Steven Downs sentenced to 75 years for Sophie Sergie’s murder 29 years ago at UAF

Steven Downs of Auburn, Maine - sentencing took place last Monday in Fairbanks. (File photo)

Twenty-nine years after he was a freshman living in the dorms at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Steven H. Downs was sentenced to 75 years in prison for sexually assaulting and murdering 20-year-old Sophie Sergie in 1993.

In sentencing Downs on Monday in the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple noted that there was nothing the Court could do to restore the harm caused by Downs’ actions. In his sentencing remarks, Judge Temple commented that Sergie’s life was taken by Mr. Downs’ senseless act and noted Downs gave zero regard to her autonomy as a person, to her value of life, and pointed out that she is forever gone because of Downs’ callous choice.

Judge Temple commented that in addition to taking Sophie from the world, Downs robbed her family of their ability to love her, experience life with her, to continue time on earth with her.

For nearly three decades after Sergie’s murder, there were no suspects in the cold case. A DNA sample taken from Sergie’s body was put into a national DNA database, but did not match another profile in the database. But in 2017, a new investigative method linking DNA technology and genetic research was used to solve a murder case in California. Alaska State Troopers first used this same methodology in 2018, when they submitted the unknown sample from Sergie’s body for genetic genealogy analysis.

This analysis identified Downs as a possible suspect based on a connection to an aunt who had uploaded her profile to an open-source genealogy website. Investigation confirmed that at the time of the murder, Downs was attending UAF and living in the dorm where Sergie was murdered.

When interviewed in 2019, Downs denied having ever met or come into contact with Sergie. Downs was arrested in February 2019, when his DNA was definitively linked by traditional DNA comparison to the DNA sample collected decades ago on Sergie’s body. Downs was extradited from Maine where he worked as a nurse.

Sergie was from the Native village of Pitka’s Point in western Alaska. Sergie was a UAF student who had taken the semester off. She returned to Fairbanks for an orthodontics appointment and was staying at a friend’s dorm room on a girls-only floor of Bartlett Hall. In the early hours of April 26, 1993, Sergie left her friend’s second floor room for a late-night smoke; the next afternoon, she was found dead in a bathtub in the women’s bathroom on the second floor.

Evidence showed that Sergie had been sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times on her face and shot in the back of the head at close range.

Jenna Gruenstein with the State Office of Special Prosecutions argued for a 99-year sentence, with 20 years suspended, for the murder in the first-degree charge and eight years for the sexual assault in the first-degree charge, or 87 years to serve.

Gruenstein argued to the judge that Downs’ brazenness in committing the crime in a public bathroom should be considered when sentencing him.

“First it was unprovoked and a wholly unexplained crime,” she said. “He committed it against someone Downs never met and committed it for no discernible reason. Second, Sergie is a woman who Downs overpowered in every way, height, weight, and weapons … The way he committed the crime, it’s pretty shocking it wasn’t caught earlier because this crime is really one that should’ve been easily detected. It was in a public place with a bathroom stall separating murder from washing and brushing teeth, as students came and went, fairly busy with activity.”

Downs’ defense attorney, Jim Howaniec, described the younger Downs in court as “a boy 4,000 miles away from home for the first time.” Howaniec said he would not downplay the offense, but told the court that Downs continues to assert his innocence. Howaniec described 18-year-old Downs as both well-adjusted and well-liked with a girlfriend, but he also described him as “very immature, drinking and partying a lot, as much as a 1/5 of whiskey every night, somehow maintaining his grades, doing a lot of weed, alienated like a lot of young 18-year-olds.”

The defense asked for 50 years of incarceration with 30 years suspended or 20 years to serve, for murder, and eight years for the sexual assault, to run concurrently.

Judge Temple said Downs’ three decades of not committing a crime could not reduce the magnitude of his conduct. Applying the sentencing laws that were in effect for sentencing when the crime occurred in April 1993, Judge Temple sentenced Downs to 67 years for the murder conviction and eight years for the sexual assault conviction, to run consecutively for a total of 75 years. Under the law, Downs is eligible to ask for discretionary parole after he has served 25 years, at which point he will be 73 years old. Judge Temple also ordered Downs to register as a sex offender for life.

Gruenstein said she was hopeful that the sentencing would help bring healing to Sophie’s family and friends and to the community.

“For both Chris (Chris Darnell, Assistant Attorney General) and myself, it was a real honor to work on this case, given how long it had gone unsolved, how long the community–Fairbanks, UAF, Sophie’s family–had suffered knowing that somebody had apparently gotten away with this murder and rape. I think that being able to provide some closure to the community is one of the best things that came out of this. It’s another example of how helpful genetic genealogy can be. This is the first case that has gone to court in Alaska using this technology.”

The Alaska State Troopers investigated this case with the help of the Maine State Police and the Auburn Police Department. The Alaska State Crime Detection Laboratory and the Maine State Laboratory both conducted DNA testing.