Fairbanks jury finds Downs guilty in Sergie’s 1993 murder, sexual assault at UAF dorm

A woman smiling at the camera
Obtained by prior permission of the Alaska Court System, this photo of Sophie Sergie was taken by her friend, Joann Sundown on April 24, 1993. (Screenshot)

A Fairbanks jury found Steven Downs guilty Thursday in the cold case murder and sexual assault of Sophie Sergie at a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory nearly 30 years ago.

The jury deliberated for 20 hours over four days.

To protect the identity of the nine women and three men, Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple read the verdicts out loud:

“Murder in the first degree of SS. We, the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree of SS dated at Fairbanks Alaska, the 10th day of February, 2022. Sexual assault in the first degree of SS. We, the jury find the defendant guilty of sexual assault in the first degree of SS dated at Fairbanks Alaska this ninth day of February, 2022, signed by the jury foreperson.”

Temple then polled the jurors individually to make sure the verdicts were indeed unanimous.

Steven Downs was an 18-year-old first-year student at UAF in 1993 with no known connection to the Sergie, who was 20 years old and from Pitkas Point.

Sergie had been a marine biology student at the university but had taken the semester off to work and save money. She returned to Fairbanks on the weekend of April 25, 1993 for an orthodontist appointment. She stayed in a friend’s room on one of the women’s floors at UAF’s Bartlett Hall but left to have a late night cigarette.

In the afternoon, Sergie was found murdered in the bathtub off the shower stalls in a restroom down the hall.

Downs lived one floor above. He was never suspected of the crime until 2018, when DNA collected from the crime scene was partially matched to a profile in a commercial genealogy database. That profile was Downs’ aunt. Alaska State Troopers traced the genealogy to Downs, and later got a match on DNA taken directly from him.

RELATED: Alaska detectives turning to genetic genealogy to catch cold case killers

Defense attorney James Howaniec responded by text to the Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal after today’s court session, saying he’s obviously disappointed by the guilty verdict. He didn’t indicate whether Downs would appeal.

“We are obviously disappointed at the verdict. We had a thoughtful jury that examined the evidence over four days. A number of them were clearly very emotional during the verdict. We respect their verdict. It was a very difficult case for all involved. We are going to take a step back and assess Steven’s options from here,“ he said.

The victim’s two brothers listened to the verdict remotely from St. Mary’s, in the Yukon River delta. Older brother Alexie Sergie said that he feels relieved.

“With the DNA, I’m pretty sure it’s the right guy,” he said. ‘Nowadays DNA won’t lie to you.”

Alexie Sergie said he forgave the perpetrator decades ago in an effort towards closure.

“My religion, you know, I’m Russian Orthodox. You’re supposed to pray for all your enemies — forgive them for everything. I forgave him for what he did. But I will never forget.”

The judge scheduled sentencing for Sept. 26-27.

Tanana Chiefs Conference is partnering with the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center and the Fairbanks Native Association to host a community vigil in memory of Sergie at noon on Friday in front of the Rabinowitz Courthouse.

This story has been updated.

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