Investigators testify about losing potential witnesses after 1993 UAF campus murder

A courtroom
Former Alaska State Trooper Lantz Dahlke (far right) testifies in the murder trial of Steven Downs. Screenshot obtained with prior permission of Fairbanks Superior Court. (Screenshot Alaska Court System)

The chaos of students taking finals and then leaving at the end of the spring semester frustrated investigators in the days after 20-year-old Sophie Sergie was found dead on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

That’s according to testimony from Alaska State Troopers last week in the cold case from April 1993, in which former student Steven Downs is charged with Sergie’s rape and murder.

The fledgling UAF police department had summoned help from the Alaska State Troopers on that Monday, April 26, 1993. Trooper Timothy Hunyor said he arrived about 2:30 p.m. and worked to identify the victim, who was found stabbed and shot in a bathroom on one of the women’s floors of Bartlett Hall.

“I just walked around, knocking on the door and trying to find out information from other people,” he said. “They may have known who the victim was, they may have seen her, if they heard anything.”

The university’s housing office reports there were likely 350 people living in Bartlett Hall that semester, and close to 750 living in the three-building complex of Moore, Bartlett and Skarland Halls on top of the hill at UAF. Some of them had finished their final exams for the semester and then left the university for the summer, or for good.

“One of the problems we had, a lot of them, people were not in the dorms or anything,” said Hunyor. “They weren’t there anymore. We had a difficult time trying to contact people.”

Hunyor worked in Fairbanks from 1981 to 1994, and investigated major crimes, like homicides. He worked that week with the University Police Department, and with other trooper investigators generally focused on the second floor of Bartlett Hall, where Sergie’s body was found in the bathroom.

RELATED: Former University of Alaska Fairbanks janitor testifies in 1993 cold-case murder trial

Hunyor’s frustration was echoed by testimony from another trooper investigator, Lantz Dahlke, who canvassed all three dormitories that week.

“I thought that for sure, we would find people that saw the activity considering, you know, this is a college campus; people are up all day, all night,” said Dahlke. “But as I said, we had a lot of people leaving the campus. Potentially, we were losing witnesses every day.”

Hunyor testified last Friday by teleconference from Ohio and Dahlke was in the courtroom in person.

Dahlke told the court that he tried to figure out who might have heard a gun going off in that second-floor bathroom.

“I’ve got a little bit of experience with 22s, and do is kind of recreate the sound that that may or may not have made,” he said. “And so, what I did was I went into the bathroom, dropped the stack of books on the floor to create a loud bang. When we did that, I had people out in the bathroom and also out in the hallway and they didn’t even know I did it.”

Later that summer, Hunyor was assigned to investigate another murder — that of Alaska Independence Party founder Joe Vogler. Dahlke said leads dried up in the Sergie murder case, but it was, for him, never closed.

Steven Downs, now 47, was an 18 year-old first-year student at UAF in 1993, living on the third floor of the dorm where Sergie was killed. The case went cold for decades until 2018 when a DNA profile from Downs’ aunt from a commercial genealogy database, was matched to semen found on the victim. Downs is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault.

RELATED: Suspect arrested for 25-year-old murder of UAF student

The court has applied strict rules to media recording, giving permission on a case-by-case basis. The court granted prior permission for KUAC to record.

Previous articleLine One: Alaska Coalition of BIPOC Educators advocate for vaccination
Next articleWhy Tonga is opting for ‘contactless’ humanitarian aid