She was a first generation college student from a small village in rural Alaska who set her eyes on building a better future for herself and her family. Hardworking, bright, with a big heart – She did everything right. But in the spring of 1993, someone chose to put out the light that was 20-year old Sophie Sergie.
This case played out on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks over 4000 miles from New England and nearly three decades in the past, but the long arm of justice knows no limits of distance or time. DNA evidence reached across the farthest corners of the United States to implicate the alleged killer of Sophie Sergie. He was working as a nurse in Auburn, Maine.
The 2019 arrest of Steven Downs seemed like the first sign of real closure for Sophie’s family, but as the trial proceedings play out in Alaska Superior Court right now in January of 2022, what seemed like a clear answer on the surface gets more difficult to pin down each day.
This is the ongoing case of Sophie Sergie, Part I on Dark Downeast. Press play for the full story.
Who is Sophie Sergie?
One of my favorite things I’ve heard about Sophie Sergie is this, quote, “She was only 4’9”, but she really made up for it in spirit and light.” End quote.
Sophie Sergie was born in 1973 in the Native Village of Pitkas Point, Alaska, a territory of Yup’ik peoples. The rural community situated on the lower Yukon River had about 70 people living there when Sophie was born, and the population is just 120 today.
Even from an early age, Sophie had a caring, motherly instinct that made her a rock for her family. Sophie helped run the household with her mother, Elena, and cared for her little brother Stephen. She had a quirky sense of humor with no problem laughing at her own jokes, but most of all, Sophie was known for her big heart.
She was smart, hardworking, and ambitious. Sophie’s friend Shirley Wasuli, now Shirley Akelkok, later shared in trial testimony that Sophie’s first dream was to join the United States Navy, but at 4 feet 9 inches tall, she was too short for the particular role she wanted. Sophie instead focused on her other dream to be the first in her family to attend college and study marine biology. She loved whales and wanted to work with them.
In the early 90s, the first part of that dream came true. Sophie received a full scholarship to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was everything she’d worked for, but it wouldn’t be an easy journey.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks, a five and a half hour flight away from her home in rural Pitkas Point, presented an entirely new life for Sophie. Fairbanks was a much more urban setting and just the university itself had a population over 100 times greater than her home village. Sophie found comfort and community among Rural Student Services, an organization on campus that supported students attending UAF from rural communities like Pitkas Point.
Shirley Wasuli also went on to attend UAF alongside Sophie and she worked at Rural Student Services while a student. Shirley said that they felt a certain pressure at school. “We were so afraid of failing,” Shirley said. “We had to make sure we got through school because otherwise our future was home. Not that home was a bad place, but we had hopes and dreams, we wanted to do things.”
Sophie settled into school life and that personal pressure to succeed kept her out of trouble. She wasn’t a partier. “Quite the opposite”, Shirley said. Sophie may’ve dabbled in parties once or twice a year, but she truly felt the weight on her shoulders of why she was at school and how important it was for her family.
In 1992 though, Sophie had to take a leave of absence from school. She needed jaw surgery and orthodontic work to correct a severe overbite and so she returned to work at the school in Pitkas Point – she needed the insurance that the employer provided. Those procedures and follow-up care, however, all happened back in Fairbanks, so every few months Sophie would board a flight from the nearest airport to her village and venture to the city for her appointments.
To save money on these trips, Sophie would stay with Shirley at the UAF dormitories. Shirley had a single on the 2nd floor in Bartlett Hall, a girl’s only floor. Shirley would hand over the keys to Sophie and go stay with her boyfriend in the next building over. That was their routine, and it would be the same the weekend of April 24, 1993 when Sophie was again in Fairbanks for a scheduled appointment.
That Saturday was unremarkable. Shirley met Sophie at the Rural Student Services office. They had lunch at the student commons and then went to Shirley’s dorm room to hang out. Sophie may have run some errands in Fairbanks that day – it was typical for anyone from the villages to shop for essentials while they were in the city Shirley explained – but it was otherwise an uneventful day.
On Sunday, April 25, Shirley had to get some studying done. Finals were approaching and she was stressed about the amount of work to finish before the school year came to a close. Shirley said in her trial testimony that Sophie had her own plans that day to hang out with friends and go to a movie.
Later that night after the movie and studying, they met back up in the dorms. Shirley and her boyfriend, Noah, ordered a pizza and as soon as it was delivered, they were back in Shirley’s room for a makeshift picnic on the dorm room floor with Sophie.
“It was like any other day. It was just us having pizza that night,” Shirley reflected back in her testimony, her voice breaking. A photo of Sophie Sergie taken that same night was sitting on the witness stand next to Shirley as she answered the State’s line of questioning. Her arms are outstretched and she’s smiling straight into the camera. She’s wearing blue U.S. Navy sweatpants, and the hood and hem of a multicolor sweatshirt peeks out from beneath a dark colored zip up jacket. Minus the jacket, it’s the same outfit Shirley remembered Sophie wearing in her dorm room that night of April 25, 1993.
It was nearing 1 in the morning when the trio finished the pizza and decided to turn in for the night. As usual when Sophie stayed over, Shirley would let Sophie have the dorm room to herself and Shirley would go to sleep in her boyfriend’s room.
Before Shirley left with Noah, Sophie asked where she could go smoke a cigarette. It was cold that night – below freezing – and Sophie didn’t really want to stand outside. Shirley mentioned that the bathroom down the hall had fans that would suck up the cigarette smoke and vent it outside; she’d done it once or twice before. With that, Sophie left the dorm room and headed towards the bathrooms. Shirley and Noah left before Sophie came back, so Shirley left a note letting her know they were in Noah’s room for the night. Shirley stepped out of her room, heading for the stairwell that would lead them to the lobby, walking past a few people still lingering in the halls, and towards Noah’s building.
Shirley would later tell investigators that she locked eyes with one of those lingering people in the halls, a man she didn’t know at the time. It would be decades before she realized whose eyes she was looking into.
On the morning of April 26, 1993, Shirley returned to her dorm room to find the door unlocked, the TV and lights on, and the bed still made – clearly no one had slept in it that night. She assumed that Sophie must’ve gone to take a shower and went to get ready for the day herself.
The washrooms on the second floor had multiple stalls with showers and one with a tub. Shirley called into the closed stalls, “Sophie, are you here?” A voice responded, “Yeah, I’m here.” Satisfied, Shirley took a shower and returned to her room to finish getting ready. She left a note for Sophie to get in touch later that day, and headed out.
As the day rolled on, Shirley started to get nervous. She hadn’t heard from Sophie all day and it wasn’t like her to not check in. Quote, “The longer the day went, the more panicked I got. I was kind of bothered because I thought ‘how could she not get ahold of me?’” Shirley’s voice broke. “I was asking people if they’d seen her.”
Shirley even called the orthodontist’s office where Sophie had a scheduled appointment that Monday, but Sophie never showed up.
Meanwhile, the campus was beginning to buzz about police activity at Bartlett Hall. The story got to Shirley like a game of telephone, repeated and repeated again, until finally the message reached her. They’d found a body on the second floor of Bartlett Hall. A girl in the bathroom. That was her dorm. That was her floor.
As Shirley reached the dorms there was already a reporter and a security guard at the building. A trooper stopped her and told Shirley she couldn’t go upstairs. When Shirley told the trooper she was looking for her friend, they started asking questions. Who was her friend? What did she look like? When did she last see her friend? Each question raised her concern. And she had a question of her own – Where is Sophie?
Reality crashed down around her. The trooper allowed Shirley and Noah into her dorm room and investigators continued questioning the couple about their missing friend and her movements the days before. One investigator searched Shirley’s room and found an ID. It was Sophie’s. Troopers recognized the girl in the picture.
The girl they’d found in the bathroom was Sophie Sergie.
Episode Source Material
- Trial Livestream
- Steven Downs Charging Document
- New theory revives old Fairbanks murder case by Amanda Bohman, Juneau Empire, 26 Apr 2009
- Cold-case review finds new lead in 1993 slaying by James Halpin, Anchorage Daily News, 26 Apr 2009
- Murder in the Dorm by Michael Kern
- UAF sets up hotline for parents after murder by Rosanne Pagano, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 27 Apr 1993
- Students moving out of dorm following slaying, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 29 Apr 1993
- Campus memorial held for woman slain at UAF, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 29 Apr 1993
- UAF bids solemn farewell to former student killed in dorm by Jim Clarke, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 30 Apr 1993
- Slaying unnerves campus, Associated Press, Journal and Courier, 30 Apr 1993
- Slaying gives college students ‘wake-up call’ by Jim Clarke, Detroit Free Press, 02 May 1993
- Troopers say campus killer ‘very, very angry at women’, AP, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 10 May 1993
- UA Fairbanks campus made safer after woman slain, AP, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 14 Jun 1993
- Family of woman slain at UAF sues for $4 million, AP, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 27 Oct 1995
- Family of woman slain at UAF seeks probe details, AP, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 05 Jun 1996
- UA seeks settlement in suit over campus death, AP, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 24 Dec 1996
- Troopers using internet in murder investigation, Daily Sitka Sentinel, 30 Dec 1996
- 25 years after Sophie Sergie was found dead in a UAF bathtub, Maine man charged with murder by Madeline McGee, Anchorage Daily News, 16 Feb 2019
- Cold case in Alaska solved using DNA databases by Alex Horton, Santa Fe New Mexican, 18 Feb 2019
- Man charged in Alaska cold case killing pleads not guilty, Whitehorse Daily Star, 16 Aug 2019
- Defense seeks to have cold case charges tossed, Whitehorse Daily Star, 13 Dec 2019
- State didn’t violate man’s right to speedy trial, Whitehorse Daily Star, 26 Jun 2020
- The 27-Year-Old Cold Case That Will Put Familial DNA on Trial by Kathryn Miles, Down East Magazine, October 2020
- Troopers admit errors in affidavits for search warrants of Maine man charged in Fairbanks cold case by Christopher Williams, Anchorage Daily News, 04 Feb 2021
- Auburn man charged with Alaska murder has hearing about DNA evidence and alternate suspects by Bob Evans, News Center Maine, 12 Mar 2021
- Maine man on trial for murder in Alaska in 1993, when he was a college freshman by Phil Hirschkorn, WMTW, 11 Jan 2022
- Murder trial of Maine man begins in Fairbanks with testimony from victim’s friend By Christopher Williams, Sun Journal, 13 Jan 2022