Crime & Courts

Maine man sentenced to 75 years in Alaska cold-case murder and rape of woman at UAF

Steven Downs

A Maine man convicted this year in the murder of an Alaska Native woman in Fairbanks nearly 30 years ago was sentenced to a total of 75 years in prison.

That was the sentence handed down Monday night by Judge Thomas Temple to 48-year-old Steven H. Downs in Fairbanks Superior Court. He was sentenced to 67 years for murder and an additional eight years for sexual assault.

Downs was convicted by a jury in February of the murder and sexual assault of Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point.

Prosecutors had sought the maximum sentence of 99 years for murder, plus eight years for sexually assaulting Sergie in 1993.

Downs will be eligible for discretionary parole after 25 years. He declined to give a statement at his sentencing.

Sophie Sergie
Elena Sergie, Olga Tinker-John, Sophie Sergie, Steven Downs, cold case, crime lab, murder

Chief Assistant Attorney General for Alaska Jenna Gruenstein argued Monday that 20 years of the recommended 99 years for murder should be suspended, meaning he would serve 79 years for the murder conviction. She asked the judge to require Downs to serve the eight-year mandatory sentence for sexual assault after he completed the murder sentence.

She said Downs showed no remorse for his brutal crimes. When interviewed by police, he denied ever having known her and joked about wishing he’d been able to collect a reward offered in the case.

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Downs showed a “deep level of deception,” Gruenstein said.

Defense attorney James Howaniec of Lewiston told the judge that any sentence over 20 years would be, in effect, a life sentence, considering Downs’ physical and medical condition. Downs is overweight, exceeding 400 pounds, and suffers from “very” high blood pressure, Howaniec said.

In a sentencing memorandum, Howaniec had sought a 50-year sentence for his client, with 30 years of that suspended, effectively bringing his sentence down to 20 years. The mandatory eight-year sexual assault sentence should be served at the same time, Howaniec had argued.

Both lawyers described the crimes as heinous and that they deeply affected the Fairbanks community.

[Alaska again has the nation’s highest rate of women killed by men]

Howaniec said Downs has no criminal history other than his recent convictions. He was a high academic performer in college and nursing school and earned a good living.

Downs was only 18 when the crime occurred, Howaniec noted. He was living 4,000 miles from home in an alien environment where the winter nights were long and cold.

He was “very immature, drinking and partying a lot,” including smoking a lot of marijuana, Howaniec said. He was “very popular” and had a “beautiful girlfriend.”

Near the end of his first year, Downs, like the other students, was under pressure with final exams.

There is a “possibility that something really psychotic happened” to Downs the night of the crime, but there was no evidence of premeditation, Howaniec said.

Downs has maintained his innocence since his arrest, and Howaniec said he plans to appeal the convictions.

Prosecutor Gruenstein told Judge Temple that Downs should be labeled as a “worst offender,” a status needed to demand the maximum sentence.

Murder in Alaska at the time of the 1993 offense was punishable by 20 to 99 years in prison.

Judge Temple called Downs “brazen” and “callous” in his conduct in preying on a random stranger to commit sexual assault, then kill her to conceal his crime.

He said the victim likely experienced “terror” at the hands of Downs.

Although the murder Downs committed didn’t rise to “worst offender” status, warranting the maximum sentence, Temple said his crime was among the “more serious types of murder out there.”

Temple said he considered the impact to the victim in deciding Downs’ sentence.

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There is no greater impact that Downs could have had on Sergie than murdering her, the judge said, “an impact that’s at the very top of the scale. Tremendous impact. Mr. Downs’ life goal, according to (legal) counsel, is to hope to one day hug his parents again. Since April 1993, Miss Sergie hasn’t been able to hug anyone. No one’s been able to hug Miss Sergie. No one will ever hug her again. There’s a tremendous impact. There’s really no higher impact than raping and murdering someone.”

Downs had been a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993, living in the dorm where Sergie was found. His room was one floor above the crime scene, the bathtub area of a women’s bathroom.

The case had gone cold until 2018, when it was revived after Downs’ aunt had submitted her DNA to a company that matched it in a random hit to semen found inside Sergie at the crime scene.

Over three full weeks of testimony, more than 40 witnesses appeared in Fairbanks Superior Court in person or by videoconference on a TV monitor in the courtroom during the trial, which got underway in mid-January.

Live witnesses sat at a table surrounded by plexiglass, some of them masked due to COVID-19 concerns. Everyone else in the courtroom was masked. The trial was twice delayed by exposures of attorneys and jurors to the virus.

It took a jury of three men and nine women 20 hours over four days of deliberations to reach verdicts on both charges.

The jury heard testimony from then-students at the university who recalled what they saw and heard at the time investigators believe Sergie was killed, including an eyewitness account of a man leaving the bathroom at the time Sergie was killed.

Police said Sergie was last seen alive when she left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette late on the night of April 25, 1993, on the second floor of Bartlett Hall.

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Custodial staff found her body in the bathtub on the second floor the next afternoon. She’s believed to have been killed at roughly 1:30 a.m. April 26.

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

In 2000, a DNA profile had been built from evidence of foreign bodily fluids found inside Sergie. That profile had been loaded into the national DNA database of offenders with no matches.

Police had submitted the crime scene DNA from Sergie’s killing in September 2018 for a new technique of so-called “genetic genealogy” analysis that had recently helped solve a double-murder cold case in Washington state.

In December of that year, Downs’ name came back from the analysis through a random hit after his aunt had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

He was arrested at his home in Auburn in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks, where he has been held at the local jail. His bail had been revoked until sentencing.

Police secured search warrants for Downs’ DNA, fingerprints and home.

A forensics expert at the crime lab in Alaska testified Downs’ DNA profile was a 1-in-330 billion match for the semen found in Sergie’s vagina.

Downs told police he had never known nor even met Sergie. The DNA match was a “mistake” and would be explained by a lab or investigative error, he told investigators.

He said he hadn’t owned a gun at the time of Sergie’s murder, but his then-roommate, Nicholas Dazer, named by defense as an alternative suspect, told police years later that Downs had owned a .22-caliber revolver at the time.

Downs told police he’d been with his then-girlfriend (now Katherine Lee) the night Sergie was killed. Lee testified at trial that Downs had been “in and out” of her room, which was on the fourth floor of Bartlett Hall.

She also testified years later that she and Downs had gone target shooting around the time of the murder, describing the gun used as a .22-caliber revolver. But Lee said she didn’t believe he had owned any weapons and thought he had borrowed the gun.

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She and Dazer testified that they hadn’t noticed any change in Downs’ demeanor around the time of Sergie’s murder.

Police found a .22-caliber revolver in Downs’ home shortly before his arrest, but he told police he’d bought that gun from a Turner, Maine, dealer in 2015, an account confirmed at the trial by that dealer.

A then-student who dated Downs early in his freshman year testified at the trial that Downs had a “fixed-blade” hunting knife in his room, but she said she didn’t think much about it because she came from a part of Alaska where most people had similar knives.

The defense named three men as alternative suspects during the trial in an effort to raise reasonable doubt about Downs’ guilt, including Downs’ former roommate.

No DNA matching anyone other than Downs and Sergie was found at the crime scene, prosecutors showed at trial.

The defense said only semen found in Sergie was matched to Downs and that none of the other physical evidence collected at the crime scene and at Sergie’s autopsy was linked to him.

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His defense team was headed by Howaniec and included two other Maine lawyers, as well as a Fairbanks attorney.

Correction: A previous version of the headline for this story said that Sophie Sergie was a student at UAF at the time she was killed. She was not a student but was visiting a friend who attended the university.

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