Alaska cold case closed after investigators tie DNA to murder suspect

Baggen went missing in 1996 and her case went unsolved for 25 years.  (Photo from file...
Baggen went missing in 1996 and her case went unsolved for 25 years. (Photo from file video/KTUU)(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 11, 2020 at 4:17 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Jessica Baggen went missing in May of 1996. She was last seen visiting friends and family before walking home to her residence about a mile away. She didn’t come home that night, so her parents alerted Sitka Police.

Search and rescue found Baggen’s body covered with dirt and branches in the woods behind what was then Sheldon Jackson College. An autopsy showed she had been asphyxiated.

She had just turned 17-years-old.

“She had been discarded and hastily buried in a hollowed-out area beneath the trunk of a large fallen tree. Most of her clothing and personal effects were found in the immediate area,” Major David Hanson with Alaska State Troopers said at a press conference Tuesday.

Now, 25 years after her death, Troopers say they have identified the man responsible for the sexual assault and murderer of Baggen as 66-year-old Steve Branch of Arkansas.

On Aug. 3, investigators went to Branch’s home but he denied involvement in the crime and refused to provide a DNA sample. Approximately 30 minutes after investigators left the home, Branch committed suicide by shooting himself.

After being granted a search warrant, investigators confirmed that DNA taken from Branch’s autopsy matched the DNA of the suspect in the cold case.

“While Branch will never face a jury of his peers in this case, we can finally say that Jessica’s case is solved,” Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said.

In the search for Baggen’s murderer, more than 100 potential suspects were cleared through DNA comparisons.

“Investigators were forced to look for new angles,” Hanson said.

In September of 2018, the cold case unit at the Alaska State Troopers worked with Sitka Police to pursue using genetic genealogy as a forensic tool to find new DNA matches.

Jessica Baggen was 17 when she was murdered. (Photo: Alaska State Troopers)
Jessica Baggen was 17 when she was murdered. (Photo: Alaska State Troopers)(KTUU)

A DNA profile of the suspect was uploaded into public genealogy databases and that’s when Branch emerged as a potential suspect.

He had lived in Sitka at the time of the murder and a few weeks before Baggen’s death, Sitka Police had investigated Branch for the sexual assault of another teenager.

After being acquitted for the assault, Branch moved to Austin, Arkansas where he lived for the past decade. Troopers worked with Arkansas State Police to obtain a discarded DNA sample from Branch but were unsuccessful.

Troopers finally had a break in the case when they were able to acquire a DNA sample from Branch’s relative that determined “Branch was most likely the source of the DNA suspect recovered from Jessica’s clothing and body.”

After interviewing Branch, investigators had hoped to secure a search warrant to collect DNA, and if it was a match, arrest him for the murder of Baggen.

This is one of the first cases in Alaska were genetic genealogy was used to find a suspect, and the third cold case in the state solved using the method, Price said.

“What ultimately solved this case were the tireless efforts of two genealogists,” Cold Case Investigator Randy McPherron said.

Because members of the public had uploaded their DNA profiles into public databases, investigators were able to “piece together a very complex family tree that finally exposed Branch as Jessica’s killer,” McPherron said.

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