Jessica Baggen pictured at her 17th birthday party on May 3, 1996, hours before she disappeared. Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Public SafetyAlaska
Aug. 12 (UPI) -- Twenty-four years after 17-year-old Jessica Baggen was raped and killed, police in Alaska said they have identified the man responsible through DNA analysis.
Amanda Price, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, identified Steve Branch, 66, of Austin, Ark., during a press conference Tuesday as the man who killed Baggen on May 4, 1996, a day after her 17th birthday.
Branch, she said, died by suicide Aug. 3 after police attempted to interview him in Austin about the crime.
Price said investigators were able through a search warrant to collect a sample of Branch's DNA during his autopsy to compare it with evidence found at the crime scene, and the State of Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage confirmed Monday that it was a match.
"While Branch will never face a jury in this case, we can finally say that Jessica's case is solved," she said.
Alaska State Police Maj. Dave Hanson said Baggen disappeared in the early hours of May 4, 1996, while walking home after celebrating her birthday at her sister's house.
Her father reported her missing to the Sitka Police Department the next day, and a search was initiated.
Her body, Hanson said, was found May 6 buried in a hollowed-out trunk of a large fallen tree in a wooded area.
Soon after, a man confessed to the crime but months later it was determined that none of the physical evidence collected from the crime scene linked the suspect to the crime and he was acquitted in 1997.
"Throughout the next decade more than 100 potential suspects were cleared through DNA comparisons and the trail eventually went cold," he said.
However, due to advancements in technology over the intervening years, investigators were able to generate a DNA profile from the evidence collected from the crime scene, which was uploaded to a genealogy database, and by the end of 2019, Branch emerged as a suspect, the Alaska Department of Public Safety said in a release.
Hanson said investigators then learned Branch, who had moved to Arkansas in 2010, was in Alaska at the time of Baggen's death and that he had been investigated weeks prior to her disappearance concerning another sexual assault case.
He was indicted for that earlier crime in 1996 but was acquitted during the trial the next year.
After fingering Branch as a suspect, investigators obtained a discarded DNA sample from one of his relatives that determined in May 2020 that Branch was "most likely the source of the suspect DNA found on Jessica's clothing and body," the statement said.
Investigators then contacted Branch at his home who denied involvement in Baggen's disappearance and refused to voluntarily hand over a DNA sample, Hanson said.
"The plan was to secure a DNA sample directly from Branch under the authority of a search warrant and if the profiles match investigators would take Branch into custody and charge him with Jessica's murder," he said. "However, only 30 minutes after the Alaska investigators departed the residence, Branch committed suicide."
Authorities said he shot himself.
"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 said in a statement. "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 hold old, matters to us."