Steven Downs

Steven Harris Downs exits a Fairbanks courtroom following arraignment for his alleged 1993 rape and murder of Sophie Sergie in University of Alaska Fairbanks’ dormitories. Downs was extradited from his hometown of Auburn, Maine, and pleaded not guilty in Anchorage on August 6. Aug. 14, 2019.

Steven Harris Downs, the Auburn, Maine, man recently extradited to Fairbanks to face charges for a 1993 rape and homicide, must post $550,000 in bail or remain at Fairbanks Correctional Center until his case is resolved. 

Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Earl Peterson set Downs’ bail Friday morning after a lengthy hearing that included comments from the victim’s brother and arguments from Downs’ attorneys and state prosecutors.   

Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitka’s Point, was found dead in a bathtub at Bartlett Hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on April 26, 1993. She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times and shot in the back of the head.

Alaska State Troopers collected evidence and questioned more than 90 people but were unable to identify a suspect at the time. The case was periodically reexamined but remained in the cold case file for years until 2018, when DNA evidence found in Sergie’s body was compared to DNA samples voluntarily submitted to a genealogical database. One of those samples belonged to Downs’ aunt, and laboratory tests determined her DNA profile only had one possible second-degree relationship with a male relative — her nephew, Downs. 

Maine State Police searched Downs’ house on Feb. 13 of this year and obtained a sample of DNA from inside his cheek. The Maine state crime lab performed a DNA comparison in less than 24 hours and was able to match Downs’ DNA with that found in Sergie’s body, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. 

Downs, 44, was arrested by the Maine State Police Tactical Team near his home two days later and charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. After a lengthy extradition process he was arraigned in Anchorage court Aug. 6 and his bail was set at $500,000 cash performance bond and $500,000 cash appearance bond. Downs was then transported to Fairbanks, arraigned in Superior Court on Wednesday and a bail hearing set for Friday.

At the bail hearing, Downs’ attorney Jim Howaniec argued that there were “significant flaws” in the investigation and his client’s “only connection to the case is 26-year-old DNA evidence.” 

“Frankly, and I know the state disagrees with me, but we really think that there’s barely even probable cause that Mr. Downs committed this homicide,” Howaniec said.

Jenna Gruenstein, an attorney with the Office of Special Prosecution in Anchorage, appeared telephonically. Gruenstein asked Peterson to maintain the bail amount set at Downs’ Anchorage arraignment, and said she believed Downs was a danger to the public and a flight risk.  

“I think that is exacerbated by the violence of this crime ... the combination of the stabbing and shooting as well as how bold and brazen his conduct was, given the location where it was committed,” Gruenstein said.

Peterson said that when considering Downs’ bail, the strongest factors against him were his lack of ties to the Fairbanks community, his potential for flight, the weight of the state’s evidence against him and the nature of the crime.

“The alleged offense is apparently aberrant in nature, in as much as it appears to be a random, unmotivated offense. The nature of the injuries and the condition in which the alleged victim was left are brazen and dehumanizing,” Peterson said. 

Peterson said factors in Downs’ favor were his employment history, his lack of prior criminal history and his ties to his parents in Maine. Peterson said he was concerned that Downs would not bear any financial risk in posting bond because his parents were his only financial resource.

Peterson kept the amount of Downs’ appearance bond at $500,000 and set his performance bond at $50,000, or 10% of the original. 

“The burden in any argument here is on the prosecution, and in those areas of the nature and circumstances of the weight of evidence, those go to speaking on community safety, and the state has carried its burden in arguing for community safety to be paramount here,” Peterson said.

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.