The DNA of an Auburn, Maine, man accused of murdering and sexually assaulting an Alaska Native woman nearly three decades ago was found inside her body, prosecutors told the jury Wednesday on the first day of Steven H. Downs’ trial in Fairbanks.
Downs, 47, sat at a table in Fairbanks Superior Court dressed in a button-down shirt and sweater vest. He has awaited trial since his extradition to Alaska from Maine in 2020.
His lawyer, James Howaniec, of Lewiston told the jury of 10 women and six men, including four alternates, that prosecutors had left out many important facts in their opening statement.
“You will have reasonable doubt as to whether Steven Downs committed this crime,” Howaniec said. “You will be convinced that he’s innocent of this crime. And by the end of this trial, you will know who committed this crime.”
Howaniec described the prosecutors’ case as “extremely thin,” saying, “They have some evidence that there was sexual contact, and that’s all they have.”
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Darnall said the victim, Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, had been staying the weekend of April 25, 1993, with a friend who was a student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Sergie had been a student there, but was taking a year off to work so she could get health insurance to help pay for needed orthodontia.
Investigators said Sergie had been shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in the cheek and eye, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.
The medical examiner said Sergie died from a bullet fired into her head.
Police arrested Downs after his DNA was matched in late 2018 to evidence found at the crime scene through a random hit after Downs’ aunt had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.
Prosecutors said Downs was a student at the college and had been seen in the same dormitory around the time Sergie’s body was found. He had possessed the same type of weapons — a gun and a knife — that had inflicted injuries found on Sergie’s body, they said.
Sergie’s friend Shirley Akelkok testified Wednesday she and her boyfriend, Noah, and Sergie had eaten pizza in Akelkok’s dorm room on the second floor of Bartlett Hall on that Sunday night.
Afterward, Sergie wanted to smoke a cigarette, so Akelkok suggested she smoke inside the bathroom down the hall because there was a large vent and it was very cold outside.
Akelkok left minutes later with her boyfriend to go to his room at a different dorm for the night. She said she never again saw Sergie, who was supposed to sleep that night at Akelkok’s dorm room.
The next day, Akelkok said she returned to her dorm room to find all of Sergie’s things still there, the door unlocked and the lights and television on, as they had been the night before when she had left.
Akelkok testified she had told investigators years later she had made eye contact with Downs as she and her boyfriend were leaving her dorm room the night Sergie went to smoke a cigarette.
Akelkok said she had been shown a photograph of Downs as he appeared in 1993 and recognized him. She said did not know who he was at the time.
Downs had lived on the third floor of Bartlett Hall during his freshman year. At the time of Sergie’s slaying, he had been staying on the fourth floor of the dormitory with his girlfriend, who was having a party that night, Akelkok told investigators.
Assistant Attorney General Darnall said Downs’ girlfriend told police Downs had not been with her the entire time that night.
Darnall also told the jury Downs’ girlfriend told police she had gone shooting one day with Downs during that time and that the gun they fired small-caliber ammunition.
Downs’ roommate told investigators Downs owned a .22-caliber gun at the time, Darnall told jurors.
Howaniec disputed many of Darnall’s assertions, including Downs’ alleged ownership of a gun while at school.
He said Downs’ roommate had cast suspicion on Downs years later, saying he owned a .22-caliber gun while at school in an effort to deflect suspicion from himself.
No one else had told investigators Downs had a gun while at school, Howaniec said.
Darnall told jurors police had found a .22-caliber gun at Downs’ home during a search in February 2019, but Howaniec said Wednesday the gun had not been a match for the one that fired the slug found at the crime scene. Howaniec said he would present a witness at trial who would testify he had sold Downs that gun in 2016 in Livermore, Maine.
While Darnall pointed to semen found in Sergie that matched Downs’ DNA, Howaniec countered that male pubic hairs and saliva found on her body did not match samples from Downs. And his fingerprints were not found at the crime scene, Howaniec said.
Howaniec told jurors that prosecutors only presented evidence that implicated Downs, but ignored evidence that exonerated him.
“They speculate he did it. And more disturbingly, once they thought he might have done it, when they arrested him back in February of 2019, they started trying to fit square pegs into round holes,” Howaniec said.
Darnall told jurors they would hear from a witness who was in the bathroom where Sergie’s body was found — in the fetal position in a bathtub — by a janitor who notified police.
The witness had been in the sink area of the bathroom when she saw a man emerge from the bathtub area, Darnall said. She described him as having dark brown hair, longer than a military cut, with a “regular” build and somewhat tan looking, but not Alaska Native.
Howaniec said the same witness had told police she saw a “dark-skinned” male leaving the shower (area) and walk out of the bathroom and into the hallway.
The witness described the man as having short, black hair and being about 5 feet 8 inches tall, according to Howaniec.
Howaniec told jurors his client had blondish-brown hair, a light complexion and was 6 feet 2 inches tall, “looking nothing like the individual seen coming out of the murder scene at the time of the murder.”
Through a pretrial motion, defense lawyers for Downs sought to present evidence at trial linking men other than Downs to the murder as alternative suspects.
The trial is scheduled to last six weeks.