Another 25-year-old cold case solved through genealogy

This one may not be on the same level as the Golden State Killer in terms of national notoriety, but it was still a horrible crime that went unsolved for nearly a quarter of a century. On May 4, 1996, Jessica Baggen attended a birthday party in her honor at her sister’s house in the city of Sitka, Alaska. (The word “city” is used generously, as the town has a population of barely more than 8,000.) After the party, she left to walk back to her home. She was never seen alive again.

Jessica’s body was found buried in a shallow grave two days later. She had been raped and murdered. One person bizarrely confessed to the crime but was acquitted when it was determined that he couldn’t have been the perpetrator. The case went cold after that and remained in the unsolved file until 2018. That’s when another set of genetic sleuths requested DNA evidence from Jessica’s autopsy and got to work with the help of a genetics laboratory and a public genealogy service. A few months ago they had identified a suspect far away in Arkansas. What happened next was almost as shocking as the original events. (NBC News)

A suspect identified in the case, Steve Branch, 66, died by suicide last week after state police investigators traveled to his home in Austin, Arkansas, to interview him about Baggen’s murder in the city of Sitka, southwest of Juneau, Alaska State Police Maj. Dave Hanson told reporters.

After authorities tried to obtain a DNA sample, Branch denied involvement in the teen’s slaying and refused to provide one, Hanson said. Thirty minutes after the officers left to get a warrant, Branch died by suicide, Hanson said.

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

At first, I was tempted to put the phrase committed suicide in scare quotes when talking about Steve Branch. It’s awfully convenient to have someone you’ve been hunting for that long suddenly take himself off the field of play just when you’ve identified him. But on further reflection, it probably makes sense. The guy was 66-years-old and had been on the run for decades. When the police showed up at his door that far from the scene of the crime asking about this specific rape and murder, he no doubt realized that the game was over. If he was taken back to Alaska to stand trial he would probably have died in prison anyway.

I’m not sure why the cops left him alone long enough to take his own life. I realize that they needed to get a warrant to demand a DNA sample from him, but the idea that he would either try to flee or take his own life must have crossed their minds. Still, at least they found the monster before he had a chance to live out his entire, natural lifespan as a free man.

We’re seeing more and more of these cold cases being solved via genetic research. ABC has created an entire reality series on the subject named The Genetic Detective. (A very good show, by the way if you haven’t checked it out yet.) I still see people raising privacy complaints about the use of genetic research in these investigations, but I’ve yet to hear one argument that makes me feel much sympathy for the people involved. The databases these teams use are full of DNA that was knowingly and voluntarily submitted by people interested in their own backgrounds and ancestry. If that leads to a close match to a killer or rapist, so be it.

In this case, it sounds like they didn’t get an immediate hit from a close relative in the same geographic vicinity. But somebody in Branch’s family must have contributed a sample at some point, perhaps in Alaska. That could have slowed down the search until they came up with a relatively close match popping up in the lower 48. At that point, I would assume that investigators were able to dig through Branch’s history and find that he had lived up in Alaska at the time the crime took place. It turns out that he had also been arrested for the rape of another minor during the same period but was acquitted at trial, so that may have helped law enforcement to narrow it down as well.

As I said previously, this is an exciting time and a fascinating area of science in terms of bringing well-hidden criminals to justice. And as time goes by and these databases grow larger, more and more crimes should wind up being solved more quickly, perhaps saving future victims from these types of attacks by getting the perpetrators off the streets rapidly.