The former girlfriend of an Auburn, Maine, man charged in the rape and murder of an Alaska Native woman in 1993 said Thursday that Steven H. Downs never owned a gun in the four years they dated while students at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Attorneys for Downs, 46, called Katherine deSchweinitz Lee on Thursday to testify in Fairbanks Superior Court via videoconference as a witness in support of a motion to dismiss the indictment charging Downs with murder and sexual assault.
According to a police affidavit in support of a search warrant, she had told police when interviewed in 2009 that she didn’t know whether Downs had owned a gun when they were dating.
An Alaska state trooper testified Tuesday that that information was wrong. Lee had actually told police in 2009 that Downs was into weapons, but didn’t have a gun.
deSchweinitz Lee testified under oath in court Thursday that she was recanting her testimony before a 2019 grand jury that might have implied Downs had a gun at the time of the murder and repeated her assertion from 2009 that she had never known Downs to have had a gun, according to Downs’ attorney, Lewiston lawyer James Howaniec, who is representing Downs and traveled to Fairbanks last week for hearings on his motions.
Whether Downs owned a gun at that time during Downs’ freshman year at the school is important because the victim in the crime of which Downs is accused was killed with a .22-caliber handgun.
Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, was killed on the night of April 25, 1993. Police said she had been staying with a friend in a residence dormitory on the school campus where Downs lived at the time of the killing.
He had been living in a dorm room one floor above the bathroom where custodial staff found her body in a woman’s bathroom the next afternoon.
She had been seen late in the evening of April 25, 1993, when she’d left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette, according to police reports.
Investigators said Sergie had been shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in her eyes and cheek, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.
Lee testified Thursday that the only time she’d seen Downs with a gun was one time when they had gone target shooting in the woods, but said he hadn’t owned it.
Police found a .22-caliber handgun in Downs’ Auburn home during a search Feb. 14, 2019. Downs told police he’d bought that gun within the past three years from a man in Turner.
Downs had told police that he’d been with Lee the night Sergie was killed. Police said Lee told them Downs had attended a party in Lee’s dorm room “intermittently” that night.
When questioned under oath Thursday, Lee said she didn’t remember that night, according to Howaniec.
Lee was one of five witnesses called by prosecutors to testify before a grand jury in the spring of 2019.
Defense attorneys are seeking to have Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple dismiss the indictment against Downs.
That motion was one of 11 filed by the defense in the case. It was one of nine motions the court had scheduled to hear over the past week.
But only one defense motion — aimed at suppressing gun evidence and his DNA, as well as statements he made to police on Feb. 14, 2019, — was heard in its entirety this week.
It was on Feb. 14 that Alaska police interviewed Downs at Auburn Police Department, where he was served with a warrant to turn over his DNA by submitting to saliva swabbing.
The Alaska court hearing on the motion to dismiss the indictment was cut short as the court ran out of time Friday.
Howaniec and his team of Maine attorneys had to fly back east on Friday after questioning James McCann, a retired Alaska State Trooper who initially led the investigation into Sergie’s homicide.
McCann said he had interviewed a man about the crime within 24 hours of the discovery of Sergie’s body. He said he flew to another part of Alaska three years later to reinterview the man.
A witness who said she’d been in the same bathroom where Sergie’s body was found described a man wearing a gray shirt leaving the bathroom that night. When McCann interviewed the man, he had been wearing a gray shirt, McCann said Friday.
That man also asked McCann if Sergie had been stabbed, a detail police had deliberately held back from the public, McCann said Friday.
He told McCann in one interview he hadn’t been in the dorm the night of the killing, but suggested he may have been in the dorm during his second interview in 1996.
On cross-examination by Assistant Attorney General Jenna Gruenstein, McCann explained why that man wasn’t arrested or charged Sergie’s slaying. He said he would “home in on that subject” if “my nose catches any real scent.”
He also said “witnesses are notoriously inaccurate.”
McCann said Friday that security in the dorm was lax in 1993 and that by the time he had reached the crime scene, it had been visited by more than a dozen people and that evidence may have been destroyed.
“It’s always bothered me,” he said, “to have a lot of people coming and going from a crime scene.”
As an investigator, he said he was always concerned about losing evidence.
“A suspect always brings something to a crime scene,” he said.
McCann also said Friday he had been so understaffed in his investigations in 1993 that he had sought assistance from Alaska Fish and Wildlife Department Services for anyone with a badge who might be available.
Judge Temple continued the hearings until March, when the motion to dismiss the indictment is expected to be resumed, followed by hearings on the remaining motions.
Temple scheduled Downs’ trial for Jan. 3, 2022.