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Crime & Courts

How genealogists helped track down the Maine man accused of killing Sophie Sergie nearly 26 years ago

Just before 3 p.m. on April 26, 1993, custodial workers cleaning a dormitory bathroom at the University of Alaska Fairbanks made a discovery that would shock the Fairbanks community and haunt the Alaska State Troopers for the next quarter century.

Steven H. Downs, 44, was arrested Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in connection with the death of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993. (Photo courtesy Androscoggin County Jail.)

Sophie Sergie, a 20-year-old woman from the Yukon River village of Pitkas Point who had been on campus visiting a friend, was lying in a bathtub, dead. She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times and shot in the back of the head, according to the charging document in the case.

“The case did kind of shatter the sense of security at the university,” said Shirley Lee, an Episcopal priest who holds a remembrance vigil in Fairbanks every year on the anniversary of Sergie’s death. Lee took the vigil over from another woman, Shirley Demientieff, who held rallies and marches demanding justice for Sergie.

Sergie, who had previously been a student at UAF studying marine biology on full scholarship, had moved home to the Western Alaska village of Pitkas Point to earn money for orthodontic work she needed done, according to the charging document in her case. She was scheduled for an orthodontist appointment the morning after her death.

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As the months wore on, it looked like justice might never come. Investigators were able to enter DNA evidence recovered from Sergie’s body into a national database run by the FBI, but there was no matching profile on file, the Alaska State Troopers said.

The DNA also didn’t match any of the dozens of genetic samples investigators collected in the months that followed Sergie’s killing. In time, the trail went cold. For nearly 26 years, the person who killed Sophie Sergie evaded detection.

Then, last year, investigators found a match.

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Steven H. Downs, 44, who was living in Auburn, Maine, not only had a DNA profile that matched the evidence — he had been a student at UAF at the time of her death.

He was arrested Friday in Maine and charged with first-degree murder and sexual assault, the troopers announced in a news conference the same day.

The match didn’t come through the FBI database, though. Instead, investigators brought in help from an unexpected group: genealogists. Specifically, they brought in the help of CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs, a California-based DNA engineering firm.

Moore’s specialty, genetic genealogy, is a very young science. It’s so young, Moore said, that there are no official programs of study that teach it and no agency that certifies those who practice it. Genetic genealogists — the few that there are — are mostly self-taught specialists who started as hobbyists, she said.

Sophie Sergie. (Alaska State Troopers handout photo)

Moore and her colleagues use a combination of genetic testing and family history research, made popular by the likes of Ancestry.com, to solve what Moore calls “family mysteries.” That could be anything from adopted people who don’t know who their biological parents are to people who were kidnapped as children to people who were switched at birth or suffer from memory loss, she said.

Nine months ago, Moore started using the method to help law enforcement solve crimes. Alaska State Troopers reached out to ask for her help with Sergie’s case in June 2018.

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It works like this: When a person uses a consumer genetic testing kit, like the ones offered by AncestryDNA and 23andMe, that person can choose to download their results and re-upload them into a database called GEDMatch. GEDMatch isn’t itself a genetic testing service, Moore said, but a repository where users can choose to store their genetic information.

Once genetic genealogists have a DNA sample taken from a crime scene, they can test it against the 1.4 million DNA profiles that have been voluntarily uploaded to the GEDMatch database.

If the search returns a match, they can determine how closely related the matching profile is to the sample taken from the scene — whether the person is “first degree” relative of the suspect, like a parent or sibling, “second degree” like a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or even farther removed than that.

From there, they can use public records, such as obituaries, engagement announcements and social media posts, to narrow down a suspect.

“It’s a revolution in crime fighting, without a doubt," Moore said.

Olga Tinker-John comforts her aunt Elena Sergie as Alaska State Troopers announce the arrest of Steven H. Downs in the 1993 Fairbanks murder of Sophie Sergie, on Friday at the Alaska State Crime Lab. Elena Sergie is Sophie’s mother. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

When Moore tested the DNA taken from the crime scene, it returned a “second-degree” match from the database. That pointed to a half-sibling, a grandchild/grandparent, or an aunt/nephew relationship.

“When you see that close of a match, there is an extremely high likelihood that you’ll be able to identify the suspect,” Moore said.

Through family history research, Moore’s team narrowed down the most likely suspect down to the match’s nephew: Steven Downs.

Downs was living in Auburn, Maine. But in April 1993, he was an 18-year-old student at UAF. He lived in the same dorm where Sergie’s body was found. His dorm room was one floor above, according to charging documents. Witnesses had placed him in the building that night, according to the charges.

Downs’ roommate at UAF had previously told investigators, in 2010, that Downs kept a .22-caliber handgun in their dorm room, the same caliber that was used to shoot and kill Sergie, the charges say.

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Downs, who was born in Maine, left there to attend college at UAF from 1992 to 1996. After he graduated, he lived in Arizona for a time before returning to Maine, and had been a nurse there, according to the charges and licensing information in Maine.

The genetic match wasn’t enough to make an arrest. Investigators still have to compare the suspect’s DNA directly against the evidence.

“I point them in the right direction and they decide whether that seems like a viable suspect," Moore said.

When investigators visited Downs at his home in Maine on Wednesday, he told them he recognized Sergie from pictures that had been put up after her death, but denied knowing her or ever speaking to her. He said he “never knew or saw anything to begin with," according to the charges.

He told them multiple times that he believed soldiers from nearby Fort Wainwright had killed her, since they were “often in the building,” according to the charging document.

When investigators showed him photos of Sergie, he reportedly told them, “I remember the pictures, it’s terrible, poor girl."

The next day, Thursday, investigators obtained a warrant to search Downs’ home and take a DNA swab from him, according to the charges. It matched.

He was charged on Friday, and is now being detained at the Androscoggin County Jail in Maine to await extradition back to Alaska. Alaska State Troopers announced the charges at a news conference in Anchorage, joined by members of Sergie’s family.

Genetic genealogy was also used to point investigators in the direction of Joseph James DeAngelo, who is now on trial in California for the “Golden State Killer” murders.

Agencies nationwide are “flocking” to the the new method, Moore said, and Downs’ arrest may spur even more to try it. In the last nine months, Parabon has helped law enforcement agencies identify 37 potential suspects.

In the future, the method might even be used to help solve active cases as well, which she said could have far reaching implications, especially for groups who are more vulnerable to violent crime.

“This is really important for everyone, but particularly for vulnerable members of society,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Sophie Sergie’s body was found just before 3 a.m. It was found just before 3 p.m. The article also said that the Alaska State Troopers contacted Parabon NanoLabs for assistance in Sergie’s case in October 2018. In fact, the agency first reached out to the company in June and received the genetic testing results in October. Additionally, the article stated that Downs’ dorm room was one floor below the bathroom where Sergie’s body was found. It was was one floor above.

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