The University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1993

Sophie Sergie

Sophie Ann Sergie

The University of Alaska has three main campuses: The University of Alaska Fairbanks, The University of Alaska Anchorage, and The University of Alaska Southeast. The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) was once the main campus, but now, the Anchorage campus has a higher enrollment. Currently, 10,500 students are enrolled at UAF.

While UAF is a small university when compared to most state universities in the U.S., it must have seemed huge to Sophie Sergie when she enrolled there in 1990. Sophie grew up in the small Yupik village of Pitkas Point located near St. Mary’s and 525 miles south-west of Fairbanks. Pitkas Point has a population of only 150 people, but Sophie embraced the move to Fairbanks and the opportunity to get a university education. Sophie was very bright and a rising star. She was majoring in marine biology and was on a full academic scholarship from British Petroleum.

In December 1992, Sophie had braces installed on her teeth, and she took the spring semester off to work and pay for her orthodontia. She returned to Pitkas Point where she worked as a teacher’s aide, and she took a second job in nearby St. Mary’s as a clerk. By all accounts, Sophie was an intelligent, hard-working, respectable young woman.

Sophie periodically returned to Fairbanks to have her braces adjusted, and while there, she stayed on campus in the Bartlett Hall dorm with one of her friends, Shirley Wasuli. If you are not from Alaska, an airplane flight of 525 miles might seem like a long way to travel to go to the dentist, but remember, this is a big state with only a few cities large enough to support an orthodontist. If you live in a remote town or village, you sometimes must travel a great distance to see a dental or medical specialist.

Sophie’s dental appointment was scheduled for Monday, April 26th, 1993. She arrived in Fairbanks two days earlier and proceeded to Bartlett Hall to meet her friend, Shirley. Bartlett Hall is an eight-story residence hall located between Moore and Skarland Halls, two other large residence halls on the upper campus of UAF. The three dormitories are separate buildings, but they share a common lobby called Hess Commons. The main doorway for the three buildings leads into Hess Commons.

For anyone who has lived in a large campus dormitory, you can remember what the atmosphere is like in the dorm at the end of the college semester, especially toward the end of the spring semester when the air is warm, and the summer break looms. In Fairbanks in late April, the dark winter is a distant memory, and the sun shines late into the night. You can imagine college students standing outdoors, perhaps drinking beer or smoking cigarettes, while other students stagger back to the dorm from the library after a long day of hitting the books.

On Sunday night, April 25th, Sophie and Shirley went outside in front of Hess Commons to socialize for a while. Then Shirly and Sophie returned to Shirley’s second-floor room on an all-female floor of the dorm and watched a movie until a little after midnight. Sophie then left to smoke a cigarette in the shower room, and Shirley departed to spend the night with her boyfriend, allowing Sophie to have the dorm room to herself.

Sophie was last seen alive shortly after midnight in front of Hess Commons, wearing a brightly striped sweater, smoking a cigarette, and chatting with a group of people. A friend snapped this photo of a smiling, radiant Sophie dancing in front of the dorms.

The Crime Scene

Shirley returned to her dorm room the next day and found the door unlocked and Sophie gone. Shirley told troopers she felt irritated at first to think Sophie would leave her dorm room unlocked. It wasn’t until later that Shirley realized Sophie had never slept in the bed. At the time Shirley returned to the room, she thought Sophie’s absence meant she must be taking a long shower, so Shirley left again.

At 2:00 pm on Monday, April 26th, a janitor ran screaming from the second-floor bathroom of Bartlett Hall. The janitor grabbed another person and returned to the bathroom. Soon the residence hall was swarming with police, while rumors flew among the shocked and traumatized residents.

People had been in and out of the bathroom all day, but Sophie’s body wasn’t discovered until the janitor opened the door to a private room outfitted with a single tub. Sophie’s body was stuffed in the tub. Her pants had been pulled down around her ankles, and she had been brutally raped. Sophie’s murderer stabbed her several times in the face and then killed her with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Homicide investigators determined Sophie’s body had been in the tub for as long as 13 hours before it was discovered, and they placed the time of her death at between 1:00 am and 5:00 am Monday morning.

Detectives were faced with a nightmare of a crime scene. Sophie had been murdered, or at least her body had been found, in a college dorm with limited security where students and non-students could move freely not only between floors but also between dorms. The investigation was even hampered further because the murder occurred toward the end of the spring semester when students were finishing their classes and leaving the campus for at least the summer and perhaps forever. In 1993, 670 students lived within the Moore, Bartlett, and Skarland dormitory complex. Add to this number the non-residents who might have been visiting the complex or staying with friends, just as Sophie was.

Bartlett Complex

The Investigation

Detectives immediately began interviewing Bartlett Hall residents, especially those living on the second floor. They swarmed the building until 9:00 pm on the day of the crime, questioning residents and carefully searching the tiled floor of the bathroom where Sophie had been found. They collected fibers, hairs, and other physical evidence, and they collected semen from Sophie. In 1993, sophisticated methods for testing DNA had not yet been perfected, and no national DNA database existed, but crime scene analysts carefully preserved the DNA they found.

In a 2009 interview, Alaska State Trooper Lieutenant Lantz Dahlke recalled the enormity of the situation. He said they tried to talk to everyone who would have been near where Sophie’s body was found, but it was impossible to segregate the population because anyone could have accessed the floor and the bathroom by taking the elevator or walking up the stairs. No one recalled hearing the crime in progress or the gunshot wound that killed Sophie. No one remembered seeing Sophie with a man or noticing anything unusual. In a packed dormitory where a gunshot should have been heard by someone, no one recalled hearing anything. Crime Stoppers in Fairbanks offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Sophie’s murderer, but no one came forward to claim the reward.

Sophie’s death was not an accident. She was brutally raped and murdered. Sophie was what homicide detectives consider a “low risk” murder victim. She did not have a boyfriend, no one was stalking her, she had no known enemies, she was not promiscuous, and she did not hang out in bars. Investigators said they initially had several good leads and suspects in the case, but nothing led to an arrest.

In April 1994, Sophie’s mother sued the University of Alaska for $4 million, alleging poor security in Bartlett Hall led to the death of her daughter. According to Lieutenant Dahlke, the civil suit hampered the criminal investigation because the state was forced to release critical information law enforcement did not yet want released to the public.

Former trooper investigator Jim McCann said he believes Sophie Sergie happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murderer could have picked any of the young women in the dorm. According to McCann, the perpetrator of the crime hated women and enacted his rage on Sophie because she was a convenient victim. McCann said he thinks the killer left campus and probably left Fairbanks soon after killing Sophie, and he speculated the killer was a former or current student.

Cold Case Investigation

In 2007, the Alaska State Troopers’ Cold Case Unit began actively reviewing the Sophie Sergie case. They re-interviewed witnesses and combed over forensic evidence. An independent forensic examiner took a hard look at the case and questioned the long-held supposition that the bathroom was the lone crime scene. He thought it was possible Sophie was killed somewhere else and then brought to the bathroom and placed in the tub. Cold case investigator Jim Stogsdill said investigators were unsure whether Sophie had been murdered in the bathroom or somewhere else, and he wouldn’t reveal what specific evidence suggested the bathroom might not be the murder scene. If she had been murdered in another part of the dorm and then moved to the second-floor bathroom, though, the ramifications shatter the foundation on which this case was built. The police focused their investigation on the second floor and were puzzled why none of the second-floor residents had heard a gunshot. If Sophie was murdered somewhere else in the dorm, though, perhaps residents on another floor heard or saw something suspicious which they never associated with Sophie’s death. According to the press releases at the time, Sophie was murdered in a second-floor bathroom, so a resident on the sixth floor who heard a loud noise in the middle of the night would have had no reason to connect the noise with Sophie’s murder.

With the revelation that Sophie might have been killed somewhere else and then moved to the second-floor bathroom, cold case investigators faced the daunting task of tracking down every individual who had lived in Bartlett Hall in 1993, 14 years earlier. They had official rosters from the university listing the dorm residents in 1993, but where were these people now? They could be anywhere in the state, the country, or the world. To further complicate the task, investigators learned students didn’t necessarily live in the rooms to which they were assigned. Students often switched rooms during the year.

In the investigation following the murder, authorities never locked down the dorm nor did they do a room by room search. At the time, they believed the bathroom was the murder scene, but if Sophie was murdered somewhere else, a more thorough search of the entire dorm soon after her murder could have uncovered evidence of the murder scene and yielded the murder weapon. As it was, the gun that killed Sophie was never found.

Cold case investigators said they think the killer was a student who lived in one of the three dorms surrounding Hess Commons. He was someone who was familiar with the campus and the dorms and could easily blend in with the other students.

Where is Sophie’s Murderer?

Soon after Sophie’s death, Trooper Investigator Jim McCann released a statement saying he believed Sophie’s murderer was a current or former student who returned home for the summer after the end of the spring college semester. He urged anyone who noticed frightening or unusual changes in the behavior of an individual recently home from UAF to report the individual to the authorities. He said, “The killer thought enough ahead to bring a gun and is likely to have fantasized about committing similar acts. Her killer is someone who uses women to express his anger.” McCann was warning the public that Sophie’s murderer was a dangerous individual who likely would rape and murder again.

Dave Sperbeck, who was then a forensic psychologist and the director of mental health at the Alaska Department of Corrections said he believes whoever forcibly sexually assaulted Sophie had done it before and will do it again. He said, “Some attackers can go some time before striking again, but they always have another in mind.”

Despite the convictions of authorities and psychology experts that Sophie was killed by someone who would rape and possibly kill again, the DNA collected from Sophie’s body has never been matched to an individual. Investigators routinely run the DNA collected at the crime scene through the nation’s growing databases of criminal offenders, but no match has ever been found.

What happened to the man who brutally raped and murdered Sophie Sergie? If he was a violent psychopath, it is likely he would have attacked other women over the years, and if caught, his DNA probably would have been collected and recorded in the national database. Was his attack on Sophie his lone violent crime, did something happen to him after he murdered Sophie, or is he a repeat offender who is still out there and has never been caught?

A few days after Sophie’s murder, more than 300 people gathered in UAF’s Constitution Park for a memorial service. Native drummers performed, and Professor James Nageak led the service in Inupiat. An Observer noted years later that Sophie’s death marked a turning point in the UAF campus. Before Sophie’s murder, the campus was wide open and vibrated with youthful energy, but after her death, stricter safety measures turned the campus into an armed camp.

The Dismantling of the Cold Case Unit

In June 2015, due to budgetary shortfalls, the state of Alaska shut down the Alaska State Troopers Cold Case Unit, leaving more than 100 cold cases unsolved. Many of the troopers I’ve written about in my newsletters who have helped solved both old and new murder cases were forced to walk away from their desks, and these troopers felt miserable about having to tell the families of victims they would no longer be able to work on their loved one’s case. Many of these investigators had spent a career in law enforcement, retired, and then returned as cold case investigators. The investigators who left their jobs were James Gallen and Randel McPherron based in Anchorage, James Stogsdill in Soldotna, and Lantz Dahlke in Fairbanks. This group includes three former trooper sergeants and one lieutenant who came out of retirement to focus on cold cases. Between them, these investigators had 130 years of experience.

The open cold cases were assigned to active investigators, but these detectives are so busy with the crime waves seizing Anchorage and Fairbanks, they have little time and energy to spend on old cases. In all, 27 officers were cut from the Alaska State Troopers due to the $8.5 million cut from the trooper’s budget. As I have explained before, the Alaska State Troopers are responsible for patrolling and investigating crimes in a great portion of the state of Alaska. They were already painfully stretched thin, but now their ranks have been decimated even further.

Alaska’s cold-case unit was formed in 2002 in conjunction with the launching of CODIS, the national DNA database. At the time, the U.S. Congress supported and funded the establishment of cold case units in U.S. states and jurisdictions, and it provided specialized training through the Department of Justice. When the federal funding ran out, the state picked up the cost, but when the state of Alaska needed to cut spending the cold-case unit was cut out of the budget. For legislators, it was as easy as drawing a line through the unit in the budget and calculating how much money the state would save by eliminating it. For families of those whose murder cases the unit was investigating, though, closing the unit meant losing their last shred of hope that the monster who killed their loved one would ever be brought to justice.

Lieutenant James Stogsdill said he dreaded telling Sophie Sergie’s mother, Elena, the news about the closing of the cold case unit. She’d been waiting 22 years to find out who murdered her daughter. In remembering Sophie’s case, Stogsdill said it was one of the biggest mysteries the unit had encountered because how does a young woman get raped and shot in a University dormitory and her body dumped in the bathroom without anyone hearing or seeing a thing?

Stogsdill said the file for Sophie’s case was so extensive it filled 14 volumes of notebooks and three to four boxes full of reference materials investigators had gathered over the years. He said he believed it would take an investigator six months to read through the file and study all the reference materials. He said even if someone were to call in a tip to the Fairbanks police or the Alaska State Troopers today, the new investigator would have to sit down and read the entire file to be able to analyze the value of the tip. What detective bogged down by cases of murders and thefts that happened in the past month, has the time and energy to read the voluminous case file of a murder which occurred a quarter of a century ago?

With the closing of the cold case unit, there is little possibility Sophie’s murder will ever be solved. Investigators still hope, though, that someone out there who lived or was staying in Bartlett Hall on April 26th, 1993, will remember something unusual they heard or saw in the early hours of the morning. They are especially interested in talking to anyone who was in front of Hess Commons after midnight on April 26th. One small piece of information could be all investigators need to break this case wide open and find justice for Sophie.

Update 3–5–2019:

I have an exciting update to the Sophie Sergie case. We recently learned that In 2010, a cold-case investigator attempted to re-interview everyone who lived in Bartlett Hall when Sophie was murdered. The investigator spoke to Nicholas Dazer and asked him if he owned a gun that fired .22-caliber ammunition when he lived in Bartlett Hall. Dazer said he didn’t own a gun, but he recalled his roommate, Steven Downs had an H&R .22-caliber revolver. With little else to go on, the case again went cold, and most people believed it would never be solved.

After authorities arrested “Golden State Killer” suspect Joseph James DeAngelo in April 2018 by obtaining a familial match from comparing DNA collected at a crime scene to a commercially available DNA database, Alaska State Troopers decided to try the same thing with DNA collected from Sophie’s body in 1993. They even sent the DNA from Sophie’s case to Parabon NanoLabs, the same facility used to analyze the DNA in the Golden State Killer case.

On December 18th2018, a forensic genealogist submitted a report comparing the suspect’s genetic material from the crime scene to a likely female relative. The woman whose DNA was considered a familial match to the DNA collected from sperm left at Sophie’s crime scene is the aunt of Steven Downs. Downs was an 18-year-old college student living at Bartlett Hall when Sophie was murdered. Downs was also Nicholas Dazer’s roommate, the one who owned the H&R .22-caliber revolver.

Steven Downs

Downs was arrested at his home in the small town of Lewiston, Maine and charged with the sexual assault and murder of Sophie Sergie. He denied any involvement in Sophie’s rape and murder, despite the fact a sample of his DNA taken after his arrest matched a sample collected from sperm cells at the crime scene. His attorney said Downs would not waive his rights and did not agree to be extradited to Alaska.

Downs is currently being held without bail in an Auburn, Maine prison until his next court hearing on March 18th, when Alaskan authorities expect to escort him back to Fairbanks to stand trial. Will Sophie finally receive justice?

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I am an Alaska wilderness mystery author and a podcaster: Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier.

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