An Auburn man charged in the sexual assault and murder of a woman at a university in Fairbanks, Alaska, about 26 years ago pleaded not guilty to the charges Wednesday, according to his lawyer.

Steven H. Downs Androscoggin County Jail photo

It was the second time in as many weeks that Steven H. Downs, 44, was arraigned.

Last week, he entered his plea in a courtroom in Anchorage, Alaska, where his bail was set at $1 million.

On Wednesday, he pleaded not guilty at a Fairbanks courthouse where the case is expected to be tried.

Downs is charged in the killing of Sophie Sergie, a resident of Pitkas Point, Alaska, and former student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

She had been staying with a friend in a residence hall on the campus. Sergie had last been seen late in the evening of April 25, 1993, when she left her friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette.

Custodial staff found her  body in a women’s bathroom the following afternoon. She had been stabbed multiple times and shot in the head.

The case went cold for decades until DNA evidence from genealogical database Ancestry.com helped police link Downs to the crime through an aunt.

Lewiston defense attorney James Howaniec, who represents Downs, said Wednesday he plans to argue at a Friday hearing that bail for his client be dropped to $50,000 cash and that he be allowed to leave the state and return to his Auburn home.

Downs was arrested in Auburn in February and extradited to Alaska, where he arrived earlier this month after several months of temporary stays at federal facilities in at least four states along the way.

Howaniec said Downs’ stint at the Southern Nevada Detention Center “really took a toll on him.” Many “really hardened criminals,” including “neo-Nazi types” are housed there, Howaniec said.

At the jail in Fairbanks, Downs is being held in protective custody because of concerns for his safety from other inmates, Howaniec said.

“This is a high-profile case,” he said. “And there’s also going to be a racial component to this as well.”

Sergie was a native Alaskan; Downs is Caucasian from out of state, “so we have some concerns about how that may or may not play into the equation.”

Howaniec said he and local co-counsel Frank Spaulding toured the dorm earlier Wednesday where Sergie was killed, including the second-floor bathroom where her body was found, the third-floor room where Downs lived and the fourth-floor room where Downs told police he had been with his girlfriend in her room that night.

“We find it very hard to believe that Steve would have been carrying up to three weapons that night in a crowded dormitory from the fourth floor down to the second-floor girls’ bathroom,” Howaniec said.

There are allegations a gun, a knife and possibly a stun gun were used by the assailant.

“We find it hard to believe that nobody would have seen him or heard him go down two flights of stairs and into a bathroom and commit that crime … and not be seen by anybody,” Howaniec said.

A tentative trial date was set for December, but Howaniec said it will likely be pushed back due to the volumes of evidence.

“We’re convinced that, if we get a fair trial, he’ll be acquitted,” Howaniec said. “The integrity of this investigation is very poor.”

He said many alternative suspects are involved in the case, “one in particular who we believe actually committed the crime.”


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