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

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

Law enforcement officers who arrested Steven Downs in 2019 for the 1993 rape and murder of Sophie Sergie testified at Downs’ trial in Fairbanks on Wednesday.

Downs was a University of Alaska Fairbanks student who lived in the dorm where Sergie’s body was found. He is charged with murder and sexual assault.

Detective Jay Pelletier, from the Maine State Police Unsolved Homicide Unit, testified Wednesday about how he, Alaska State Troopers and Auburn city police watched Downs’ house for days in February 2019, looking for an opportunity to pull something from his garbage they could get a DNA sample from. 

Pelletier said they eventually knocked on his door.

“Feb. 13, 2019. He just kind of led us into the dining room,” he said.

Prosecutors played a recording of Peletier interviewing Downs. In the recording, Downs recounts how he and his college roommate Nick Dazer were questioned by Troopers after Sergie was found dead in a dorm bathroom.

“If we would have known anything from the jump, you know, we would have, we would have spoken up, me and, and Nick,” Downs said. “We were furious, furious. Always, um, supporting women, looking out for them. Uh, Nick was a security guard, and that’s why they went and talked to him. ‘Cause he was on duty that night and he was out and about.”

Alaska cold case investigator Trooper Randel McPherron testified about questioning Downs at his home the next day, Feb. 14.

“Went to his house — initially he acted a little surprised, and that’s understandable. We’d come all the way from Alaska. But he quickly was very friendly, invited us in. We sat down in his living room and started talking with him,” he said.

Prosecutors played about a half-hour-long recording of McPherron questioning Downs.   

McPherron: And you didn’t know the girl that got killed?

Downs: No, I’ve never heard of her. 

McPherron: Never heard of her and never met her?

Downs: No.

McPherron: And they showed you the photos we sent.

Downs: Oh yeah, I remember the pictures, too. There were posters.

McPherron: I mean, it was plastered all over.

Downs: And there was a big reward, too.

McPherron: And you had no contact with her. Didn’t at all.

Downs: I mean, I was just total mystified.

McPherron testified that he told Downs that DNA found in the victim matched his, and the Troopers asked him to go to the police office to get fingerprints and a DNA sample.

“He agreed to drive himself down there. He drove down, we followed him down, we met him at the Auburn Police Department,” he said.

At the police station, McPherron and Sargent (now Lt) Ramin Dunford recorded another interview with Downs, which the prosecutors played for the jury on Wednesday.

McPherron: We took the DNA sample that was found. It was found inside Sophie’s body, in her vagina. They were able to develop a full profile from this sample. It came down to you. You’re the source of the DNA. It’s you, Steve. And that’s why we’re here.

Downs: There’s no way that could be possible.

In the recording, McPherron tries to get Downs to confess to the rape and murder. He tells Downs his graduate degree and nursing career have helped people.

McPherron: You are basically a very good person. You’ve done some good things in your life. You help people, that’s very commendable. Sophie deserves the truth.

Downs: I’ve always been a gentleman. No. It’s just not possible.

McPherron: It’s time for you to get rid of this, Steve. It’s time to unburden yourself.

Downs: Do what you need to do, but there’s got to be an explanation for it, ‘cause it’s not me. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life.

Defense attorneys began to question McPherron, but time ran out for the day’s court session.

Closing arguments could come as early as Friday.

This is the only jury trial in Fairbanks right now. To prevent spread of COVID-19, the court has closed the courtroom but is streaming the trial on the Alaska Court System website. KUAC has prior permission to record the broadcast for use in this story. Some of the recorded exchanges were edited for time.

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