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Crime & Courts

Troopers admit errors in affidavits for search warrants of Maine man charged in Fairbanks cold case

  • Author: Christopher Williams, (Lewiston, Maine) Sun Journal
  • Updated: February 4
  • Published February 4

Steven Downs, right leaves the courtroom with his attorney, James Howaniec after bail was denied at Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn, Maine on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 after his extradition hearing. Downs has been charged by Alaska authorities with the 1993 sexual assault and murder of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP)

Investigators relied on misinformation for warrants to search a Maine man’s home for a gun and collect his DNA to bolster their case against him in the 1993 rape and murder of an Alaska woman, according to testimony given this week.

On Tuesday, in the second day of hearings in the 1993 cold case, Alaska State Trooper and lead detective Randel McPherron said some of the information contained in sworn affidavits used to secure search warrants was erroneous.

Steven H. Downs, 46, of Auburn, Maine, is charged with sexual assault and murder in connection with the April 25, 1993, slaying of Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska.

She had last been seen late that evening when she’d left a friend’s dorm room at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to smoke a cigarette, police said. Custodial staff found her body in a woman’s bathroom the next afternoon.

Investigators said Sergie had been shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in the cheek and eye, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.

The medical examiner concluded the cause of Sergie’s death was the bullet fired into her head.

Several affidavits used by Alaska State Troopers seeking search warrants stated that a student who lived on the same floor as Downs during his freshman year at the university told police that Downs and his roommate had owned guns.

In fact, the student actually said he remembered Downs’ roommate had guns, not Downs, McPherron testified on Tuesday.

“It was an error on my part,” McPherron said. “I just remembered it incorrectly. I thought he’d mentioned both men had guns in their room.”

He said he included that misinformation in his police report and that it was unintentional.

In 2009, Downs’ girlfriend, Katherine deSchweintz Lee, was interviewed by investigators about Sergie’s homicide.

McPherron wrote in his search warrant affidavits that Lee had told a police investigator that she didn’t know whether Downs had a gun when he was at school and they were dating.

But, reading in court from a transcript from that interview with police in 2009, McPherron said Tuesday that Lee had actually said: “Steve was into weapons, but he didn’t have a gun.”

McPherron said he hadn’t read every transcript of every interview before preparing his affidavits and instead relied on an investigator’s summary of interviews with witnesses.

Police recovered a .22-caliber revolver from Downs’ home on Feb. 14, 2019, the same night he was questioned by police and his cheeks swabbed for DNA. He told police he had bought the gun within the past two or three years from a man in Turner.

Defense attorney James Howaniec drove home the point Tuesday that the search warrants for Downs’ home and DNA were based on faulty affidavits in hopes that the judge will throw out that evidence if the case were to go to trial.

Howaniec also is hoping Superior Court Judge Thomas I. Temple will suppress statements made by Downs in a Feb. 14, 2019, interview with McPherron and an Alaska State Troopers sergeant shortly after saliva samples were collected from Downs at the Auburn Police Department.

During an interview played in court Monday, Downs can be heard asking whether he can have a lawyer present for the DNA collection, then says he should probably have someone speaking on his behalf and that he wants to get a professional to speak for him.

“Why didn’t you just stop at that point?” Howaniec asked during cross-examination.

“He did not say I want a lawyer. I want to stop,” McPherron testified Tuesday. “He just kept engaging with us.”

Howaniec also questioned McPherron about the dozens of alternative suspects police had developed in the case over the decades, including one man whose sister told police nearly 20 years after the crime that her brother had confessed. That suspect, who a witness had said she’d seen someone who looked like him leaving that floor of the university dorm that night, had a history of violence toward women and had been recently serving time in prison for a homicide.

At one point, police developed a theory that Sergie’s killer may have been in law enforcement.

Police zeroed in on Downs in 2018 through an aunt who had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website. A genetic marker carried on Downs’ mother’s side of the family linked him to semen found at the crime scene in Sergie’s vagina.

No other physical evidence from the crime scene has been linked to Downs, including fingerprints that were collected at the same time as his DNA, his attorney said.

Howaniec cited information from the affidavits that said the DNA evidence could only be used to prove that Downs had sex with Sergie, but couldn’t be used to prove he raped her or killed her.

McPherron said he had borrowed that language from another investigator in the case.

Hearings on motions filed by Downs’ defense attorneys are expected to be heard through the week. The hearings had been scheduled to start in April 2020, but were postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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