The defense was seeking Monday to cast doubt on the guilt of an Auburn man who is charged with the rape and murder of an Alaskan woman in 1993 by introducing half a dozen alternative suspects.

A judge in the case heard arguments from Lewiston defense attorney James Howaniec in support of a motion allowing him to present evidence to a jury at trial that at least six other men may have been involved somehow in the rape and murder of 20-year-old Sophie Surgie.

Each of those men was viewed by investigators as a person of interest, Howaniec told Fairbanks Alaska Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple on Monday via videoconference.

“This is not a case of the defense coming forward with a witness, years later, saying they had evidence that Steven Downs did not commit this crime,” Howaniec said. “Just about every piece of information that I intend to convey to you comes from the 8,000-plus pages and over, I believe, 100 audio files that have been presented by the state” to the defense in discovery.

Topping the list of alternative suspects is Kenneth Moto, Howaniec said.

A female student who was in the bathroom in Bartlett Hall at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in October 1993 at about the time authorities believe Sergie was killed described to police a man leaving the bathtub area of the bathroom as 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with black hair and wearing a gray T-shirt.


Two days later, when Moto was questioned by police, he was wearing a gray shirt, Howaniec told Judge Thomas Temple Monday.

Years later, Moto’s sister told police Kenneth Moto had confessed to her that he had killed Sergie and that a knife was involved, information Howaniec said had not been made public.

Steven Downs appears in Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn in March 2019 for an extradition hearing. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn resident Steven H. Downs, 46, is charged with sexual assault and murder in the April 25, 1993, slaying of the Pitkas Point, Alaska native.

Downs was arrested in Auburn in February 2019. His DNA was matched in 2018 to evidence found in her body.

Sergie had last been seen late that evening when she left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette, police said. Custodial staff found her body in a woman’s bathroom the next afternoon.

Investigators said Sergie had been shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber pistol, stabbed in the cheek and eye, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.


The medical examiner concluded the cause of Sergie’s death was the bullet fired into her head.

Downs has denied the charges.

Since 1993, Moto has been involved in multiple crimes of violence against women, Howaniec said. He is serving a prison sentence for manslaughter. Howaniec said he expects to call Moto as a witness at trial.

“In a nutshell is the summary of some of the most significant evidence that points to Mr. Moto as a prime alternate suspect in this case,” Howaniec said.

Assistant Attorney General Jenna Gruenstein countered Howaniec’s argument, noting that Moto’s photo was not picked out of a photo lineup by the witness in the bathroom.

Moto’s sister is deceased and cannot testify at trial as well as the investigator she told about her brother’s confession, Gruenstein said.


The witness didn’t believe the man leaving the bathtub area was an Alaskan native, which Moto is, Gruenstein said. The witness also said she knew Moto and would have recognized him.

One of two men in the photo lineup the witness pointed to was Gregory Thornton, another alternative suspect, who may have been the man leaving the dorm bathroom where Sergie’s body was found, Howaniec said.

“We think he clearly had something to do with this crime, whether he killed Sophie Sergie or not,” Howaniec said.

He said the police reports aren’t clear as to whether Thornton’s fingerprints were eliminated from being at the crime scene.

Thornton had been carrying a .22-caliber pistol on campus at the time of the crime and had been reported as suicidal, Howaniec said.

A resident assistant at the school told police Thornton had been living inappropriately on campus with a student in that same dormitory at the time of the murder, Howaniec said.


Police later secured a search warrant for Thornton’s DNA, which did not match evidence from the crime scene.

Gruenstein said the witness in the bathroom not only picked Thornton from a photo lineup, but another man as well, who was included as “filler.” But she only saw one man leaving the bathroom.

The student who has shared his room with Thornton said he hadn’t seen him for a couple of days leading up to the time of the murder, Gruenstein said.

Another alternative suspect the defense is seeking to introduce at trial is Thad Williamson, Howaniec said.

Williamson had known Sergie and had been with her the night before she was found dead, Howaniec said. Williamson had been infatuated with Sergie, had created a shrine to her and had acted strangely that night, according to witness accounts, Howaniec said.

When interviewed by investigators, his first words were: “First of all, I didn’t do it.” Authorities interviewed him five or six times, considering him a “prime suspect,” at one point, Howaniec said.


He had no alibi for that night, Howaniec said.

Williamson said he had dropped off a gift for Sergie with the student Sergie had been visiting in the dorm that night, but that student refuted Williamson’s account, Howaniec said.

Gruenstein downplayed evidence involving Williamson, saying accounts of his behavior were the result of rumor. And Williamson was, in fact, able to provide investigators with an alibi, Gruenstein said.

Moreover, his DNA didn’t match any evidence from the crime scene, she said.

Williamson was “in no way connected to the scene in any way, shape or form,” Gruenstein said.

Howaniec introduced two alternative suspects who had been seen together at night outside the dorm after getting out of a car. They were overheard by four resident assistants who had been in the dorm.


One of the men said: “Let me go. I won’t tell them what you did. I won’t tell. I promise. Oh God, I can’t believe this is happening.”

Other parts of the conversation, Howaniec said, were: “I can’t believe you did that to her. You can’t go home like that.”

The two men were screaming, Howaniec said.

At least one of the witnesses identified one of the men as Robert Rago. Howaniec said he would plan to call the witnesses at trial to have them repeat what they heard that night.

But Gruenstein said three of the four witnesses wrote in statements they had overheard the two men the night before Sergie’s disappearance, suggesting their conversation couldn’t have concerned Sergie’s murder.

Howaniec said they may have been mistaken about the date.


Howaniec said Nicholas Dazer, Downs’ roommate at the time of the murder, who had been working in campus security that night in a different part of campus, had clearly been an alternative suspect.

Down’s girlfriend said Dazer had, in fact, visited her room that night, two floors above the floor were Sergie’s body was found, despite his duties elsewhere on campus.

Dazer had been fired from his security job for having a gun at the time and lying about it, Howaniec said.

An investigator later suggested the crime might have been committed by someone in law enforcement. Police “ripped apart” Dazer’s dorm room searching for evidence of the crime, Howaniec said.

Years later, when investigators visited Dazer, he told them Downs had owned a .22 -caliber pistol at the time of the crime, the only person to make that allegation.

Howaniec said the defense believes Dazer “at least knows something about this crime.”


Gruenstein pointed out that the gun Dazer had was a .40-caliber firearm, not a .22-caliber pistol. And there was no evidence he ever owned a .22-caliber gun.

The theory developed by an investigator that someone in law enforcement was involved had been based on markings found on Sergie’s body that suggested a Taser had been used. But Gruenstein said that evidence had later been refuted.

And campus security officers weren’t issued Tasers, she said. And Dazer’s DNA didn’t match any evidence at the scene.

There was “nothing to link him to a Taser or the murder,” Gruenstein said.

The last alternative suspect identified by Howaniec on Monday was Billy Wilson, who was seen shaking, sweating and hysterical early on the morning of Sergie’s murder.

He was described as a heavy drinker who had been “out of control” at that time, Howaniec said.


He owned a pocketknife as well as a gun.

He was identified as having cuts on his hand that required stitches.

Gruenstein poked holes in Howaniec’s argument, saying there was no evidence Wilson had a gun that night and he hadn’t owned a .22-caliber gun, but rather an AK-47.

She said the cuts on his hands had happened a week earlier.

“There is absolutely nothing to tie him to this,” she said.

Hearings are expected to continue Tuesday.

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