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Steven Downs found guilty in 29-year-old murder case

Downs was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault in the trial that began on Jan. 12.
Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 10:38 AM AKST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 at 1:54 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTUU) - Steven Downs, 47, was found guilty on the charges of murder and sexual assault in the April 1993 death of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska Fairbanks by a jury in Fairbanks Superior Court on Thursday morning.

Content warning: This article contains information about sexual assault that might be difficult for some readers.

Downs was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault in the trial that began on Jan. 12. The case had been cold for 26 years before genetic genealogy linked Downs’ DNA to the case in 2018. He was then arrested in February 2019 and he was extradited from Auburn, Maine, in August of that year.

The jury deliberated for two days after closing arguments in the case that concluded on Monday.

Sergie’s body was found in a second-floor bathroom at Bartlett Hall on the UAF campus shot, choked, stabbed and shocked with a stun gun. Chief Assistant Attorney General and prosecuting attorney for the state Jenna Gruenstein provided details during the trial that Sergie, who was from Pitkas Point, visited the Fairbanks dorms not as a student, but to have orthodontic work done there.

Sergie stayed with her former roommate and left to smoke a cigarette when prosecutors say Downs shot her with a .22 caliber gun. Her body was discovered by janitorial staff on April 26, 1993.

Evidence was collected and sat dormant in a national genetic database until Downs was identified through genetic genealogy. Prosecutors say that Downs’ DNA was the only DNA collected at the scene, although Downs’ defense attorney James Howaniec argued that there were other hairs and fingerprints on the scene at the time.

Forensic consultants who testified during the trial said that the bullet that struck Sergie was “heavily damaged” and “unsuitable” for a firearm comparison. Law enforcement officers seized a .22 caliber rifle from Downs’ home in Maine, but Howaniec argued that the gun was not the same weapon used to shoot Sergie and called on a man he said sold Downs the weapon long after Sergie’s death.

No bail for Downs will be allowed. A sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 26 and 27.

Sergie’s brother, Alexie, also listened to the verdict on Thursday. He said after listening to parts of the trial and closing arguments, he knew Downs would be found guilty.

Alexie Sergie described a “feeling of relief that they found, the jurors found him guilty.”

He described the toll the case has taken on the Sergie family over the years. Their mother passed away in 2021, after Downs had been arrested but before the trial.

“On special occasions, she’d just burst out crying for a little bit,” Alexie Sergie recalled. “And she’d start a prayer and start praying. ... I said to myself, you know, one of these days they’ll find they guy, they will find him. Nobody can hide for so long.”

He said that over the years, he’d forgiven the man who killed his sister even before authorities found and arrested Downs.

“If I was there face-to-face with him, I’d say ‘you took something precious from us,’” Alexie Sergie said. “... Even though we were a small family, her uncles, her aunties, her cousins — we were all close. ... But I forgive you for what you did.”

“Forgiveness,” he continued. “But I’ll never forget.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of years this case was considered cold before Downs’ arrest in 2019, and to correct the year that Downs’ DNA was linked to the case.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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