Sophie Sergie
Sophie Sergie. Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers
Trial opens into long-unsolved case of Alaska Native woman
Thursday, January 13, 2022
Indianz.Com


UPDATE
Update from the courthouse in Fairbanks: The trial is not taking place for the remainder of this week so the livestream is not available. The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

A trial has opened into the long-unsolved case of Sophie Sergie, an Alaska Native woman who was killed at the age of 20 nearly three decades ago.

Sergie was Yupik from the village of Pitkas Point, located along the Yukon River in western Alaska. She was visiting a friend at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, a few hundreds miles away by plane, when she was murdered at a dorm on campus in April 1993.

Sergie’s case went unsolved for decades. Meanwhile, the movement to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native people, especially women and girls, gained momentum throughout the nation.

“In Alaska, the face we so often associate with the lack of progress when it comes to addressing the issue of missing and murdered Native women is the face of Sophie Sergie,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in 2017, after the 24th anniversary of Sergie’s passing.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): Murdered and Missing Native Women

Less than two years after Murkowski’s speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, a breakthrough was made. Utilizing DNA collected at the scene of the crime, authorities in Alaska were able to identify a suspect who was living thousands of miles across the country, in Maine.

The suspect, Steven Harris Downs, was an 18-year-old student at the Fairbanks campus at the time of Sergie’s death. The Alaska State Troopers tracked him down using a DNA researching company and by comparing his genetic profile to a relative who used GEDMatch, a popular website used for genetic genealogy and family tree research.

“This case has haunted and frustrated Sophie’s family and friends, the investigators and beyond,” Barry Wilson, who was head of the state troopers, said at the time of the arrest of Downs in February 2019.

Downs, now 47, is on trial for sexual assault and murder. The proceeding opened in Fairbanks on Wednesday, with a livestream from Courtroom 404 available at public.courts.alaska.gov. Each day of the trial is scheduled to start at 8:30am Alaska time before Judge Thomas Temple.

Downs, who was 18 at the time of Sergie’s death, is presumed innocent until found guilty.

The case is State of Alaska vs. Downs, No. 4FA-19-00504CR.