Alaska Teen Was Murdered After 17th Birthday Party in 1996, and Newly-ID'd Suspect Dies by Suicide
Alaska Police said Steve Branch, 66, killed himself after police asked him for a DNA sample
Alaska native Jessica Baggen had just turned 17, and she was celebrating.
After visiting her sister at her house, she decided to walk home in the early morning hours of May 4, 1996.
She never made it.
The following morning, her parents realized that their daughter was missing and filed a report with the Sitka Police Department.
On May 6, police began searching a wooded area near the Sheldon Jackson College campus and discovered her shirt. Less than two hours later, Baggen's body was found about 70 feet off a bike path, buried in a hollowed-out area under a fallen tree.
Nine days after the teen's strangulation murder and sexual assault, a man confessed to the crime. Despite not having any physical evidence linking him to the crime, he was charged. The following year he went to trial, but was found not guilty.
After that, the case went cold for more than 20 years.
Alaska State Trooper cold case investigators began looking at the case again in 2007 and in 2019, the killer’s DNA left at the crime scene was uploaded to a public genealogy database. Investigators soon landed on a potential suspect, Steven Branch, a former resident of Sitka who moved to Arkansas in 2010.
According to police, Branch had been arrested in 1996 for the sexual assault of another teenage girl but had been acquitted at trial.
Alaska authorities said they enlisted the Arkansas State Police to surreptitiously obtain a sample of Branch’s DNA but they were unsuccessful. However, the Sitka Police Department was able to obtain discarded DNA from one of Branch’s relatives.
“Kinship DNA analysis completed in May of 2020, determined that Steve Branch was most likely the source of the suspect DNA found on Jessica’s clothing and body,” according to a police press release obtained by PEOPLE.
Earlier this month, on Aug. 3, Alaska Bureau of Investigation investigators flew to Arkansas to speak with Branch and obtain a DNA sample. Branch denied any wrongdoing and refused to provide a sample of his DNA.
Thirty minutes after investigators left to obtain a warrant for his DNA, police said Branch, 66, died by suicide.
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Investigators said they collected Branch’s DNA during his autopsy and he was positively linked to the killing of the teen on August 10.
“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 at a news conference, the Associated Press reports.