Maine man is accused of killing young woman at University of Alaska in ’93
LEWISTON, Maine — A 44-year-old Maine man will fight his extradition to Alaska, where he faces charges of killing a young woman 25 years ago.
Steven H. Downs of Auburn allegedly raped and killed Sophie Sergie, 20, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993.
Downs was arrested and charged with murder and sexual assault, both in the first degree, on Friday. He appeared Tuesday in Lewiston District Court.
In 1993, Downs was a freshman at the University of Alaska, where he resided on the third floor of the Bennett Hall dormitory.
In the early morning hours of April 26 that year, Sergie was sexually assaulted, stabbed, and shot in the back of the head. That afternoon, a custodian found her body in a bathtub on the second floor of Bennett Hall.
According to court documents filed by the Alaska attorney general’s office, Sergie had been stabbed twice in the right eye and once in the cheek. An autopsy determined the cause of death was a single gunshot wound, fired at close range by a .22-caliber gun.
An Alaskan Eskimo, Sergie hailed from the remote Yup’ik village of Pitkas Point. She had enrolled at the university on a scholarship from British Petroleum but had taken a semester off and was working as a teacher’s aide to pay for dental work. She flew back to Fairbanks for an orthodontist appointment and was spending the night with a friend in her dorm room, the documents said.
Sometime after midnight, she left the dorm room to smoke a cigarette. Her friend suggested that she do so near exhaust vents in a small tub room in the second-floor lavatory, rather than go outside in the cold. Another resident reported to police that she heard thumping and muffled noises from the tub room around 1:30 a.m. but did not report it at the time, the documents said.
During the autopsy, the medical examiner obtained a semen sample and DNA that was apparently from the attacker. However, the state did not employ DNA testing at that time.
The case remained cold until April 2018, when the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the purported “Golden State killer,” made national news after California police linked his DNA to multiple murders using a popular DNA website.
Alaska State Trooper Investigator Randy McPherron said he began working on the Sergie case that same year. He was inspired by the DeAngelo arrest and contacted Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia company specializing in DNA analysis. Using DNA obtained in the Sergie autopsy and genealogical information on databases like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, researchers at Parabon linked the sample DNA to five of Downs’s relatives, including a maternal aunt. They contacted McPherron with the results in December.
“After that, things came together very quickly,” McPherron said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Downs, a registered nurse, had never been considered a suspect in the case. However, case files included earlier interviews in which he said he possessed a .22-caliber gun and kept it in his third-floor dorm room in the spring of 1993. Eyewitness accounts placed him in Bennett Hall on the night of the killing.
With this information, McPherron contacted the Maine State Police and began formulating a plan to interview Downs and execute a search warrant. He and another Alaska state trooper arrived in Maine early last week. Along with officers from the Maine State Police and the Auburn police, McPherron searched Downs’s home on Feb. 13 and Feb. 14. They also obtained a DNA sample, which was sent to the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory for analysis. It was a match, the authorities said.
A Maine State Police spokesman, Steve McCausland, said the authorities took Downs into custody without incident at the Auburn Fireside Inn on Friday. When questioned, Downs told police that he recalled the murder but “never knew or saw anything to begin with,” adding “I remember the pictures; it’s terrible, poor girl.” He denied any involvement, the documents said.