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Former Alaska College Student Convicted After Genetic Genealogy Linked Him to Murder of Young Woman in 1993

Steven Downs in court.

Steven Downs.

A man was convicted on Thursday of murdering a young woman in his school. Steven Downs, 47, who was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993, raped and killed Sophie Sergie, 20, leaving her dead in a second-floor dorm bathroom, prosecutors said.

The killer left semen behind, but investigators were not able to identify Downs as the suspect until 2018, when they used genetic genealogy to make a partial match between his maternal aunt and the suspect DNA, according to Alaska’s News Source.

Sergie, who was not a student at the school, was staying over with a former roommate at the Bartlett Hall dorm while she was there for orthodontic work. Janitors reportedly found her shot with a .22 caliber firearm, choked, stabbed and shocked by a stun gun in a women’s bathroom.

Prosecutors said Downs attacked Sergie after she went out to smoke a cigarette. Jurors took two-and-a-half days to convict him of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault.

Downs provided a cheek swab when Alaska detectives went down to Maine with a search warrant.

Defense lawyer James Howaniec suggested that the semen could have been inside Sergie from consensual sex, according to Alaska Public Radio.

“It would not be surprising to find semen in a dead person who had sex even days before,” he said, citing testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. Norman Thompson, who discussed the autopsy.

As jurors heard in a 2019 recording, Downs denied to investigators that he ever had contact with Sergie. He declined to testify at trial.

“We do not know what Sophie did Saturday night [April 24],” defense attorney Howaniec said. “We don’t know if she went to a party. We don’t know who she hung out with. We do know she had an eclectic group of friends, some of them up on the third floor where Steven Downs lived.”

The defense asserted that Downs was with his girlfriend and other students watching movies and drinking, but the prosecution asserted that Downs still could have committed the act.

“In fact what she said was, he was in and out of her room, that he wasn’t there the whole night, particularly in the very early hours of April 26th,” Special Prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein. “She knew that he wasn’t there because that was when Bill Wilson tried to kiss her. And she knew for sure, Mr. Downs wasn’t in the room when that happened.”

Howaniec suggested that bystanders tainted the bathroom crime scene before state troopers arrived.

“The crime scene had been corrupted,” he said. “Some 19 people including students and possibly even the media had been to the bathtub scene before Jim and his team arrived.”

He suggested that Downs could never do something like this.

“Some of them like Nick, who became lifelong friends, paint a picture of a happy, well-adjusted kid from Maine,” he said. “Nick testified that he could never in a million years fathom that Steve could have done something like this.”

The defense acknowledged that Downs actually owned a .22 caliber gun, but they said he purchased it in 2015. Forensic experts testified they could not match the fatal bullet with the suspect gun because the round was too damaged.

Sergie’s brother Alexie Sergie said he forgave Downs but would not forget. The siblings’ mother died in 2021.

“On special occasions, she’d just burst out crying for a little bit,” Alexie said, according to Alaska’s News Source. “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.”

[Image via WMTW screengrab]

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