Auburn man charged in Alaska murder can name alternative suspects, judge rules

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Dec. 16—A judge has ruled that an Auburn man will be allowed to cast suspicion on three alternative suspects at his murder trial next month in Alaska.

Steven H. Downs, 47, is charged with sexual assault and murder in the April 25, 1993, slaying of Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska.

He was arrested in Auburn in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he is being held at the local jail pending trial, which is expected to start Jan. 3.

Downs was a student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1993 and lived in the dorm where Sergie's body was found.

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 concluded the cause of Sergie's death was the bullet fired into her head.

Police said Sergie, who had been visiting the school, was last seen alive when she left a friend's dorm room to smoke a cigarette. Custodial staff found her body in a woman's bathroom the next afternoon.

That bathroom was on the second floor of the dorm in which Downs lived on the third floor.

He was arrested in Auburn in February 2019. His DNA was matched in 2018 to evidence found at the crime scene through a random hit after Downs' aunt submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

Through his attorneys, Downs had filed a motion naming 16 alternative suspects at whom he had been seeking to point a finger at trial.

But Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple wrote in an order signed Tuesday that Downs would be able to present evidence at trial against three of them in an effort to raise reasonable doubt about Downs' guilt because he had established a direct link between those three and Sergie's rape and murder.

One of the three had been Downs' roommate at the school.

Nicholas Dazer had been employed as a school security guard at the time and is expected to testify at trial for the prosecution.

Dazer told investigators that Downs possessed a Harrington and Richardson .22-caliber revolver at the time Sergie was killed.

Downs claims that, if he had possessed such a gun at the time, Dazer would have had access to it. He had been working security near the dorm the night Sergie went missing and had guarded the crime scene after her body was discovered.

Other evidence raised by the defense, such as Dazer's firing because he owned a .40-caliber pistol while on campus, will not be allowed at trial because it doesn't show a direct link to the crime, Temple ruled.

Downs may implicate another alternative suspect, Gregory Thornton, at trial, Temple ruled.

He was identified by a student as someone who left the woman's bathroom, where Sergie was found dead in a bathtub, the same day her body was discovered.

Thornton had been living with a friend who had a room at that dorm before Sergie's murder, but had disappeared from campus shortly after her body was found.

Two men who knew Thornton told police he owned a .22-caliber pistol at that time.

The third alternative suspect whom Downs may present evidence against at trial is Kenneth Moto.

Moto's sister had told Alaska police in a 2009 interview that her brother had confessed the crime to her.

But since she died after speaking with police, her information is considered hearsay and cannot be presented at trial, Temple wrote in his order.

If Moto were to be called as a witness, Downs' attorneys could question him about his relationship with Sergie, where he was the night of her disappearance and what he was doing, as well as whether he told his sister he had killed Sergie, Temple wrote.

Prosecutors had sought to keep any evidence of alternative suspects from being allowed at trial.

James Howaniec of Lewiston, who is the lead lawyer representing Downs, said Wednesday: "We are assessing the impact of the decision as part of our trial preparation."

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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