DNA evidence closes 1996 Alaska cold case; suspect 2,500 miles away

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Jessica Baggen. Photo credit: Alaska State Troopers

SITKA, Alaska (News Nation) — A 24-year-old cold case is now closed after an Arkansas man’s DNA was linked to a murder of an Alaskan teen.

Jessica Baggen disappeared the early morning hours of May 4, 1996 in Sitka, Alaska, which is near the state capital of Juneau. She had just celebrated her 17th birthday at her sister’s house and walked home alone shortly after midnight, News Nation affiliate KLRT reported.

When Baggen did not arrive home the next morning, her parents became worried and reported her missing to the local police department, Alaska State Troopers said.

Police searched a nearby wooded area, and two days later found the shirt Baggen was wearing when she was last seen alive. Less than two hours later, her body was found.

The next week, a man contacted the Sitka Police Department and confessed to murdering and sexually assaulting Baggen. None of the physical evidence linked the suspect to the crime and when he was tried, he was acquitted.

This case remained unsolved for several years despite the continued investigation. More than 100 people were cleared in a decade and the case eventually grew cold.

In February of 2019, a DNA profile was developed and uploaded into a public genealogy database. After several months of research, a new suspect had surfaced.

This led authorities to Austin, Arkansas, a town more than 2,500 miles away. Officials said 66-year-old Steve Branch had lived in Sitka at the time of Baggen’s murder. Just a few weeks prior, the police had investigated Branch for sexually assaulting another teenager. He was indicted and arrested for the incident in June 1996 but was acquitted in a trial in 1997.

While investigators were trying to locate Branch, they learned he had moved from Sitka to Arkansas in 2010. A few months ago, the Alaska State Troopers Cold Case Division reached out to the Arkansas State Police for assistance. In the next months, Arkansas State Police were able to obtain a discarded DNA sample from one of Branch’s relatives. Then in May, a kinship DNA analysis determined that Steve Branch was most likely the match to the DNA sample.

Investigators traveled to Arkansas last week and contacted Branch at his home. He denied having any involvement with Baggen’s murder and refused to provide a DNA sample for comparison.

Thirty minutes after investigators left Branch’s residence, he died by suicide, according to Alaska State Trooper Major David Hanson.

After securing a search warrant, Alaskan officials obtained his DNA during his autopsy.

On Monday, August 10, the State of Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage confirmed Branch’s DNA matched the suspect DNA found on Baggen and at the scene.

“I’m thankful that the family and friends of Jessica Baggen will hopefully receive an element of closure,” Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said.

Advances in DNA technology have solved several cold cases in recent years including the Golden State Killer in California.

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