The former girlfriend of the suspect in the 1993 murder of Sophie Sergie took to the witness stand in a Fairbanks courtroom on Tuesday to testify. The court also heard from the lead trooper investigator on the case.
The case had gone cold for nearly three decades before Maine police matched Steven Downs’ DNA with a sample from the crime scene, leading to his arrest in 2019. He’s charged with Sergie’s rape and murder.
Almost 29 years after the crime, prosecutors and defense attorneys have been relying heavily on law enforcement reports and notes from years ago.
But on Tuesday, attorney got the chance to question Jim McCann, the lead investigator of the case. McCann led the Alaska State Trooper team that investigated the scene on the second floor of Bartlett Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in 1993.
He testified in court that he followed up every lead from the case and questioned hundreds of students, but eventually ruled them out as suspects.
Defense attorney James Howaniec asked McCann about young soldiers or airmen who were frequent visitors to the women’s floors of the dorms.
“There was also some concerns about GIs from Fort Wainwright and possibly the Air Force Base?” Howaniec asked.
“There always is,” McCann responded.
In a pretrial motion, the defense sought to link men other than Downs to the murder as alternative suspects.
Howaniec asked McCann why he didn’t pursue Kenneth Moto, another student, as a suspect. Moto was seen near stairs or an elevator and was interviewed by McCann the day after the murder.
McCann said that he sometimes tricked people into revealing information by making things up, and asking them about false facts.
“If this transcript of that interview the next day with Kenny Moto, telling him that somebody told you that he was seen coming out of the bathroom, with a gray shirt, would it be possible that somebody did tell you that?” Howaniec asked.
“Well, it’s something I would also use as a way to see what his affect would be — how he’s going to react to that,” said McCann.
Also on Tuesday, Downs’ college girlfriend testified from Palmer by videoconference.
Katherine deSchweinitz Lee said her romance with Downs ramped up during the spring semester of 1993. She said Downs spent some nights in her room.
She confirmed that Downs and other friends were in her fourth floor room on Sunday evening, April 25, 1993, watching movies on a VCR and drinking.
“What I recall about that night is that there was a TV in my room and people were watching movies, and people were coming and going until late,” she said.
She recalled that both Downs, and his roommate, Nick Dazer, were in and out of that party that evening.
Years later she was interviewed by trooper investigators who asked her about Downs owning a gun. According to that 2009 interview, she recalled walking to the woods near campus one spring day in 1993 to go target shooting with Downs.
“Well, again, in my fuzzy 30-year-old memories, he had this little .22 pistol and he wanted to go out in the woods and target shoot. So I went with him. It looked old. It was a handgun, I believe a revolver, and it was kinda old and beat up,” she said in the 2009 interview.
Lee could not recall if the gun they used that day was owned or borrowed. She continued her relationship with Downs for three years, and testified that, in that time, there was nothing about him she would connect to a crime.
The court is broadcasting the proceedings on its website. Prior permission was granted for this recording for use in our coverage.