Steve Branch was identified as the lead suspect in the 1996 rape and murder of 17-year-old Jessica Baggin in Sitka, Alaska. On August 3, 2020, police visited Branch, then 66, at his home in Arkansas and asked him to voluntarily provide a DNA sample. About a half an hour later, Branch committed suicide with a gunshot to his head. At his autopsy, a DNA sample was taken and confirmed to be consistent with the DNA sample taken from the crime scene.
Baggen was raped and murdered only a few blocks from her home. She had been walking home alone from her sister’s house along a well-travelled and visible route, making her murder particularly devastating for this small community of only 8000 persons.
The FGG investigation in this case was conducted by Parabon Nanolabs.
A local maintenance worker named Richard Bingham had earlier confessed to the crime. He was tried and acquitted in 1997. He has cognitive disabilities and was coerced into a confession by police. None of the physical evidence linked him to the crime. Bingham spent 13 months in prison before being acquitted by a jury, after only two hours of deliberations.
Branch had been charged with the sexual assault of another local teenage girl two months before Baggins’ murder, but he was only arrested for this crime three months later. Branch might have been a suspect, but by that time Bingham was already in jail, wrongly accused of the crime. Theriault Boots of the Anchorage Daily News, below, reports that one of the lead detectives on the case, Nick Ward of the Sitka Police Department, was married to a sister of Branch. Branch was later acquitted of that rape, on the grounds that he believed she had consented.
After his acquittal, Bingham never went back to Sitka. He stated to Theriault Boots that it is only now that Branch had been identified as the true killer that the “fog of suspicion that has clouded his life is lifting.”
Mulraney, Frances. “Arkansas Man, 66, Kills Himself After Refusing to Give a Voluntary DNA Sample to Cops Investigating Cold Case Killing of Alaska Teenager, 17, Who He Raped and Strangled 24 Years Ago.” Daily Mail, August 12, 2020. Accessed December 11, 2020. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8620381/Arkansas-man-kills-refusing-voluntary-DNA-sample-cold-case-murder-investigation.html.
Theriault Boots, Michelle. “23 Years Ago, the State of Alaska Tried the Wrong Man for the Murder of a Sitka Teenager. Now Police Say They’ve Found the Real Killer. Why Wasn’t He a Suspect All Along.” Anchorage Daily News, September 5, 2020. Accessed December 11, 2020. https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/crime-courts/2020/09/05/23-years-ago-the-state-of-alaska-tried-the-wrong-man-for-the-murder-of-a-sitka-teenager-now-police-say-theyve-found-the-real-killer-why-wasnt-he-a-suspect-all-along/.
Thiessen, Mark. “Cold Case Murder, Sexual Assault of 17-Year-Old Alaska Girl Solved with DNA Match.” USA Today, August 12, 2020. Accessed December 11, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/08/12/alaska-cold-case-murder-jessica-baggen-17-solved-using-dna/3352772001/.