Alaskan Investigators Solve 1996 Cold Case of Missing 17-Year-Old Who Disappeared Leaving Her Own Birthday Party

Thanks to genetic genealogy, investigators in Alaska were finally able to close the cold case of Jessica Baggen, who was tragically raped and then murdered walking home from her 17th birthday party.

According to NBC News, Baggen vanished on May 4, 1996, while she was walking home from the party at her sister’s house. Her body was found buried in the woods two days later. Eleven days after her disappearance, a man contacted local police and confessed to sexually assaulting her, but no physical evidence was found to link him to the crime. As a result, he was tried and acquitted, Alaska State Police Maj. Dave Hanson told reporters. Baggen’s case has remained cold since 1996.

But in 2018, cold case investigators submitted a DNA sample taken from Baggen’s body that was then uploaded to public genealogy databases, Hanson said. Investigators got a match to 66-year-old Steve Branch, who lived in Sitka at the time of Baggen’s murder. He had also been indicted and then acquitted, in the sexual assault of another local teenager around the same time.

Hanson said Branch moved to Arkansas in 2010, but after investigators obtained a DNA sample from a nearby relative, they determined that he was most likely a match to the suspect’s DNA. State police investigators then traveled to Branch’s home in Austin, Arkansas, to interview him about Baggen’s killing. Branch denied involvement in the teen’s death and refused to provide investigators with a DNA sample. 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. Following an autopsy after Branch’s Aug. 3 death, scientists were able to compare DNA obtained from his body to the suspect’s DNA and confirmed it was a match, Price said.

Cold Case

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