1996 Alaska cold case closed after Arkansas man’s DNA matched

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ALASKA — Alaska State Troopers along with the Sitka Police Department announced the closure of a cold case that involved an Arkansas man.

According to a Facebook live from the Alaskan State Police, 17-year-old Jessica Baggen disappeared in Sitka, Alaska in the early morning hours of May 4, 1996. She had just celebrated her 17th birthday at her sister’s house along with another friend. Jessica then walked home alone after the party shortly after midnight.

Alaskan Troopers said when Jessica didn’t arrive home that next morning her parents became worried and reported her missing to the Sitka Police Department. The police started a search around in a wooded area. On May 6, searchers found the shirt Jessica was wearing when she was last seen alive. Less than two hours later Jessica’s body was found. Most of her clothing and belongings were found in the area.

According to the news conference, 9 days later, a man contacted the Sitka Police Department and confessed to sexually assaulting Jessica and murdering her. None of the physical evidence linked this 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 suspects were cleared in a decade and the case eventually grew cold.

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

Officials say, Steve Branch, 66 of Arkansas had lived in Sitka at the time of Jessica’s murder. Just a few weeks before Jessica’s murder 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.

Alaskan Troopers say while investigators were trying to locate Branch they had learned he had moved from Sitka to Arkansas in 2010 and took permanent residency. In January of 2020, the Alaskan 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. In May of 2020, a kinship DNA analysis determined that Steve Branch was most likely the match to the DNA sample recovered off of Jessica.

Investigators traveled to Arkansas in the first week of August to continue the investigation. On August 3rd, investigators contacted Branch at his home. He was interviewed and later asked to voluntarily provide a DNA sample to compare against the suspect DNA.

Officials say, Branch denied any involvement in Jessica’s murder and refused to provide a DNA sample.  Investigators then left his house and applied to get a search warrant for Branch’s DNA. Only 30 minutes after investigators left Branch’s home, he committed suicide. The Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office determined that Branch had shot himself.

After investigators secured a search warrant they collected DNA during Branch’s 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 Jessica and at the scene.

To watch the full news conference click here.  

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