SITKA, Alaska (KLRT) – Alaska authorities announced the closure of a 1996 cold case after DNA evidence led investigators to an Arkansas man.
Seventeen-year-old Jessica Baggen disappeared in Sitka, Alaska in the early morning hours of May 4, 1996, according to a Facebook live from the Alaska State Troopers. 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.
When Jessica didn’t arrive home that next morning, her parents became worried and reported her missing to the Sitka Police Department. Police started searching in a nearby wooded area, and, 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 also located in the area.
Nine 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 he was ultimately acquitted during trial.
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 2019, authorities developed a DNA profile from the evidence and uploaded it into a public genealogy database. After several months of research, a new suspect surfaced.
Steve Branch, 66, of Arkansas, had lived in Sitka at the time of Jessica’s murder. Just a few weeks before she was killed, the police had investigated Branch for sexually assaulting another teenager. He was indicted and arrested for the incident in June 1996 but was acquitted at trial in 1997.
While investigators were trying to locate Branch, they learned he had moved from Sitka to Arkansas in 2010 and took permanent residency. In January of 2020, 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. 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.
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.
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, 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.