ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KLRT) -- Alaskan law enforcement authorities announced the closure this week of a cold case that involved an Arkansas man.
According to Alaska State Troopers, 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. Jessica then walked home alone after the party shortly after midnight.
Troopers said when Baggen didn’t arrive home that next morning her parents became worried and reported her missing to Sitka Police. 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.
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 when he was tried he was acquitted.
The Alaska Dept. of Public Safety said that in February 2019, a DNA profile was developed and uploaded into public genealogy databases. By the end of the year, after months of genealogical research, a new suspect emerged: Steve Branch.
Investigators established that Branch lived in Sitka at the time of Jessica’s murder. The Alaska State Troopers Cold Case Investigation Unit also learned that in March 1996, Sitka Police investigated Branch for sexually assaulting another teenage female. He was indicted and arrested for the incident in June 1996, but he was subsequently acquitted after a trial in 1997.
Alaska DPS said Branch moved from Sitka to Arkansas in 2010. This spring, Sitka Police obtained a discarded DNA sample from a relative of Branch. Kinship DNA analysis completed in May determined that Steve Branch was most likely the source of the suspect DNA found on Jessica’s clothing and body.
On August 3, Alaska Bureau of Investigation officers made contact with Branch, 66, at his residence to question him and obtain a DNA sample. Branch denied any involvement in the homicide case and refused to voluntarily provide a DNA sample. Investigators left the residence to apply for a search warrant and interview other witnesses who also lived in Arkansas.
Approximately 30 minutes after the investigators departed, Branch shot himself. The Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident and uncovered overwhelming evidence that Branch took his own life.
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, KLRT reports.