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Investigators solve cold case of Alaska teen who was raped, murdered after 17th birthday party

The suspect died by suicide last week after investigators tried to obtain a DNA sample, authorities said.
Image: Jessica Baggen case solved
Commissioner of Public Safety Amanda Price announces that the murder case of Jessica Baggen was solved through genetic genealogy. Alaska State Troopers

Investigators in Alaska used genetic genealogy to close the cold case killing of Jessica Baggen, who was raped and murdered after she celebrated her 17th birthday in 1996, authorities said Tuesday.

A suspect identified in the case, Steve Branch, 66, died by suicide last week after state police investigators traveled to his home in Austin, Arkansas, to interview him about Baggen’s murder in the city of Sitka, southwest of Juneau, Alaska State Police Maj. Dave Hanson told reporters.

After authorities tried to obtain a DNA sample, Branch denied involvement in the teen's slaying and refused to provide one, Hanson said. Thirty minutes after the officers left to get a warrant, Branch died by suicide, Hanson said.

“While Branch will never face a jury of his peers in this case, we can finally say that Jessica’s case is solved,” Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said.

Baggen vanished on May 4, 1996, after she left a birthday party at her sister’s house to walk home, Hanson said.

Her body, which was found two days later, had been buried in the woods, he said.

Nine days after that, a man contacted local police and confessed to sexually assaulting her, but no physical evidence linked him to the crime, and he was later acquitted during a trial, Hanson said.

In 2018, cold case investigators submitted a suspect DNA sample taken from Baggen’s body to Parabon NanoLabs, which uploaded it to public genealogy databases, he said.

Eventually, Branch emerged as a suspect, Hanson said. He lived in Sitka when Baggen was murdered, and he had been indicted — and acquitted — in the sexual assault of another local teenager around the time of Baggen's killing, Hanson said. He moved to Arkansas in 2010.

After a DNA sample was obtained from a relative of Branch’s, investigators determined that he was most likely a match to the suspect DNA.

Following Branch's Aug. 3 death, scientists matched DNA obtained from his body during an autopsy to the suspect's DNA, Price said.