Maine Nurse Gets 75 Years For Raping, Killing Woman In Alaska Dorm In 1993

A Maine nurse who attended college in Alaska was sentenced to 75 years behind bars after being convicted of the rape and murder a 20-year-old woman inside his dorm almost three decades ago.

A Fairbanks Superior Court judge handed down the sentence to Steven Downs, 48, on Monday. A jury found him guilty of Sophie Sergie’s murder after a five-week trial in February.

Sergie’s body was found in a bathtub inside Bartlett Hall, a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory in April 1993, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. She’d been sexually assaulted and was stabbed multiple times in the face, but died from a single .22 caliber bullet wound to the back of her head, per charging documents. Her body was found by janitors about 12 hours after the attack.

Sergie, a former student at the school, had been living in Pitkas Point — a remote town of 130, mostly Indigenous people 517 miles west of Fairbanks — and had traveled to Fairbanks for a dental appointment. She was staying with her former roommate at Bartlett Hall at the time of her death, officials said. 

A police handout of Sophie Sergie
A police handout of Sophie Sergie

Sophie Sergie Photo: Alaska DPS

Prosecutors say that Downs also lived in the same dormitory where Sergie’s body was found. He was questioned by detectives at the time of the incident but claimed he’d spent the night with his girlfriend. His roommate, Nick Dazer, was also interviewed by authorities at the time.

For nearly two decades, the case went cold.

In 2000, investigators developed a DNA profile from semen found with Sergie's body, but it wasn't a match for any known offenders in state or federal databases.

In 2010, cold case detectives re-interviewed Dazer after learning he had been fired from his job as a campus security guard for keeping a firearm inside the dorm he then-shared with Downs. Dazer confirmed he'd been terminated from his job but denied owning a .22 caliber firearm, alleging that Downs had actually owned and kept a .22 caliber gun in their dormitory room in 1993.

In 2019, cold case investigators for the Alaska State Troopers linked Downs to the case using genetic genealogy and DNA testing. A sample of Downs’ DNA ultimately matched a DNA sample found in Sergie’s body, according to charging documents.

Downs was arrested in Auburn, Maine — where he had been living and previously worked as a nurse — and was extradited to Alaska to stand trial. Downs denied he carried out Sergie’s killing and pleaded not guilty in August 2019.

Steven H. Downs
Steven H. Downs

Steven Downs has been identified as a suspect in the 1993 murder of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie, through DNA evidence. Photo: Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department

Down's trial was the first time that particular DNA technology — first popularized in the Golden State Killer case — was used to secure a conviction in Alaska, prosecutors said.

“It was a real honor to work on this case, given how long it had gone unsolved, how long the community — Fairbanks, UAF, Sophie’s family — had suffered knowing that somebody had apparently gotten away with this murder and rape,” Jenna Gruenstein with the State Office of Special Prosecutions said.

Gruenstein described Sergie’s bathroom dorm killing as an “unprovoked and a wholly unexplained crime.”

“He committed it against someone [he] never met and committed it for no discernible reason,” Gruenstein added. “Sergie is a woman who Downs overpowered in every way, height, weight and weapons. The way he committed the crime, it’s pretty shocking it wasn’t caught earlier because this crime is really one that should’ve been easily detected. It was in a public place with a bathroom stall separating murder from washing and brushing teeth, as students came and went, fairly busy with activity.”

Downs’ attorney, Jim Howaniec, however, insisted in court his client is “not a monster,” Maine television station WMTW reported. He described his client as “a boy 4,000 miles away from home for the first time” at the time of Sergie’s killing.  

“[He was] very immature, drinking and partying a lot, as much as a 1/5 of whiskey every night, somehow maintaining his grades, doing a lot of weed, alienated like a lot of young 18-year-olds,” Howaniec said.

Howaniec had requested the court impose a 50-year prison term with 30 years suspended, and eight years for the sexual assault to run concurrently, noting that sentence would allow Downs to hug his parents again in his lifetime.

“Since April of 1993, Miss Sergie hasn't been able to hug anyone,” Judge Thomas Temple shot back, apparently irked by the defense’s suggestion. “No one's been able to hug Miss Sergie. No one will ever hug her again." 

Downs is appealing his conviction, according to prosecutors.