The trial of an Auburn man charged with murder and sexual assault of an Alaskan woman in 1993 was postponed after the first day of testimony Wednesday due to COVID-19 exposure.

Steven H. Downs, far left, of Auburn, Maine, sits Wednesday at a Fairbanks, Alaska, courtroom during the first day of his trial on murder and sexual assault charges. Christopher Williams screenshot from video with permission from Alaska Superior Court

The assistant to Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple explained Thursday that two trial participants had been exposed to the virus.

“No one was exposed to COVID-19 in the court as far as we are aware,” she said. “The court continues to follow COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including social distancing, air filtration and masking requirements,” she wrote in an email to media covering the trial.

The trial is expected to resume Tuesday with cross-examination of a friend of the victim who may have been the last one to see her alive, besides her assailant.

Steven H. Downs, 47, was arrested in Auburn in February 2019 after his DNA was matched to evidence found at the crime scene through a random database hit after Downs’ aunt had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

Downs was  extradited to Fairbanks, where he has been held at the local jail pending trial.

The victim, Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska, had been staying with a friend.

Downs had been a student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks at the time and lived in the dorm where Sergie’s body was found. Investigators said she had been visiting a friend at that dorm when her body was discovered.

Investigators said Sergie was shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in the cheek and eye, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.

The medical examiner concluded the cause of death as the bullet fired into her head.

Police said Sergie had been last seen alive when she left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette. Custodial staff found her body in a women’s bathroom on the second floor the next afternoon.

That friend, Shirley Akelkok, testified Wednesday that she had eaten a late dinner of pizza with her boyfriend and Sergie the night before Sergie is believed to have been killed. Akelkok said Sergie had gone to smoke a cigarette in the dorm bathroom because it was cold outside. Akelkok said she and her boyfriend left to go spend the night in his room. Sergie was supposed to sleep in Akelkok’s single dorm room that night, but apparently never returned from the bathroom.

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