A 44-year-old nurse from Maine has been arrested in the murder of a 20-year-old woman on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks nearly 26 years after she was killed, authorities say. Steven Downs is facing murder, sexual assault and other charges in the death of Sophie Sergie after DNA obtained through a genealogical database linked him to the case, investigators say.
Downs was an 18-year-old freshman at the Alaska college when Sergie was killed, according to court documents. Downs was interviewed briefly by police at the time of the murder, but denied any knowledge of what happened, investigators said in charging documents. Sergie, a Native Alaskan from the western village of Pitkas Point, was visiting a friend at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when she was brutally sexually assaulted and killed inside a dormitory there.
Investigators used new DNA technology that has led to arrests in several cold cases around the country, most notably in the Golden State Serial killer case, according to the Portland Press-Herald. Downs, of Auburn, Maine, was arrested Friday, February 15, at his home. He was charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault, court records show.
“Through their dogged persistence, advances in technology and the spirit of cooperation exhibited by each agency that touched this case, justice for Sophie is finally within reach,” Alaska State Police Colonel Barry Wilson said Friday at a press conference in Anchorage. “While an arrest doesn’t bring Sophie back, we are relieved to provide this closure. This case has haunted and frustrated Sophie’s family and friends, the investigators and beyond. However, we did it. Investigators never gave up on Sophie.”
It is not known if Downs has hired an attorney to comment on his behalf. His family could not be reached for comment by Heavy. Sergie’s family, including her mother, appeared at a press conference in Anchorage on Friday alongside police, but did not speak.
Here’s what you need to know about Steven Downs and the Sophie Sergie murder case:
1. Sophie Sergie Was Found Dead of Stab Wounds & a Gunshot to the Back of the Head in a Bathtub in a College Dorm on April 26, 1993
Sophie Sergie was found dead inside a bathroom in Bartlett Hall on the campus of University of Alaska Fairbanks on April 26, 1993, according to court documents. Sergie’s body was in a bathtub with stab wounds and a gunshot wound to the back of the head, police said. Evidence showed she had been sexually assaulted.
Sergie, 20, had traveled from her home in Pitkas Point to Fairbanks to visit a friend, Shirley Wasuli. She was previously a student at the university, but left college in 1992 to move home and earn money for orthodontic work she needed to be done. Sergie planned to spend the weekend with her friend and then go to a dental appointment on Monday, April 26, according to court documents.
Sergie was last seen Sunday night, April 25, while in a dorm room with Wasuli and Wasuli’s boyfriend in Bartlett Hall. She told Wasuli she wanted to smoke a cigarette, and Wasuli told her to smoke near the exhaust vents in the tub room of the women’s bathroom, because it was too cold outside. Wasuli and her boyfriend left to go to his room and left a note for Sergie.
Wasuli told police she returned to her dorm room about 9 a.m. on Monday and found that Sergie was not there. The note she left was still on the dorm room door and it appeared Sergie had never returned, according to court documents. Wasuli called Sergie’s orthodonist and learned she missed her appointment.
About 2:40 p.m. that afternoon, janitors cleaned the women’s bathroom on the second floor of Bartlett Hall, found Sergie dead in the bathtub near shower stalls.
“She had multiple stab wounds on the right side of her face, and her face was covered in dried blood,” police wrote in court documents. “Sophie’s clothing and hair were damp, indicating that the water had been run after she was placed in the tub. When her body was removed from the tub, investigators discovered she had also been shot in the back of the head.”
Investigators were not able to find the killer and the high-profile case eventually went cold, though detectives continued to follow leads into the next decade. In 2010, police re-interviewed Steven Downs’ roommate, who was a security guard in the dorm, because he had been fired for having a gun.
The roommate, Nicholas Dazer, told an investigator he denied owning a .22 caliber gun, but said his roommate, Downs, did keep a .22 caliber gun in his dorm room and owned other guns. According to court documents, investigators found that the bullet recovered from Sergie’s body was consistent with having been fired from a .22. caliber gun. Downs was not identified as a concrete suspect and in 2010 and it is not clear if he was ever re-interviewed.
2. Downs, Who Was Caught Through DNA His Aunt Sent to a Geneological Website, Told Detectives, ‘It’s Terrible, Poor Girl,’ but Denied Any Involvement When Interviewed Before His Arrest
Investigators were able to take DNA from Sophie Sergie’s body in 1993, but DNA technology was not being used at that time in Alaska, according to court documents filed in Steven Downs’ case. The DNA sample was tested in the late 1990s and then again in May 2000, but it did not match any DNA profiles uploaded into a national database. It also did not match suspects who were explored in the case.
The break in the case came in 2018, when Alaska State Troopers Investigator Randy McPherron was assigned to the case. He contacted a lab that uses genealogical cases to identify possible suspects in unsolved criminal cases, and the lab agreed to analyze the forensic sample in Sergie’s case and compare it to databases, according to court documents.
The lab submitted the DNA profile obtained from the crime scene to a public database, GEDmatch, and found “two promising matches (second cousins or closer) and three potentially promising matches (third cousin or closer.) On December 18, 2018, the lab said it found a likely relative of the suspect and had, “through process of elimination determined that the known relative to the DNA profile had only one possible second-degree relationship with a male relative, her nephew, Steven H. Downs.”
The lab’s researchers found that Downs had been born in Maine, but attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 1992 to 1996. Downs had never been arrested previously and therefore his DNA had never been submitted to the national database.
Downs was interviewed on February 13, 2019, by the Main State Police, who were working with Alaska State Troopers. Downs told detectives he remembered a woman was murdered in his dorm at UAF, but said he didn’t’ know her and had never been in contact with her. According to court documents:
When the Maine police officers showed him a picture of Sergie, Downs state that he recognized Sergie from the posters that had been put up around the time of the murder, but confirmed that he did not know her and didn’t believe he had ever been in contact with her. Downs said that he lived on the third floor of the dorm but predominantly stayed with his girlfriend, who lived on the fourth floor of the dorm. Downs indicated that he didn’t believe he ever had been on the second floor of the building. Downs said he believed he had been in his girlfriend’s room most of the evening that Sergie was killed. Downs repeatedly told the detectives that he suspected soldiers from Ft. Wainwright were responsible for Sergie’s murder because they were often in the building. He assured the detectives that if he knew anything about the incident at all, he ‘would have been forthright from the jump.’ He stated, ‘I never knew or saw anything to begin with.’
The Maine detectives showed Downs the photos of Sergie one more time before leaving and he told them, “I remember the pictures, it’s terrible, poor girl,” before again denying he knew her, according to court documents.
On February 14, a search warrant was executed to search Downs’ home and obtained a DNA sample. The Maine State Crime Lab analyzed Downs’ DNA sample and confirmed his DNA profile matched the profile of the DNA sample from Sergie’s body. He was arrested without incident on February 15.
You can read the charging document below:
3. Downs Was Fired From a Nursing Job for Making Female Co-Workers Uncomfortable With ‘Inappropriate Behavior’ & Medication Handling Errors, a Disciplinary Filing Shows
Steven Downs worked as a nurse in Maine at Harris Hosue in Livermore Falls, an intermediate care facility for patients with intellectual disabilities who need nursing care. He was fired in April 2016 for a “totality of substandard performance,” according to public records. It is not clear if he was employed as a nurse elsewhere after his termination, but his nursing license remains active.
According to a “consent agreement for warning and education” that Downs signed with the State of Maine Board of Nursing in 2016, following a complaint made by his former employer, Downs was first licensed to practice as a registered nurse in 2011.
According to the complaint, Downs “made statements to a co-worker that made the individual uncomfortable” in January 2016. Downs said it was not his intent to make her uncomfortable and apologized to her. In March 2016, a second female co-worker “complained that one evening Mr. Downs made her uncomfortable through his words and actions when discussing a resident care matter. Mr. Downs disputes that his conduct was inappropriate,” according to the agreement.
Downs was also accused of mishandling medications. In September 2016, the nursing board offered Downs a consent agreement with the following disciplinary terms: “a warning and a requirement that he successfully complete a course in professional boundaries, pre-approved by the board’s executive director, within three months of the execution of the consent agreement.”
He completed a course called “professional boundaries in nursing.” According to state records, Downs’ nursing license remains active until August 31, 2020.
4. He Is a Maine Native Who Grew Up in Auburn With His Parents & Sister Before Going to College in Alaska & Also Spending Time Living in Arizona
Steven Harris Downs is a native of Auburn, Maine. He is the son of Karla and Philip Downs, and has one sister. Downs attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 1992 to 1996 and then spent time living in Tucson, Arizona, from 1998 to 2003.
Downs returned to Auburn in 2003 and has lived in a single-family home on Hillcrest Street there since 2004. He purchased the home for $196,000.
It is not clear what kind of work Downs did prior to becoming a registered nurse in 2011 or where, or if, he was working at the time of his arrest.
According to CBS 13, Downs’ parents told a reporter they did not know he had been arrested on rape and murder charges. They said they were shocked and needed time to process the news. His parents told the news station they got a call from Alaska State Troopers on Friday, but assumed it was a scam and ignored it.
5. Downs, Who Has No Criminal Record Aside From Traffic Violations, Remains in Custody in Maine & Will Be Extradited to Alaska
Steven Downs has no criminal record, excluding traffic violations, online records show. He remains in custody at Androscoggin County Jail in Maine and is expected to appear in court on Tuesday, February 19, for the first time. He faces extradition to Alaska.
“Sophie’s tragic death was a heartbreaking loss for her family and friends. It sent shock waves throughout our university and local community, and challenged our sense of security,” University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Dan White said in a statement. “While today’s news is a step toward justice for Sophie and her family, it is also a reminder of a traumatic chapter in our community’s history. If you are struggling with this news, please reach out for help.”
Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy said in a statement, “I commend the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Law for their exemplary work in cracking open a cold case that has haunted the family of Sophie Sergie and the UAF community for decades. While today’s arrest may bring a measure of relief to Sophie’s family and friends, First Lady Rose and I know nothing can completely heal their pain and sense of loss. We hope and pray for Sophie’s family as the case unfolds in the judicial system in the months ahead.”