Auburn man's roommate says Downs had gun at time of 1993 murder

·5 min read

Jan. 25—FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The Auburn, Maine, man who is on trial for the rape and murder of a native Alaska woman owned two guns and a knife when the woman was killed 29 years ago, the defendant's college roommate testified Monday.

Steven H. Downs, 47, is charged with sexually assaulting and murdering Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska, on April 26, 1993.

Investigators said Sergie was 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.

Nicholas Dazer, who shared a room with Downs at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks when they were freshmen, testified Monday at Fairbanks Superior Court that Downs had a .22-caliber pistol and a derringer handgun in their dormitory room at the time of Sergie's murder.

Sergie was found in the bathtub room of the women's bathroom on the second floor of Bartlett Hall. Downs and Dazer lived on the third floor of the dormitory.

Downs also had a switchblade knife, Dazer told investigators.

Dazer said he did not reveal Downs had the weapons until 17 years after the crime, when two Alaska State Police troopers came to visit him in 2010 at his law office in Portland, Oregon, to interview him about Sergie's murder and collect Dazer's DNA.

"I had some anxiety, of course," Dazer said.

The troopers asked Dazer about his movements that night, he said. And they asked if Downs had guns.

Dazer said he told the investigators Downs had an Harrington & Richardson .22-caliber revolver and a derringer handgun at the time Sergie was killed.

During cross-examination Monday, Downs' lawyer showed Dazer a photograph of an H&R .22-caliber pistol found in 2019 during a search of Downs' home in Auburn. Dazer said he remembered the gun Downs owned in 1993 as having a barrel with flat sides, not rounded, as shown in the photograph.

When questioned again by prosecutors about the appearance of the gun, Dazer said he might have misremembered the shape of the barrel.

Dazer said Downs was his best friend when they shared a dormitory room at school. He said they have remained good friends.

They often dined and lifted weights together. They also hunted and fished, too.

Since their time at school, Dazer said Downs has served as a groomsman at his wedding and Dazer has visited Downs at his Auburn home.

Asked by defense lawyer James Howaniec of Lewiston if Dazer remembered Downs' behavior at the time of Sergie's murder as having been unusual, Dazer said, "Absolutely not."

Dazer said he never saw Downs act inappropriately with a gun.

In a pretrial motion, the lawyer for Downs sought to present evidence at trial linking men other than Downs to the murder as alternative suspects.

Judge Thomas Temple ruled earlier the defense could present evidence that implicated three, including Dazer, who had been employed as a school security guard at the time.

Downs said if he had possessed such a gun at the time, Dazer would have had access to it.

Dazer said he had been working security near the dormitory the night Sergie went missing and 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 does not show a direct link to the crime, Temple ruled.

Prosecutors said at the start of the trial that Downs had the weapons used in Sergie's killing and that his semen was found inside Sergie.

Downs' 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.

He was arrested in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks to stand trial. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Police said Sergie was last seen alive when she left a friend's dormitory room to smoke a cigarette early on the morning of April 26, 1993. The custodial staff found her body in a women's bathroom on the second floor that afternoon.

A trooper assigned to investigate the case testified Monday he witnessed her partially nude body in the bathtub of the women's bathroom. He said the body was wet to the touch, even though the tub was dry.

He was given evidence, including hairs, swabs of stains, fingerprints and a red disposable cigarette lighter found in the tub's drain that had been collected by criminalists at the crime scene to package and label and transport to the state's crime lab or a police evidence locker.

James McCann, the trooper who led the state police investigation of Sergie's murder, took the witness stand Monday, testifying he spoke to as many people as possible to collect information, but witnesses "tend to be unreliable."

"Most witnesses are good and they want to be helpful," McCann said. "But when they start to think about things, they sometimes see things in their memory that were not accurate."

McCann said he sought to hold back information from the public so only Sergie's killer would know certain details about the crime, but that leaks within his department occurred.

He said perpetrators of this type of crime often keep souvenirs of the incident.

McCann said his small unit was stretched thin at the time with other major crime investigations, he said.

A month after Sergie's murder, McCann said, his unit was pulled away to investigate a major case involving the "strange disappearance of a public figure." At that time, McCann's investigators had not developed a viable lead for Sergie's killer, he said.

But that case was not more important than Sergie's murder, he said.

"The worst crime of all is a sexual murder," McCann said. "This woman was killed brutally. Not because of her own actions, but just because she was a woman and she was to come into that bathroom.

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That takes precedence, in my view."