Firearms expert describes ‘extensively damaged’ bullet in murder of Sophie Sergie

A woman poses in a jacket outside.
Sophie Sergie (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Troopers)

A firearms expert who examined the bullet taken from Sophie Sergie’s body said she could not match it to guns taken from the suspect.

Debra Gillis, a forensic scientist at the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, said the bullet she examined was too mangled to make the connection.

“This bullet is extensively damaged,” she said.

Investigators performing the autopsy on Sergie found the one bullet. Sergie, 20 of Pitkas Point, was found dead in the bathroom on one of the women’s floors of Bartlett Hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on April 26, 1993. A student living one floor above, Steven Downs, was identified as a suspect after his DNA, which was found on the victim, was matched in 2018.

Investigators found she had died from a gunshot in the back of the head. She was also stabbed in the cheek and eye.

Gillis said the bullet was definitely .22 caliber.

“The terminal ballistic condition is that it is compressed longitudinally, so it’s compressed from nose to base, so it’s a nose-first impact,” she said.

Investigators believe Sergie’s forehead was pushed against the side of the bathtub or tile wall of the stall when she was shot in the back of the head. The bullet went through her skull back to front and exited her skull at her forehead, but did not break the skin. Examiners at the autopsy found a “shoring” wound on her forehead.

Because the bullet was smashed, Gillis said she could not find the standard rifling marks firearms examiners look for to pair with the gun that shot it. She examined three .22 caliber guns found in 2019 at Downs’ home in Auburn, Maine.

A Harrington & Richardson model 929 revolver, a Ruger model Mark II semi-automatic pistol and a Marlin 60SB semi-automatic rifle. Gillis’s test-fires and examinations eliminated two of the weapons but she told prosecutor Chris Darnall, she could not conclusively eliminate, nor connect the revolver to the crime.

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“I cannot identify it nor eliminate it,” she said.

“Does that mean it’s possible it fired that bullet?” Darnall asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Does it mean it’s possible that a similarly-manufactured weapon fired that bullet?” Darnall asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Another expert testified about inconclusive testing of male DNA found on the victim’s breast.

Jennifer Foster from the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory testified the sample did not generate enough DNA to pass the lab’s minimum thresholds to identify someone.

“That profile was insufficient for comparison. The only thing that could be said was that there was male DNA observed, because a Y chromosome was observed in that profile and only males have that Y chromosome.” she said. “But no other conclusions.”

Foster said the profile could not prove or rule out another male touched the victim.

The next witnesses expected include the Maine detectives who interviewed and arrested Downs. Judge Thomas Temple ruled that audio recordings of those interviews could be played for the jury.

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