A man who shoot himself dead after refusing to provide a DNA sample to cops investigating a 24-year-old cold-case murder has been confirmed as the killer, police announced Tuesday.
Alaska State Troopers and the Sitka Police Department used public genealogy databases to track down the suspect in the 1996 rape and strangulation murder of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen.
Cops traveled to Arkansas on August 3 to ask the suspect identified, Steve Branch, 66, to give a voluntary DNA sample as part of the investigation but he refused.
Half an hour after cops left his home, Branch shot himself in the head.
Alaska police secured a warrant to take a DNA sample during the autopsy and Branch was this week confirmed to be Baggen’s killer.
‘While nothing will ease the pain or bring Jessica back, I am humbled and proud of the work that many law enforcement professionals did over the years to bring closure to her family and friends. They never forgot about Jessica or the people that loved her,’ Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said during Tuesday’s press conference.
‘Jessica’s live mattered very much … and they never gave up searching for the man that raped and murdered her.
‘Each cold case represents a victim and a family that is grieving while awaiting justice. Each case, no matter how old, matters to us.’
Baggen went missing from her home in Sitka, Alaska, in the early hours of May 4, 1996.
She had been celebrating her birthday with friends and left her sister’s house to walk the mile home to her parents’ house but never arrived.
Her father reported her missing to Sitka Police Department the following day when the family had still not heard from the teenager.
A search crew was immediately engaged and two days after she was last seen, the shirt Baggen had been wearing while celebrating with friends was located in the wooded area west of the Indian River.
Her body was discovered less than two hours later, hastily hidden in a hollowed-out area beneath the trunk of a large fallen tree, with her other clothing and possessions scattered nearby.
Police found she had been raped and strangled to death.
Baggen’s death shocked the small community of just 8,000 people. She was described as a a teen who loved to cook and listen to Willie Nelson, and had especially loved what they called ‘Thanksgiving pie-making marathons’.
According to KCAW, she had died just a few blocks from home, on a well-used and visible route in the very heart of Sitka, and across the street from the Alaska Department of Public Safety Training Academy.
The suspect left DNA on the scene and on Baggen’s body but police were unable to track him down until recently.
‘It’s just been a long time solving this case,’ said Galen Paine, former Sitka Public Defender. ‘And I feel deeply for the family. It’s been an incredibly difficult road, and this doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does answer some questions.’
Nine days after her body had been discovered, local man Richard Bingham, a maintenance worker at Sheldon Jackson College, confessed to the crime but he was acquitted and cops now say he had mental deficiencies.
They added that there was evidence he had been coerced into a confession at the time.
He went to trial in early 1997 but was found not guilty as none of the physical evidence collected at the scene linked him to the crime.
‘The police were exceptionally anxious to find the perpetrator, and unfortunately centered in on basically, vulnerable person,’ Paine said of the acquitted suspect.
Over the past 24 years, 100 suspects have been identified by local police, with occasional help from state troopers, but all have been cleared using the DNA evidence.
Baggen’s family also launched a private investigation but a killer could not be found.
In 2007, police renewed their efforts into finding the person responsible for the teenager’s death, yet suspect after suspect was again cleared.
‘Every retired officer seems to have that one case that they can’t let go—that just haunts them. This case was mine,’ said now-retired Lt. Dave Tugmon on Tuesday.
‘I walked into the captain’s office with the file and I told him we had to take on Jessica’s case.’
In September 2018, police began to look into the new forensic DNA procedure called Genetic Genealogy, which created a single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) profile from the suspect’s DNA at the crime scene through Parabon Nanolabs.
In February 2019, this DNA profile was entered into public genealogy databases, where further months of research established an intricate family tree linked to the DNA and presented Branch as a suspect.
Police found that Branch had lived in Sitka before his move to Arkansas in 2010 and had several addresses along the road from which Baggen went missing.
Investigators also discovered that in March of 1996, Sitka PD investigated Branch for sexually assaulting another teenage woman. He was indicted and arrested for the incident in June of 1996, but he was subsequently acquitted after a trial in 1997 for an unknown reason.
In January 2020, the Alaska State Troopers Cold Case Investigation Unit asked Arkansas state police for help in obtaining a discarded piece of DNA from Branch but were unsuccessful in their attempts.
They were, however, able to acquire a discarded DNA sample from a relative , which further confirmed Branch as the main suspect.
Unable to acquire a discarded sample from Branch himself, the Lone Oak Sheriff’s Office – working on behalf of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation – eventually confronted the suspect in his Arkansas home on August 3 but he denied that he was involved in the case and refused a DNA sample.
Police left to secure a warrant to obtain the DNA but shortly afterward Branch shot himself in the head. His death was ruled a suicide.
On Monday, the State of Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage confirmed Branch’s DNA matched the suspect DNA found on the body and at the scene.
‘For over 24 years, investigators have vigorously pursued leads in hopes of resolving this incident. What ultimately solved this case was the tireless efforts of two genealogists, one with Parabon and the other with the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Criminal Intelligence Analyst Patty Busby, who finally pointed the investigators in the right direction,’ said Investigator Randy McPherron of the Cold Case Investigation Unit.
‘I am very grateful to have played a small role in this investigation and to bring closure to Jessica’s family and the community of Sitka.’
This is the third murder in Alaska solved by using genetic genealogy but the method has not yet been tested in court.
In February 2019, 44-year-old Maine man Steven Downs was arrested after genetic genealogy tied him to the murder of Sophie Sergie. She was found dead on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in 1993.
Donald McQuade, 62, was also arrested in Oregon in September for the murder of an Anchorage teen named Shelley Connolly, whose body was found in a road ditch in 1993.
The two other Alaska murder cases that led to arrests have yet to go to trial, according to the Daily Beast.
Baggen’s murder will not go to trial because of Branch’s death.
‘While Branch will never face a jury of his peers in this case, we can finally say that Jessica’s case is solved,’ Price said.
‘There is no amount of time that can pass that a case can not be a priority for this department.