By Alex Horton

The Washington Post

Elena Sergie sat for the news that her family had waited a quarter-century to hear, shifting in the chair as the details of her daughter Sophie’s brutal slaying were again put into words.

She winced as authorities repeated how much time had passed since the discovery in a Fairbanks, Alaska, dormitory bathtub — nearly 26 years, or six years more than Sophie’s age.

The April 1993 slaying of Sophie Sergie, an Alaska native, was one of the state’s most notorious cold cases until Friday, when authorities announced that DNA genealogical mapping helped triangulate a genetic match with Steven Downs, 44, a nurse in Auburn, Maine.

Downs was charged with sexual assault and murder, Alaska State Troopers said. He is also charged in Maine with being a fugitive of justice, said Sgt. Tim ­Lajoie of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department in Maine.

An Alaska district court filing recounts the long arc of the investigation.

Sophie Sergie was a student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks but left school to save money for orthodontic work. She took three flights to Fairbanks from Pitkas Point — a tiny, verdant town on the Yukon River in western Alaska — to have the work performed.

Shirley Wasuli was happy to have her friend in town.

Wasuli prepared a bed in her room on the female-only second floor of Bartlett Hall and hosted Sergie for a night of catching up. Sergie stepped out for a smoke. .Witnesses later said she smoked with a group outside.

By 1:30 a.m., Sergie had not returned. Wasuli left a note on her door, explaining that she and her boyfriend were sleeping in another dorm. When Wasuli arrived the next morning, she found the note still on the door. The bed was undisturbed. She called the orthodontist; Sergie had missed her appointment.

University janitors found her body that afternoon in a bathtub on the second floor. She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed in the face and shot in the back of a head with a .22-caliber firearm.

Investigators canvassed the area and interviewed students who had been at Bartlett Hall, including Downs, then an 18-year-old student.

Police recovered the suspect’s DNA from Sergie’s body. At the time, the district court filing said, DNA processing technology had not been introduced in Alaska. A DNA profile confirming the suspect as male was uploaded in 2000, but it did not match anyone in the FBI’s database.

The case went dormant for years. Then the alleged “Golden State Killer” was captured.

Until recently, DNA samples were passively checked against other records and produced matches only when two sets from the same person were linked.

Today, public databases like GEDmatch are filled with genetic codes volunteered by people with hopes of building out their family trees.

That helped authorities find “Golden State Killer” suspect Joseph James DeAngelo, accused of killing 12 people and raping 45 in California in the 1970s and ’80s.

The publicity of the feat, state troopers said, sparked the idea for investigators in the Sergie case.

A forensic genealogist prepared a report Dec. 18, comparing the suspect’s genetic material from the crime scene to likely relatives. A woman’s DNA profile emerged in the search.

Investigators found their link: She was an aunt of Downs’.

Maine State Police visited Downs on Wednesday at his home. Downs denied any knowledge but said he remembered posters of Sergie’s face on campus, according to the police. “I remember the pictures. It’s terrible, poor girl,” he told officers, suggesting that soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Wainwright at the time should be investigated.

A cheek swab was taken the next day for DNA testing. It was a match, police said. Downs was arrested.

Friday’s news conference ended after a brief summary with no questions taken from reporters. Elena Sergie, appearing unable to stand, remained sitting in an office chair. Stephen Sergie held the back of the chair and wheeled his weeping mother out of the room.

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