DECOLONIZING YOUR NEWSFEED
First-generation Yup'ik undergrad, Sophie Ann Sergie, in the final hours she was alive in April 1993. (Alaska State Troopers)
Self-Care Advisory: This newsletter contains sensitive subject matter about sexual assault and homicide of Indigenous women and could be re-traumatizing for some survivors. Help is here.
The last time Sophie Sergie's friends saw her alive, she shined.
It was the evening of April 25, 1993. Sergie had flown into Fairbanks, Alaska the day before, a metropolis compared to the tiny Yukon River community from where she lived in Pitkas Point. Sergie didn't have to tell her friends how happy she was to be reuniting with them. She showed it – with arms spread out, spinning in a circle like a human airplane out at Murphy Dome, a secluded Air Force site popular for gazing at the Northern Lights.
If smartphones and social media had been around back then, Jolene Nanouk, Sergie's college roommate from freshman year, might have Instagrammed the whole thing. Instead, she relied on an old point-and-shoot camera (the kind that required film), and snapped photos of her friend, beaming. "That picture of Sophie is how I remember her," said Nanouk. "Just living life in the
Nanouk said she considered Sergie to be one of her closest friends and looked out for her like a sister. When temperatures took a curious dip that night, she loaned Sergie her navy blue bomber jacket. On the drive, the pair sat in the backseat and talked and laughed at length - about family, about friends, about school.
Nanouk also remembered gushing about a guy she was dating. It was just the kind of conversation that kept Sergie connected to
campus life even though she had been pressed to put it all on hold because - finances. There wasn't enough to go around. The previous year, Sergie, 20, was faced with a tough choice: an education or expensive jaw repair. She chose her health and took a job back home in her tiny Yup'ik village living vicariously through her friends carrying out their junior year at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. The silver lining was that her dentist appointments were at least
It was around midnight when Nanouk dropped Sergie off in the parking lot of Bartlett Hall, the campus dorm where she often lodged in the room of another Native friend to offset hotel bills. She would see her dentist in the morning.
The next afternoon, Nanouk encountered Alaska State Troopers outside the dormitory. "I remember them telling me they had found her in the bathtub and I was in shock," she said, referring to the grim details of Sergie's sex homicide.
Nanouk told detectives everything she knew: that she and Sergie had gone to the movies the night before; that they had taken the 40-minute drive to Murphy Dome and back; that they hadn't been drinking or drugging because that wasn't their thing; and that dropping Sergie off at Bartlett was the last time she would see her friend alive.
It was finals week on campus and Nanouk finished the semester expecting an update from investigators, but one never came. She waited out the summer, too, and still no word. By that fall, at the start of another school year, the case of who killed Sophie Sergie had quickly turned cold.
Steve H. Downs, 47, was found guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault for the 1993 sex homicide of Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he attended. Right: Downs featured in his high-school year book,
senior year, 1991-1992, in Auburn, ME.
On Wednesday, an all-white jury in Fairbanks found Steven H. Downs guilty of raping and killing Sergie at UAF where he was a freshman living in Bartlett Hall in 1993. He'd managed to evade suspicion from authorities for 25 years until Alaska State Troopers found him in 2018 based on DNA preserved from the crime scene. It was a partial match to DNA found on the genealogy
website GEDMatch where Downs's distant aunt had gone to query whether she was related to Abraham Lincoln. She had no idea her DNA would be used to probe a relative, least of which one suspected of savage murder.
Downs was arrested in Auburn, Maine where he was living, and extradited back to Alaska in 2019. He's expected to be sentenced in September.
And this is where a story like this normally ends with a good sigh of relief - closure, finally. Except the attorney for Downs says an appeal is likely, and on grounds that accessing one's DNA without consent is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. With more than 100 cold cases already
cracked by this method, and challenges raised along the way, some are saying it's an issue that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
And there are other rich aspects laid bare from six weeks of testimony in Sophie Sergie's murder trial, though, I suspect they're largely flying under the radar. For starters: What does Sergie's long-awaited justice say about Alaska's violent culture, literally the deadliest state to be Indigenous and female in America?
For that, please consider reading Sarah Deer and Elizabeth Ann Kronk Warner's 2018, Raping Indian Country which works to metaphorically draw connections between predatory acts on women, like rape, to predatory acts on land, like extraction. I refer to this piece
There are also these related reads I'd recommend:
- If you're still unclear about how Steve Downs's DNA was a match, here's this quick read
- For a more broad primer on the rise of genetic genealogy in cracking cold cases there's this piece from The New Yorker, and this one from The New York Times
(similar, but both good)
- And for one of the most cited law review articles exploring Fourth Amendment conflicts in genetic genealogy, there's this read from Northwestern
- Finally, for anyone who wants to dive into a rabbit hole, here's this Indigenous take on "Genomic Justice" centering one particular case involving the Havasupai
I know I announced a newsletter drop for last Sunday that never transpired - but I'll be frank: I just wasn't in the right headspace. Maybe it was that Covid diagnosis I got in late-January or the fact that I'm still unpacking boxes from July from when I moved to Alaska. I shouldn't disregard the emotional toll of taking on this trial either. It got really heavy at times.
Sophie and I are about the same age; much of what I learned about her, I could relate. In death, as in life, she shines - so bright.
Thank you all so much for being here,