Lifestyle & Human Interest

Cold Case Solved 25 Years After Teen Girl's Body Found in Woods


DNA databases are a topic of much contention, and there are definitely concerns about how such private information is being handled — but it’s also certain that thanks to the developments in DNA testing and cataloging, it’s much more difficult for criminals to run free.

In this case, DNA testing helped track down a criminal and give the family of the deceased some closure.

On May 4, 1996, Jessica Baggen — who had just turned 17 — went missing when she walked home from her sister’s residence.

The walk was only about a mile, but she never made it home. Her parents called the Sitka Police Department when they realized she’d never turned up.

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“Sitka PD mobilized the local search and rescue team,” the Alaska State Troopers shared on Facebook. “They focused their efforts in the wooded area west of the Indian River, between the campus of Sheldon Jackson College and Sawmill Creek Road.”

“Soon a shirt, later identified as the one Jessica was wearing when she was last seen alive, was located. Jessica was found dead less than two hours later; it was May 6th.”

“She had been discarded and hastily buried in a hollowed-out area beneath the trunk of a large fallen tree,” Major David Hanson said during a news conference.

A man confessed to sexually assaulting and murdering Baggen a little over a week after she was found — but it was eventually determined that he was not the perpetrator.

The Sitka police, Alaska State Troopers and even private investigators hired by the family couldn’t find any solid leads. Over 100 suspects were interviewed and subsequently cleared thanks to DNA testing.

In 2007, Baggen’s cold case was picked up again, but it wasn’t until 2018 when authorities decided to turn to Genetic Genealogy using what little DNA there was left on the collected evidence.

“In February 2019, a SNP-DNA profile was developed and uploaded into public genealogy databases,” the Alaska State Troopers’ post continued. “By the end of the year, after months of genealogical research, a new suspect emerged: Steve Branch.”

While the 66-year-old Branch lived in Arkansas, he had lived in Sitka at the time of the assault and murder. Thanks to a relative of Branch’s who supplied a DNA sample, authorities were able to home in on the suspect.

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On Aug. 3, investigators with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation approached Branch at his home, but the man denied being involved in Baggen’s case and would not give investigators a DNA sample.

The investigators left. Thirty minutes later, Branch shot himself. A postmortem DNA sample matched the DNA found on the evidence.

On Tuesday, after 25 years of not knowing who had taken the young woman’s life, the Alaska State Troopers Facebook page announced that the crime had been solved, thanks to DNA testing.

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

“While nothing will ease the pain or bring Jessica back, I am humbled and proud of the work that many law enforcement professionals did over the years to bring closure to her family and friends,” Price continued in the Alaska State Troopers’ post. “They never forgot about Jessica or the people that loved her.”

“Each cold case represents a victim and a family that is grieving while awaiting justice. Each case, no matter how old, matters to us.”

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