Dedicated to the memory of

Sophie

Ann

Sergie


 
 

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Written by Michael Kern


identify_victimA caribou antler rack affixed to the wall next to a tall bookshelf attests to the office owner's current assignment, enforcing state fish and game regulations. In the past, however, Alaska
State Trooper Lieutenant Lantz Dahlke stalked more dangerous game.


The lieutenant is a former homicide detective and, later, cold case investigator. The discovery April 26, 1993, of a young woman's body, murdered in a dorm bathroom at University of Alaska Fairbanks, haunted him in both capacities.


More than a decade later the Sophie Sergie case remains hard to forget.

Unfolding horror

The dorm was full of life that Monday in April '93. Finals week loomed. Most students were cramming or racing to finish semester-end papers and projects.

About 2 p.m., existence on second floor Bartlett, then one of the dorm's all-female residential floors, took a grim, surreal plunge. "One of the janitors came running out of the bathroom, screaming," recalled journalism student Jen Roy, in an interview published in the local paper.

As she watched, the janitor grabbed another person and returned to the bathroom. Roy braced herself for the worst. "It was obvious from how they were talking that she was dead."

"I stood there for a long time," she added. "I was thinking this couldn't be happening."

The magnitude of the crime was just sinking in as Tara Hotrum spoke with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Her hands trembled as she played a Gameboy outside the dorm. "I'm supposed to be studying, but I can't really put myself in the thinking mode."

Cold trail

Dorm residents had been in and out of the second-floor bathroom all morning. No one noticed anything amiss until the janitor passed by the sinks and shower stalls and opened the door to a more private room outfitted with a single bathtub.Image of hall floorplan with inner bathtub room outlined in red

That's where the janitor came upon a young woman's body.

The victim had suffered a gunshot wound. Her pants were down around her ankles. It was later determined that she'd been lying in the tub as long as 13 hours before discovery.

Bartlett, an eight-story dorm nestled between two other residential halls, anchors what's popularly known as UAF's upper campus MBS Complex. Residential floors of each are separated, but the three buildings share a ground floor lobby and main doorway. In 1993, some 670 students lived within Moore, Bartlett and Skarland halls.

Today UAF offers a variety of residential housing arrangements, including mixed sex floors. At the time of the Bartlett murder, residential floors were strictly all male or all female. Male visitors to a female floor would sometimes use the bathrooms, leading to occasional minor trouble and complaints.

In those days, the lights in the bathrooms could be shutoff by anyone standing by the entrance. "You could be taking a shower and anyone could get in there and turn off the lights," Roy told the News-Miner. "It's not safe but what can you do

Investigators swarmed the building until at least 9 p.m., news reports indicate, questioning residents and combing the tiled bathroom for fibers, hairs, and other physical evidence.

None recalled hearing the crime in progress, or the gunshot that killed the woman found in the tub.

Interviewed in 2009, Dahlke acknowledged investigators were hampered by the size and layout of the MBS Complex. 

"There were a lot of people who were unaccounted for," he says. "You might segregate a population, but when you can use the elevator or walk up the stairs, there's always going to be someone you may have missed."

Sergie portraitPutting a face to the name

Twenty-year-old Sophie Ann Sergie, the News-Miner soon reported, was a Yupik native of Pitkas Point, a small village of 150 people located near St. Mary's, about 525 miles south-west of Fairbanks. The previous year she attended UAF on full academic scholarship from British Petroleum. Her academic major was marine biology. In December, she had orthodontia installed and took a spring semester sabbatical, recovering.

She was living, during that time, in Pitkas Point with her mother, Elena Sergie, and 3-year-old brother. Sergie paid her surgery bills juggling work as an academic aid at the village school and clerk in St. Mary's. Brace adjustments and checkups periodically brought her into Fairbanks.

The Friday before her death, she was in Anchorage where she crossed paths with a former teacher, Valerie Church. "She was so young and bright," the newspaper later quoted Church. "She had her whole life ahead of her...She wanted nothing but good for everybody. This just isn't supposed to happen."

Sergie remained overnight in Alaska's largest city. On Saturday, Church put her on a plane to Fairbanks, where planned to finish some course work during a brief stay. "I told her to be careful when she got to Fairbanks," the teacher recalled.

Campus cloud

Sorrow gripped campus following the murder.

Then-Chancellor Joan Wadlow ordered flags lowered to half staff in Sergie's memory. That Thursday more than 300 gathered for a memorial service at UAF's Constitution Park.

Surrounded by roses, daisies and snapdragons, Sergie's smiling portrait graced a table, draped in white cloth. Native drummers preformed. Friends and strangers mourned.

Professor James Nageak led the service in Inupiat. The chancellor asked for a moment of silence. Letters of condolence were shared from Board of Trustees President Sharon Gagnon, regent Mary Jane Fate, and U.S. Rep. Don Young.

UA President Jerome Komisar remarked that the crime showed death had no boundaries and violence, no limits. "She brought with her the wisdom of 1,000 years and a vision for the future."

Years later, St. Mark's parish priest, Father Jim Kolb, observed that the crime marked a turning point. "The campus had a much more wide open spirit. There was much more communal interchange," he said. "A sense of freshness. A sense of youthfulness.

"A lot of that came apart after the murder of Sophie Sergie," he said, characterizing campus as "an armed camp" in the aftermath.

Reward unclaimed

Sergie was buried next to her grandmother in the Pitkas' community cemetery. As her mother, Elena Sergie, placed flowers on the grave, the event remained surreal, a nightmare she expected to awaken from. "For me," the grieving mother said later, "she's just away somewhere and she'll be coming home soon..."

Back in Fairbanks, Crime Stoppers put up $20,000 for information leading to the perpetrator's arrest. Up on College Hill, campus security began offering round-the-clock escort services between residence halls and classrooms.

Some students wanted to ensure the victim wasn't forgotten.

"UAF should erect a memorial statue or set up a scholarship in Sergie's name," said Heath Hillyard, vice president UAF's student government. "I think it would be nice to do something in remembrance of her."

That October, students considered a ballot initiative naming the new Student Recreation Facility after the victim. The proposal sparked controversey.

"Why name it after a sad event?" one student commented to the Sun Star.

"Bad Memories, doesn't seem right to me," another student said. "It would be awkward for visitors touring the campus to see a building dedicated to a murdered student."

The proposition was voted down.

Two years after the crime, the investigation continued even as the killer's trail faded. Sergie had no known enemies, no jealous boyfriends, and no stalkers, authorities said.

That doesn't mean investigators lacked suspects. "I can tell you that there has been a multitude of people who were possible suspects that have been, virtually, eliminated as possible suspects through investigation," recalls the weary former homicide detective, seated behind a light-stained desk, its surface cluttered with pads of paper, sticky notes, manila folders, and a very large coffee cup.

Family lashes out

In April '94, Elena filed a $4 million lawsuit against the University of Alaska, alleging poor security in the dorm led to the death of her daughter.

Peter Partnow, an Anchorage attorney, was hired to defend the university. Partnow took over the case from Fairbanks lawyer Gerard LaParle, who was indicted for misconduct in another case. LaParle said the killer, not the university, was responsible for Sergie's death. Both cases, history has recorded, began to hamper one another.

"The family's lawsuit got in the way of justice," grumbles Lt. Dahlke. "There was a lot of information released in the civil suit that never should have been released to the public."

"Only those crucial witnesses who hold one piece of what happened and the actual player who holds all pieces should be the ones with this kind of information.

"It's our job to come in as the puzzle masters, to put the pieces together. When we put the pieces together, we may not have a full picture of what happened, but the person who knows the missing details," he pauses, "is the bad guy.

"He holds the key and if he knows what we hold, he is more likely to try to protect what we don't hold."

Former trooper investigator Jim McCann, now retired, initially said that he had what he called "good leads" during the investigation.investigators

McCann theorized that Sergie was likely an unwitting victim who likely didn't know her attacker. "It could have been any one of those girls," he told the News Miner shortly after the murder. "She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, "Whoever did this is very, very angry at women."

He also stated that there was a "50 percent" chance that the killer had already left the Fairbanks area, having graduated or returned home for the summer. While he couldn't be sure, the trooper speculated, the person responsible was likely a current or former student.

McCann sought the public's help, urging anyone who had observed frightening or unusual changes in the behavior of individuals recently home from school to report it. "The killer," he said, "thought enough ahead to bring a gun and is likely to have fantasized about committing similar acts. Her killer is someone who uses women to express their anger."

Those who study sexual killers say they don't stop. Dave Sperbeck, then a forensic psychologist and director of mental health at the Alaska Department of Corrections, told the News-Miner. "If this person has psychological problems to convert frustration and rage into sexuality; that is an addiction that he can't control. My feeling is, whoever forcibly sexually assaulted Sophie had done it before and will do it again." Sperbeck added that some attackers can go some time before striking again, but they always have another in mind. They fantasize, feeding on pornography and memories of past crimes.

These years later, Dahlke ponders the possible clues lurking in the crime's bold setting.

"It could have easily been a person who was familiar with their surroundings," says Dahlke, discussing theories circulating about the perpetrator, "to be in acomfort zone enough to commit this kind of heinous crime."

Troopers release photos

Over the years, investigators and crime lab technicians periodically reviewed the Sergie case files. Evidence from the crime scene, including DNA presumed left by the killer, was routinely compared against the nation's growing databases on criminal offenders,

sleeve-crop

Dahlke says.

Those tests never yielded a suspect, the former cold case investigator said.

As the murder anniversary approached in April 2009, troopers announced several new leads.

Sergie had last been seen around midnight, according to the Cold Case squad's press release. Her clothing description the night she died was publicized along with a photo, showing she wore a brightly colored Native-style hooded sweater. Troopers wanted to talk to anyone who might have seen Sergie that night, smoking a cigarette and talking to people in front of Hess Commons, the building adjoining the MBS dorm complex.

"We're especially looking for people who might have been outside, in front of Hess Commons," Cold Case investigator Jim Stogsdill said.

Another development: Following "extensive analysis of the crime scene evidence," investigators stated, an independent forensic examiner theorized that Sergie may have been killed somewhere other than that bathroom on second-floor Bartlett.

"Although he wasn't able to say conclusively that she was killed elsewhere and brought there," the troopers prepared statement quoted Stogsdill, "he said we should keep our eyes open for her having been killed at another location."

Sergie's family is hopeful the renewed efforts will pay off. For the moment, however, justice for Sergie remains lost to Bartlett's maze of possibilities.

As Dahlke put it during his earlier interview: "From the time that she was killed, to the time that she was discovered, how many people went through there? Could be hundreds!"

"My point is that we've had new blood look at this case and there's never been a glaring 'oh my god, what did you guys do? Look-at-this!' error."

The lieutenant became very quiet. He leaned in toward his interviewer and his demeanor became more focused.

"The frustrating part of it," he says, punching words for emphasis, "this is one of the few cases where — we – don't – know – who – did it"

Sophie Sergie's killer remains at large.

Sergie dancing at night

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#3 Christy Morris 2017-02-27 17:42
I knew Sophie. We were in the same dorm Freshman year. She was killed a week before my birthday and her death still haunts me. My prayers and love to her family. One day justice will be served to whoever did this.
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#2 Heath E. Hilyard 2015-04-10 00:46
Hard to believe that was almost 23 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was odd to know I had been one floor down when she was murdered.

So, very, tragic.
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#1 Ethel 2013-11-12 14:05
I knew Sophie from Academic Decathlon in high school when we met in Anchorage for compe[censored] ion, even then she was a powerful albeit tiny young woman. She was a peer that was academically and socially stellar. We met again when we entered as freshmen at UAF when she lived in Wickersham. She would have been a shining star for UAF, Alaska and women. Her death has troubled me for 20 years (I was 1,000 miles away when she was taken and it was shocking then).

I hope that Sophie's death can be solved. I don't think anyone really understands what a loss her death is to the world. It was a violent act not just against Sophie, perhaps targeted because she was that wonderful, but against us all.
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Frustrating case

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Video about elusive suspects

Killer's behavior suggested no stranger to dorm

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Detective's bottom line

 
 
 
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