A man named as an alternative suspect in the murder and sexual assault trial of Steven H. Downs of Auburn, Maine, denied Thursday that he had anything to do with killing a native Alaska woman 29 years ago.

Kenneth Moto testified by videoconference in Fairbanks Superior Court that he was certain he was not in the women’s bathroom on the second floor of Bartlett Hall at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks on the night of April 25, 1993, and into the next morning when Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska was believed to have been killed.

Kenneth Moto is sworn in Thursday as a witness in the Fairbanks, Alaska, murder and sexual assault trial of Steven H. Downs of Auburn, Maine. The case is being tried in Fairbanks Superior Court. Used with permission by Fairbanks Superior Court

Moto had been a student at the school in the fall of 1992, but had moved off campus during the spring semester of 1993, he said.

An investigator testified he interviewed Moto a day after Sergie’s body was found in the bathtub of that bathroom.

She had been fatally shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun and stabbed in the cheek and eye.

Downs, 47, had been a student at the school at the time and had lived on the third floor of Bartlett Hall.


Investigators said Sergie had been visiting a friend on the second floor that night and she was last been seen alive leaving her friend’s room to smoke a cigarette.

A witness who also lived on that floor told police she’d seen a man leaving the bathroom around the time investigators believe Sergie was killed, roughly 1:30 a.m. on April 26, 1993.

The witness said the man had been wearing a gray, button-down shirt.

Melanie Sagoonick had years ago described to investigators the man she had seen as having a dark complexion, short black hair and roughly 5 feet, 8 inches tall.

When an Alaska State Police sergeant interviewed Moto a day after the murder, he noted Moto was wearing a gray shirt.

Asked Thursday about that, Moto said he didn’t remember what he’d been wearing.


He also said he couldn’t remember whether he’d been at Bartlett Hall that night or not, partying with a friend who lived in that dormitory.

After Sergie’s murder, Moto said he wasn’t allowed to return to school because he was considered a suspect, he testified Thursday.

Three years later, an investigator went to visit Moto at his home and interviewed him again about the murder and asked him for a DNA sample.

Moto complied and said he told the investigator he remembered Sergie had been stabbed. He said he’d heard that from rumors on campus.

Moto’s DNA was not a match for evidence found in Sergie.

Lead defense attorney James Howaniec asked Moto whether he had told his sister, Karen, that he had killed Sergie.


Moto said he and his sister had been watching a show about cold cases on TV when Sergie’s case came up. He said he told his sister he’d been a suspect in the case.

He said he never told his sister he’d killed Sergie.

Another witness testified Thursday for the defense that he’d been roommates in the fall of 1992 at the school with another of the three alternative suspect named in the case: Gregory Thornton.

Michael Reuben Leake said Thornton had a Harrington & Richardson .22-caliber pistol during the time they lived to together on the fifth floor of Bartlett Hall.

Ballistics experts said the slug recovered from Sergie’s head was consistent with that make and model gun.

In 2019, police found an H & R .22-caliber revolver in Downs’ home and compared it with the recovered bullet.


A defense witness testified Thursday he had sold a man fitting Downs’ description that make and model gun in 2015. Phone records confirmed calls between Downs and Sherman Varney of Turner at that time.

Leake went on to testify Thursday that Thornton had not returned to live in their dorm room after the school’s Christmas recess in 1992, but had moved into the dorm room of somebody else on his floor. He said he continued to see Thornton up until a day or two before Sergie’s murder, then never saw him again.

Leake said Thornton “inexplicably disappeared.” Leake said he thought it was “very strange” because Thornton had planned on getting a ride from school later with someone Leake had known, but never did. And Thornton apparently had no money at the time.

Leake described Thornton as having closely cropped, dark wavy hair and had an olive “Spanish” complexion.

Asked by Howaniec whether he could have been 5 feet, 8 inches, as noted on his driver’s license, Leake said he could have been.

Chief Assistant Attorney General Jenna Gruenstein asked Leake why he hadn’t disclosed to police during interviews with them the make of the pistol he saw Thornton with and why he hadn’t mentioned he hadn’t seen Thornton after the murder.


Leake said he may have told investigators those things, even if they weren’t included in reports.

Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after roughly three weeks of testimony before the defense began calling witnesses.

The defense sought to have the judge acquit Downs based on evidence presented up to that point, but Judge Thomas Temple denied that motion.

Attorneys from both sides are expected to give closing arguments Friday morning and the jury could begin deliberating by the afternoon.

Downs was arrested in Auburn in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks after the DNA profile of semen found in Sergie’s vagina was a match to Downs.

Police had submitted the DNA from Sergie’s body in September 2018 for a new technique called genetic genealogy analysis that had recently helped solve a double-murder cold case in Washington state.


In December 2018, Downs’ name came back from the analysis through a random hit after his aunt had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

Downs’ defense had sought to present evidence at trial linking men other than Downs to the murder as alternative suspects.

Judge Temple ruled that Downs would be allowed to introduce evidence against three alternative suspects in an effort to raise reasonable doubt about Downs’ guilt, including Moto and Thornton.

Temple excluded 13 other men as possible alternative suspects, concluding Downs’ attorneys hadn’t established a direct link between them and the crime.

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