Alaska State Troopers have announced the closure of a cold case that involved an Arkansas man.
According to Alaskan State Police, 17-year-old Jessica Baggen disappeared in Sitka, Alaska in May 1996. She had just celebrated her 17th birthday at a relatives house along with another friend. Jessica walked home alone after the party shortly after midnight.
The next morning Alaskan Troopers said when Jessica didnâ€™t arrive home, her parents became worried and reported her missing to local authorities. The police started a search around in a wooded area. On May 6, searchers found a shirt Jessica was wearing when she was last seen. Less than two hours later Jessicaâ€™s body was found along with most of her clothing and belongings.
9 days later, a man contacted the local police and confessed to sexually assaulting Jessica and murdering her. Authorities said 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 and more than 100 suspects cleared in 10 years, the case eventually grew cold.
In 2019, a DNA profile was developed from evidence collected and uploaded into a public genealogy database. After several months of research, a new suspect had surfaced.
Officials stated Steve Branch, 66 of Arkansas had lived in the area at the time of Jessicaâ€™s murder. Just a few weeks before Jessicaâ€™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 that took place in 1997.
Alaskan investigators were trying to locate Branch and learned he had moved from Alaska to Arkansas in 2010 and took permanent residency. In January of 2020, the Alaskan State Troopers Cold Case Division contacted the Arkansas State Police for assistance in the investigation.
Arkansas State Police were able to obtain a DNA sample from one of Branchâ€™s relatives. In May of 2020, DNA analysis determined that Steve Branch was most likely the match to the DNA sample recovered off of Jessica.
In a strange turn of events, Alaska State Police Investigators traveled to Arkansas in early August to continue the investigation. On August 3rd, investigators confronted and interviewed Branch at his home. He was interviewed and asked to provide a DNA sample to compare against the suspect DNA. Branch denied any involvement in Jessicaâ€™s murder and refused to take a DNA test. Investigators then left his house and applied to get a search warrant for Branchâ€™s DNA. Only 30 minutes after investigators left Branchâ€™s home, he committed suicide.
Lonoke County Sheriffâ€™s Office determined that Branch had shot himself.
After investigators secured a search warrant they collected DNA during Branchâ€™s autopsy.
On Monday, August 10, the State of Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory confirmed Branchâ€™s DNA matched the suspect DNA found on Jessica and at the scene.