Crime & Courts

Maine man’s murder trial in 1993 Fairbanks cold case starts Monday

Steven Downs

The trial of a Maine man charged in the sexual assault and murder of an Alaska woman 28 years ago is expected to get underway Monday in Fairbanks.

Steven H. Downs, 47, of Auburn, Maine, is charged in the April 25, 1993, slaying of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie, who was from the Yukon River village of Pitkas Point.

Downs had been a student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks at the time and lived in the dorm where Sergie’s body was found. Investigators said she had been visiting a friend at that dorm when her body was discovered.

Investigators said Sergie was 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 death was the bullet fired into her head.

Police said Sergie had been last seen alive when she left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette. Custodial staff found her body in a women’s bathroom on the second floor the next afternoon.

Downs lived on the third floor.

Sophie Sergie

Downs was arrested in Auburn in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks, where he is being held at the local jail pending trial.

Jury selection began Thursday and opening statements are expected Monday.

Downs’ arrest occurred after his DNA was matched in 2018 to evidence found at the crime scene through a random hit after Downs’ aunt submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

[How genealogists helped track down the Maine man accused of killing Sophie Sergie nearly 26 years ago]

Through a pretrial motion, defense attorneys for Downs had sought to present evidence at trial linking men other than Downs to the murder as alternative suspects.

Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple wrote in a December decision that Downs would be allowed to introduce at trial evidence against three alternative suspects in an effort to raise reasonable doubt about Downs’ guilt.

But Temple excluded 13 other men as possible alternative suspects, concluding Downs’ attorneys hadn’t established a direct link between them and the crime.

His defense team includes two Lewiston, Maine, attorneys and an Alaska lawyer.

Downs, a 1992 Edward Little High School graduate, became a licensed registered nurse in 2011.

Downs’ cross-country extradition hampered by the pandemic and court cybersecurity has prolonged efforts to bring the case to trial, which is expected to last roughly six weeks.