Audio recordings of past interviews with Steven Downs presented in the jury trial
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -Randel McPherron picked up the Sophie Sergie cold case in 2017, nearly 24 years after Sergie was found dead in a dormitory bathroom at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed, and died from a gunshot wound to the back of the head.
“Back in 2017, when I first came back, we had received a couple of tips on the Sergie case. I followed up on those tips. They didn’t really lead to anywhere and then following up on this case kind of inspired me to, you know, really learn the case and then get it organized,” said McPherron in a Fairbanks Courtroom Wednesday, February 22, 2022.
McPherron had been with the Alaska State Troopers for many years before retiring in May of 2012. A month later he started working for the Alaska State Troopers once again, this time working cold cases. The program was disbanded in 2015 due to budget cuts but was restored in 2017.
During his investigation into the case, he stated other investigators looked over Sergie’s files over the years as new evidence was presented and new technological advancements were made, but there were never any consistent leads or suspects.
That all changed with a break in genetic genealogy when Downs aunt submitted a genealogy testing kit.
“Did that process end up with a potential lead for investigative purposes?” asked Jenna Gruenstien, Prosecutor for the State of Alaska.
“Yes, it did,” answered McPherron.
“Who was that?” She rebutted.
“Steven Downs,” said McPherron.
He discovered in his investigation that Downs was a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks during the time of the murder. He also learned that Downs lived in the same building she was killed. In an interview with Downs former roommate, Nick Daizer, he stated Downs owned a 22-caliber firearm that he kept in his dorm room.
“Downs had not been fully interviewed, so he kind of had fallen through the cracks. A DNA sample hadn’t been collected from him. His fingerprints were on file so we couldn’t compare his prints to the prints that had been collected at the crime scene. So, all those factors together certainly made him a viable suspect.”
The DNA found on Sergie was put into CODIS in 2001. CODIS is an acronym for the Combined DNA Index System. According to the FBI’s website, CODIS is defined as a DNA index system that blends forensic science and computer technology into a tool for linking violent crimes. McPherron used the information from the “SNP”, or single nucleotide polymorphism. The SNP profile contains the genetic information that a person would share with a relative.
“The best way it was described to me, it’s like the blueprint that makes up an individual. As opposed to an STR profile that is used in CODIS which is like a genetic fingerprint,” said McPherron. “The theory is basically you [sic] develop this profile uploaded into a genetic or genealogy database and try to find your suspect’s relatives. Then once you find these various relatives you can determine how closely they are related to him.”
When Mcpherron got a lead using the SNP profile and other reports, he and another detective flew to Auburn Maine in February of 2019. He had previously contacted the Maine State Police where they worked together to try to gather information about Downs, get an affidavit for a search warrant in Alaska and Maine, and conduct surveillance of his home and whereabouts. During this time detectives had little luck noting he did not leave his house often and when he did his outgoings were not scheduled. They also noted he did not put out his garbage for several weeks.
Jay Pelletier, Deputy Corporal with the Maine State Police assisted Mcpherron with this effort. He had testified in court stating they talked to Downs before Mcpherron interviewed him, stating Downs was open to speaking with police. During the interview, he stated his demeanor was surprised at first which is normal, but he seemed comfortable speaking with them. Officers showed Downs pictures of Sophie and spoke with him about that night April 26, 1993.
“How did Mr. Downs react when you showed him those photos?” asked Alaska State Prosecutor Chris Darnall.
“I really didn’t note any reaction and kind of remained conversational just like we had been throughout,” said Pelletier.
Several recordings Maine State Police conducted and Interviews that Mcpherron conducted February 14-15, 2019 were played to Jurors. The first interview with Pelletier was roughly 26 minutes long. One of the recordings was roughly an hour-long conversation with Downs. During that time Downs reiterated to detectives “It wasn’t me.” In both interviews he had told detectives he questioned if “GI’s” that frequented the campus were responsible, even recollecting a time when he was woken up by men who had broken into his girlfriend’s room when he was sleeping. Downs claimed he remembered seeing “Two black guys and one white guy,” and that they had shaved heads like those who were in the millitary. He told them that “GI’s” (slang for General Infantry), would come to the campus on the weekends and party because that’s where all the girls were. Downs also claimed that he did not know Sergie and she did not associate with his crowd at the time. He did not even remember seeing her on campus.
During that interview, McPherron asked Downs about the night Sergie was murdered, “Who was there with you?”
“I never associated with that kid,” said Downs.
McPherron asked the question again. Downs claimed he had no idea and that he was with his girlfriend that night.
“But she claims you weren’t there,” Mcpherron responded. “It’s not a matter of if you were there, you were there, the semen is your semen,”
“It’s just not possible,” said Downs.
Later in the Interview, McPherron continued to use various techniques to get any kind of information from Downs.
“I’m confident that nothing is going to match up and this is going to be explained by some kind of misunderstanding and we are going to be able to smooth past this,” Said Downs.
“But what if we are not, what if it’s not Steve,” said McPherron.
Downs did cooperate with the police and maintained his innocence in every interview. His DNA and fingerprints were taken at the Auburn Police Department on February 14th, 2019. Those samples were sent to a lab in Maine and in Alaska, where they both had the same result. The DNA sample matched Downs. The fingerprints were not able to be matched to Downs or anyone else due to the lack of quality of the prints taken.
Prosecutors are expected to wrap up with Mcpherron Thursday Morning, following the defense will bring forward their witnesses.
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