26 years – That’s a long time to wait for answers in an unsolved homicide. But in 2019 the family of 20-year old Sophie Sergie finally had a glimmer of hope that closure was possible. Familial DNA evidence led cold case investigators from Alaska all the way to Auburn, Maine and to the doorstep of the man now charged with the murder of Sophie Sergie.
After years of delays due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the trial of Steven H. Downs began in January 2022 and continues as we speak. Biological evidence, witness statements, reports of a firearm in the very dorm room where Steven Downs lived and where Sophie Sergie was killed – what will it all say about what really happened in the early morning hours of April 26, 1993?
If you haven’t tuned into part I of Sophie Sergie’s story, please pause here and turn back one episode, because in part II, you’ll hear about the arguably questionable evidence, the admitted mistakes, and the list of alternative suspects that the defense says will change your mind about who committed this violent crime.
At the end of it all, we all just want one thing – Justice for Sophie Sergie and peace for her family.
DNA Match to Steven Downs
It was December 18, 2018 when the phone in Investigator Randy McPherron’s office rang out, signaling the news he’d been waiting to hear for two months. In reality, the wait had been much longer – 25 years of waiting for something to happen in the long-standing cold case murder of Sophie Sergie.
The genetic genealogist on the other end of the call explained to McPherron that their extensive analysis, comparison, and review of biological evidence collected at the crime scene over two decades earlier was complete, and they had what they believed to be a match. The explanation was technical, and yet clear.
Here it is, directly from the charging documents filed in February of 2019.
The lab identified a likely relative of the suspect. The amount of genetic information shared between the relative and the suspect was consistent with a second-degree relationship, which includes half-siblings, an aunt/nephew, or a grandmother/grandson relationship. Because the relative also shared the same X-DNA (female DNA) as the suspect’s DNA profile, the lab reasoned that the connection between the two came from the suspect’s mother’s side, since males only inherit X-DNA from their mothers. The genealogy research revealed that the identified relative has no known maternal half-brothers and no known biological children of her own – and therefore, had no biological grandchildren either. Through a thorough process of elimination, the lab determined that the known relative to the DNA profile only had one possible second-degree relationship with a male relative, her nephew, Steven H. Downs.
Steven Harris Downs was 44-years old in 2018 when the link between his biological evidence, spermatozoa, found at the crime scene was matched to an aunt’s DNA profile via a public DNA database. Steven was born in Maine and grew up in the Pine Tree State until he graduated Edward Little High School in 1992. That fall, he enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the same school year that Sophie Sergie was found beaten and shot in a UAF dormitory bathroom. Steven lived in the same building where the murder occured, Bartlett Hall.
It was the most investigators had in this case since the day it happened, but moving on this suspect would take careful coordination and cooperation. Two months after Randy McPherron received the report from the DNA lab, Alaska State Troopers working alongside Maine State Police caught up with Steven Downs at his home in Auburn, Maine.
Who is Steven Downs?
On February 13, 2019, Maine State Police and Alaska State Troopers contacted Steven Downs at home to ask him some questions regarding what he remembered about the night Sohpie was killed. Investigators interviewed Steven originally in 1993, as was his roommate Nicholas Dazer, but both men claimed they had nothing of significance to report at the time.
When they spoke to him in 2019, Steven again said he remembered that a girl was murdered in his dorm, but he didn’t know her and never had contact with her. According to the charging document, officers showed Steven a photo of Sophie Sergie and while he remembered seeing her face before, he stated that it was only from the posters that had been plastered across campus after the murder.
Though his room was on the third floor of Bartlett Hall, Steven told officers that he usually stayed with his girlfriend on the fourth floor, and that’s where he was on the night of April 25 and into the early morning hours of April 26, 1993. Steven didn’t think he’d ever been on the second floor ever. He was adamant. If he knew anything, he, “would have been forthright from the jump. I never knew or saw anything to begin with.”
During his conversation with police, Steven speculated that the person responsible for Sophie’s murder was one of the solders from Ft. Wainwright who were known to party in Bartlett Hall. “I remember the pictures,” Steven said, “It’s terrible, poor girl.”
McPherron told Steven, “We have a very strong reason to believe that you’re responsible for this.” End quote. Steven replied, quote, “Wow. That’s kind of intense.”
Investigators knew they needed to obtain a direct sample of Steven Downs’ DNA to solidify the connection made by familial DNA analysis. According to Downeast Magazine, police had him under surveillance for days before they contacted Steven, hoping to get their hands on a discarded cup or tissue and collect the sample that way. But no luck. They’d have to be more forward in their approach.
The next day, February 14, 2019, Maine State Police executed a search warrant at Steven Downs’ Auburn, Maine home.
Part of the warrant included a cheek swab from Steven so they could immediately send a sample for comparison at the Maine State Crime Lab. While investigators had a familial match, they needed a first-degree connection between Steven Downs’ DNA and the biological evidence found on Sophie’s body.
This DNA match testing was not possible before February of 2019. You see, Steven Downs didn’t have any past run-ins with the law that would’ve required him to submit a DNA sample to a database. Though they had the biological evidence at the crime scene from day one, there was nothing to compare it to, nothing to point to Steven Downs until familial DNA testing set investigators hot on his trail.
The DNA comparison from the freshly obtained cheek swab was a match. “It came down to you. You’re the source of the DNA,” McPherron told Steven.
Steven replied, “There’s no way that could be possible. There’s gotta be some mix up.”
During the search of Steven’s home, investigators also found a gun, one matching the description of the firearm that Steven’s roommate said he owned in 1993 – A .22 caliber revolver.
On February 15, 2019, Steven Harris Downs was charged with the rape and first degree murder of Sophie Sergie.
Press play to hear the full episode as Sophie Sergie stories continue on Dark Downeast.
Episode Source Material
- Trial Livestream
- 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
- Evidence heard in 1993 Alaska murder case brought against Auburn man by Christopher Williams, Sun Journal, 01 Feb 2021
- Alternative suspects named in Auburn man’s Alaska murder case by Christopher Williams, Sun Journal, 12 Apr 2021/
- Maine man charged in Alaska murder can name alternative suspects, judge rules by Christopher Williams, Sun Journal, 15 Dec 2021
- 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