Authorities say they have identified the man who sexually assaulted and killed Sitka teen, Jessica Baggen, in 1996. (Courtesy Photo / Department of Public Safety)

Authorities say they have identified the man who sexually assaulted and killed Sitka teen, Jessica Baggen, in 1996. (Courtesy Photo / Department of Public Safety)

Troopers close Sitka cold case

The accused killed himself before being taken into custody

Authorities announced they’re closing a decades-old Sitka cold case following the death of the man alleged to have sexually assaulted and killed a Sitka teen decades ago.

Steve Allen Branch, 67, who was being investigated for the 1996 sexual assault and killing of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen in Sitka died by suicide last week in Arkansas minutes after Alaska State Trooper investigators contacted him, said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price in a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Branch was being investigated as a suspect based on DNA evidence from the crime scene, Price said.

Baggen disappeared on May 4, 1996, while walking home after celebrating her 17th birthday in Sitka. Her body was found two days later, sexually assaulted and strangled, according to Department of Public Safety. A different man turned himself in for the crime over a week later, said AST Maj. David Hanson, but the physical evidence didn’t match, and he was acquitted.

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

Branch was contacted and interviewed at his residence in Arkansas, where he had moved in 2010. He denied any involvement and refusing to provide a DNA sample voluntarily, Hanson said.

Authorities say they have identified the man who sexually assaulted and killed Jessica Baggen in 1996. Alaska State Troopers identified the suspect as a man living in Arkansas who died by suicide earlier this month. (Courtesy Photo / Department of Public Safety)

Authorities say they have identified the man who sexually assaulted and killed Jessica Baggen in 1996. Alaska State Troopers identified the suspect as a man living in Arkansas who died by suicide earlier this month. (Courtesy Photo / Department of Public Safety)

“Branch killed himself last week after denying that he had anything to do with the crime,” Price said. “Investigators were able to secure a search warrant and secured a DNA sample during the autopsy.”

When Branch refused to provide a sample of his own volition, investigators went to seek a warrant for a sample, Hanson said.

Branch died by suicide only 30 minutes after Alaska investigators left his residence, Hanson said. It was determined that Branch shot himself.

The DNA sample from Branch’s corpse matched with the DNA taken from the crime scene, Price said.

“This is the third case in Alaska that we have solved involving Genetic Genealogy and we hope to use this technique in other cases,” said AST spokesperson Megan Peters in an email. “The other two cases solved this way are Sophie Sergie and Shelley Connolly.”

The Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, FBI and other law enforcement agencies in Arkansas and elsewhere contributed to identifying a suspect, Price said.

“Every piece of evidence is diligently tested, analyzed and recorded, and today we see the hard work rewarded,” said forensic lab chief David Kanaris during the press conference. “It’s my honor to work with such a hardworking team of scientists at the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Lab.”

Baggen’s case was one of the first cases to use this genealogy method of identifying a suspect, Price said, but she hopes it will help solve more of Alaska’s cold cases.

“I am beyond proud of the efforts spent over the years on this case,” Price said. “We plan to continue to use this investigative tool and any others we have to hopefully bring closure to other Alaskan families waiting for answers and justice.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or lockett@juneauempire.com.

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