallen can be reached in Anchorage at 269-5611. • Investigator Steve Goetz can be reached in Fairbanks at 474-7721.
By JAMES HALPIN
Alaska Dispatch Publishing