Steven Downs sentenced 75 years for murder of Sophie Sergie 29 years ago at University of Alaska Fairbanks

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Twenty-nine years after he was a freshman living in the dorms at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Steven H. Downs was sentenced to 75 years in prison for sexually assaulting and murdering 20-year-old Sophie Sergie in 1993.

In sentencing Downs on Monday in the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple noted that there was nothing the Court could do to restore the harm caused by Downs’ actions.

In his sentencing remarks, Judge Temple commented that Sergie’s life was taken by Downs’ senseless act and noted Downs gave zero regard to her autonomy as a person, to her value of life, and pointed out that she is forever gone because of Downs’ callous choice. Judge Temple commented that in addition to taking Sophie from the world, Downs robbed her family of their ability to love her, experience life with her, to continue time on earth with her.

For nearly three decades after Sergie’s murder, there were no suspects in the cold case. A DNA sample taken from Sergie’s body was put into a national DNA database, but did not match another profile in the database. In 2017, a new investigative method linking DNA technology and genetic research was used to solve a murder case in California. Alaska State Troopers first used this same methodology in 2018, when they submitted the unknown sample from Sergie’s body for genetic genealogy analysis. 

This analysis identified Downs as a possible suspect based on a connection to an aunt who had uploaded her profile to an open-source genealogy website. Investigation confirmed that at the time of the murder, Downs was attending UAF and living in the dorm where Sergie was murdered. When interviewed in 2019, Downs denied having ever met or come into contact with Sergie. Downs was arrested in February 2019, when his DNA was definitively linked by traditional DNA comparison to the DNA sample collected decades ago on Sergie’s body.  Downs was extradited from Maine where he worked as a nurse.

Sergie was from the Native village of Pitkas Point in western Alaska. Sergie was a UAF student who had taken the semester off. She returned to Fairbanks for an orthodontics appointment and was staying at a friend’s dorm room on a girls-only floor of Bartlett Hall. In the early hours of April 26, 1993, Sergie left her friend’s second floor room for a late-night smoke; the next afternoon, she was found dead in a bathtub in the women’s bathroom on the second floor. Evidence showed that Sergie had been sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times on her face and shot in the back of the head at close range.

Jenna Gruenstein with the State Office of Special Prosecutions argued for a 99-year sentence, with 20 years suspended, for the murder in the first-degree charge and eight years for the sexual assault in the first-degree charge, or 87 years to serve.

Gruenstein argued to the judge that Downs’ brazenness in committing the crime in a public bathroom should be considered when sentencing him. “First it was unprovoked and a wholly unexplained crime,” she said. “He committed it against someone Downs never met and committed it for no discernible reason. Second, Sergie is a woman who Downs overpowered in every way, height, weight, and weapons. … The way he committed the crime, it’s pretty shocking it wasn’t caught earlier because this crime is really one that should’ve been easily detected. It was in a public place with a bathroom stall separating murder from washing and brushing teeth, as students came and went, fairly busy with activity.”

Downs’ defense attorney, Jim Howaniec, described the younger Downs in court as “a boy 4,000 miles away from home for the first time.”Howaniec said he would not downplay the offense, but told the court that Downs continues to assert his innocence.

Howaniec described 18-year-old Downs as both well-adjusted and well-liked with a girlfriend, but he also described him as “very immature, drinking and partying a lot, as much as a 1/5 of whiskey every night, somehow maintaining his grades, doing a lot of weed, alienated like a lot of young 18-year-olds.”

The defense asked for 50 years of incarceration with 30 years suspended or 20 years to serve, for murder, and eight years for the sexual assault, to run concurrently.

Judge Temple said Downs’ three decades of not committing a crime could not reduce the magnitude of his conduct. Applying the sentencing laws that were in effect for sentencing when the crime occurred in April 1993, Judge Temple sentenced Downs to 67 years for the murder conviction and eight years for the sexual assault conviction, to run consecutively for a total of 75 years.

Under law, Downs is eligible to ask for discretionary parole after he has served 25 years, at which point he will be 73 years old. Judge Temple also ordered Downs to register as a sex offender for life.

Gruenstein said she was hopeful that the sentencing would help bring healing to Sophie’s family and friends and to the community. 

“For both Chris (Chris Darnell, Assistant Attorney General) and myself, it was a real honor to work on this case, given how long it had gone unsolved, how long the community–Fairbanks, UAF, Sophie’s family–had suffered knowing that somebody had apparently gotten away with this murder and rape. I think that being able to provide some closure to the community is one of the best things that came out of this. It’s another example of how helpful genetic genealogy can be. This is the first case that has gone to court in Alaska using this technology.”

The Alaska State Troopers investigated this case with the help of the Maine State Police and the Auburn Police Department. The Alaska State Crime Detection Laboratory and the Maine State Laboratory both conducted DNA testing.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. A monstrous crime, and thank God that He created us to have a unique DNA. Fathers, we must intentionally instruct our daughters (our sons, too) to be wary in lonely places, to be quick to phone us with their uncertainties, to be ready to back away or to flee in troubling situations, and in the last resort to ruthlessly drive a sharp fingernail into an eyeball or a knife into a belly. This is our duty to our children. I could not understand why so many of Harvey Weinstein’s female victims had failed to severely injure or kill the man, except that their fathers had failed them first.

  2. Fascinating case. Downs stands by his innocence, but it’s pretty hard to refute his carnal knowledge when his DNA was found in her vagina. BUT, did HE kill her? If he truly was not the murderer, he should have taken the stand and explained to the jury that he had sex with her over the weekend, but did not kill her. That testimony may have saved his scalp. There are some holes in the investigation too, like where were some of the out-of-village Native men who knew Sophie and were also visiting Fairbanks for the weekend? The dormitory in question at UAF was known to be a flophouse for overnight visitors and transients. Many unknowns could have been involved. Maybe more than one killer.
    If Downs is the real murderer, then he got what he deserved. But what if he wasn’t?

    • Good question, Elaine. There was little physical evidence that Downs killed her. No knife, no gun that was connected to her shooting. I still can’t believe a gun was fired in the dorm bathroom and no one heard it. No witnesses to him being on that floor that night. Plenty of room for reasonable doubt!

    • Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a very high hurdle to jump in the face of a vigorous and highly capable defense, which Downs had.

      Why didn’t he testify? Easy, because he would have been cross-examined and most likely been crushed. Utterly destroyed. Erased.

      It’s incredibly rare for a defendant’s testimony to actually assist a defendant. Usually it just seals their fate.

      There is nothing in Sophie’s history to suggest any level of sexual promiscuity. If he’d taken the stand he would as just as well have changed his plea to guilty at the point he claimed he had a “hookup” with her.

      Once his appeals are complete, he may come forward with additional information…

      However, there is no way even a generous deal will get him out before he’s almost eighty years old.

    • There were several witnesses that did not testify that could have injected a reasonable amount of doubt. One witness was already dead, but his sister had told investigators prior to trial that he was the murderer. If Sophie was staying at the UAF dorm for free as a visitor, how many other non-resident visitors were there that weekend?
      Elaine brought up good questions. What if the real murderer was a jilted lover who had stalked Sophie to Fairbanks and was angry that she partied at the dorm? Look at the way she was murdered. Gun, knife, blunt force object, and then left in a bathtub. That sounds personal. That is the kind of overkill that a random murderer does not do. Why didn’t the defense bring up those aspects at trial? This sounds more like an unrequited lover on an insanely jealous murderous rampage, not a random killing.
      Did Sophie know her murderer? But the big question is: why was Down’s seman in Sophie?
      A strange case for sure.

      • The details in the manner of death would not have necessarily supported the supposition that it was a person emotionally attached to Sophie. Downs has a very good attorney, much too capable to make a mistake like that.

      • That’s lawyer talk. Nobody can disprove it so why not state it as fact.

        Reality check: That would’ve been reflected in his report card. In real life there is no Delta Tau Chi.

  3. We need the death penalty – to extract vengeance and the ultimate punishment for those that violate the norms of decent men – in these types of egregious circumstances.

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