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After 24 years, DNA evidence leads to Jessica Baggen’s killer

Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price stands alongside photos of Jessica Baggen taken at her 17th birthday party. Baggen was killed later that same evening as she walked home. (DPS image)

State troopers have solved a 24-year-old sexual assault and homicide case in Sitka. DNA evidence led investigators to a 66-year old man living in Arkansas, who took his own life shortly after Alaska investigators questioned him last week.

Jessica Baggen disappeared sometime after midnight on May 4, 1996, walking home from her 17th birthday party.

The news was devastating, and over the course of the next two days an intensive search turned to sorrow.

“On May 6 searchers found the shirt Jessica had been wearing when she was last seen alive,” said Maj. Dave Hanson, of the Alaska State Troopers, during a Facebook livestream. “Less than two hours later, Jessica’s body was recovered approximately 70-feet off a bike path parallel to Sawmill Creek Road. She had been discarded and hastily buried under a log beneath the trunk of a hollowed-out tree.”

Jessica had died just a few blocks from home, on a well-used and visible route in the very heart of Sitka — across the street from the Alaska Department of Public Safety Training Academy.

Hanson said that in 2018 investigators applied a new technique in “genetic genealogy,” developed by a company called Parabon, to the genetic evidence found with Jessica’s body.

It led them to 66-year old Steve Allen Branch of Austin, Ark. From there, the pieces fell into place.

“Investigators established that Branch had lived in Sitka at the time of Jessica’s murder,” Hanson continued. “The Cold Case Unit also learned that in March of 1996, only a few weeks prior to Jessica’s death, the Sitka Police Department had investigated Branch for sexually assaulting another teenage female. He was indicted and arrested for the incident in June of 1996, but was subsequently acquitted after a trial in 1997.”

Investigators from the Alaska Bureau of Investigation flew to Arkansas and interviewed Branch at his home. Hanson says that Branch denied any involvement in the Baggen case and declined to provide a DNA sample.

Then the story took another grim turn.

“Only 30 minutes after the Alaska investigators departed the residence, Branch committed suicide,” said Hanson. “The investigation into Branch’s death, which was conducted by the Lone Oak Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas, determined conclusively that Branch had shot himself.”

“It’s just been a long time solving this case,” said Galen Paine, former Sitka Public Defender. “And I feel deeply for the family. It’s been an incredibly difficult road, and this doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does answer some questions.”

Paine defended the man falsely accused of Baggen’s murder — Richard Bingham, a maintenance worker at Sheldon Jackson College. Bingham had mental deficiencies, and Paine proved his confession had been coerced.

“The police were exceptionally anxious to find the perpetrator, and unfortunately centered in on, basically, a vulnerable person,” she said.

Paine believes the effort by law enforcement and prosecutors to build a case against Bingham may have distracted them from pursuit of Baggen’s actual killer.

Branch’s suicide creates an area of legal uncertainty around his guilt in the matter. In technical terms, Baggen’s case is “closed by exception,” as there will never be a trial.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said that this matter has haunted her organization for the last two decades, and she is proud of their work.

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

Price said the methods used to find Jessica Baggen’s killer will continue to be applied by investigators, meaning “there is no amount of time that can pass that a case cannot be a priority for this department.”

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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