Alternative suspect says he had nothing to do with murder of Sophie Sergie

A woman poses in a jacket outside.
Sophie Sergie (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Troopers)

The defense attorneys for Steven Downs raised many theories in a Fairbanks courtroom on Thursday about alternative suspects who they say may have killed Sophie Sergie in a college dormitory bathroom in 1993.

Downs is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault.

His lead defense attorney, James Howaniec, has pointed the finger at other possible suspects, including Kenneth Moto.

Moto appeared in court Thursday on a muffled videoconference. He said he remembers being interviewed by James McCann, the Alaska State Trooper sergeant who led the investigation, when McCann flew to Kotzebue in 1996. Moto said he volunteered then to give a DNA sample because he wanted to help solve a crime against a Native person.

“I volunteered because I wanted to help, any way I can, you know,” he said. “‘Cause, if she’s Native, we can’t have that happen to Native people.”

Moto’s sister, Karen, had told troopers in a 2009 interview that her brother said he confessed to the murder at UAF. But Karen Moto died in 2018.

Howaniec asked Moto about the conversation with his sister.

“And do you remember telling Karen at any point that you had killed Sophie Sergie?” he asked.

“Nope, never,” Moto replied.

“You never said that to her?” Howaniec asked.

“I remember we were watching something on cold cases in Alaska, it was some kind of show on TV. I told her I was a suspect in Sophie’s… I was a suspect in that one at UAF,” Moto said.

“If I just heard you correctly, you told your sister Karen, that you were a suspect in the Sophie Sergie murder?” Howaniec asked.

“Yep.”

“Okay,” Howaniec said.”But you never told her that you had killed Sophie Sergie?”

“Never did,” Moto replied.

“Okay. Alright. Nothing further.”

RELATED: Suspect arrested for 25-year-old murder of UAF student

Downs was arrested in 2019 after DNA his aunt submitted to a genealogy website helped match him to DNA from the UAF crime scene.

On Thursday in court, Howaniec also raised the theory of another alternative suspect, Gregory Thornton. He was roommates on the 5th floor of Bartlett Hall that school year with Reuben Leake. Leake testified Thursday that he was familiar with guns and knew Thorton had a .22 caliber pistol.

“I could never say for certain that it was an H&R pistol. It had the shape and the look of an H&R, but I never read the writing on the side of the barrel to say exactly what it is. But it’s a fairly distinct shape, weight, you know, dimensions,” he said.

RELATED: At Sophie Sergie murder trial, jury hears recordings of Steven Downs’ interrogation

The medical examiner concluded the cause of Sergie’s death was a bullet from a .22 caliber weapon.

Leake said Thornton was a white man with an olive complexion.

Thornton was one of two people who a witness, Melanie Manook (now Sagoonik), narrowed from a photo lineup a trooper brought to her in Unalakleet in 2004.

She testified on Jan. 19 that she saw a white man with a darker complexion coming out of the woman’s bathroom, in the early hours of April 26, 1993. Sergie was found dead hours later.

The prosecution and defense both rested on Thursday. Closing arguments are expected on Friday.

The courtroom is closed to the public to prevent COVID-19 sickness. But the court is video streaming the trial on the Alaska Court System website. Prior permission to record the proceeding for this story was granted.

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