A judge on Friday refused to lower the $1 million bail set for an Auburn man charged with sexual assault and murder of a woman at a university in Fairbanks, Alaska, 26 years ago.

Steven Downs of Auburn appears Aug. 14 for arraignment in Fairbanks, Alaska. John Dougherty/KTVF Fairbanks

A Superior Court judge in Fairbanks ordered Steven Downs, 44, continue to be held in the local jail in lieu of $550,000 cash bail. If Downs were released and failed to appear in court, he would forfeit that cash, plus owe a $500,000 bond, his attorney said in a telephone interview.

“We’re not surprised by the outcome,” said James Howaniec of Lewiston, Downs’ attorney. “We’re talking about a serious homicide here and the individual here has no current connections to the state Alaska.”

Downs was a student at the school from 1992-96, including the time of the killing of Sophie Sergie, 20, 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 Sergie’s body in a women’s bathroom the following afternoon.

She had been stabbed multiple times and shot in the head.

Downs told investigators he had been with his girlfriend that night two floors above the second-floor women’s bathroom where Sergie’s body was found.

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

Howaniec argued that Downs’ bail be dropped to $50,000, but knew it would be an uphill battle.

“We fully expected there would be no change to the bail, but it was a good opportunity for us to advance some of our concerns about the evidence in this case,” he said.

The victim’s family weighed in during the bail hearing in favor of keeping the bail at $1 million, Howaniec said.

He said he raised issues in court with the nature of the evidence against Downs, including what he perceives as weaknesses with the state’s case.

“Other than the 26-year-old DNA, nothing else connects my client to this crime,” Howaniec said.

He predicted a “long road” due to the complexity of the case in which “hundreds” of witnesses were interviewed and many are since deceased. Law enforcement officers identified roughly 90 persons of interest.

“It’s going to be a logistical challenge to bring this case to trial,” he said, “and I see it being a lengthy trial” that could possibly span months.


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