Investigators in Alaska used genetic genealogy to end the murder of Jessica Baggen, who was raped and murdered after she celebrated her 17th birthday in 1996, authorities said Tuesday.
Suspect identified in the case, Steve Branch, 66, died of suicide last week after State Police investigators traveled to his home in Austin, Arkansas to investigate Baggen’s murder in the town of Sitka, southwest of Juneau, Alaska State Police Maj, to interview Dave Hanson told reporters.
After authorities tried to obtain a DNA sample, Branch denied involvement in the teenager̵
“While Branch will never face a jury of his colleagues in this case, we can finally say that Jessica’s case is resolved,” said Amanda Price, Alaska Public Safety Commissioner.
Baggen disappeared on May 4, 1996 after leaving a birthday party at her sister’s house to go home, Hanson said.
Her body, which was found two days later, was buried in the forest, he said.
Nine days later, a man contacted local police and confessed to sexually assaulting them, but no physical evidence linked him to the crime and he was later acquitted during a trial, Hanson said.
In 2018, cold investigators submitted a suspicious DNA sample from Baggen’s body to Parabon NanoLabs and uploaded it to public genealogy databases, he said.
Eventually Branch emerged as a suspect, Hanson said. He was living in Sitka when Baggen was murdered and he had been charged and acquitted of sexually assaulting another local teenager at the time of Baggen’s murder, Hanson said. He moved to Arkansas in 2010.
After obtaining a DNA sample from a relative of Branch, the researchers determined that it most likely matched the suspicious DNA.
Following Branch’s death on Aug. 3, scientists compared the DNA obtained from his body during an autopsy with the suspect’s DNA, Price said.