On a brisk early morning in May 1996, 17-year-old Jessica Baggen left a party to walk back to her home in the small town of Sitka, Alaska, after celebrating her birthday with friends.
When she missed her curfew, her parents gave her a little more time and then finally called police when she didn’t show up. In 1996, teens didn’t carry cellphones or post their every move on social media, so no one knew exactly where she was or with whom she had left her birthday party at her sister’s house.
In the hours that followed, her parents pieced together her last steps and search crews combed a bike trail that ran through a woodland between her sister’s house and her parents’ home on Sawmill Creek Road.
Two days after she disappeared, authorities finally found her body—brutally raped and fatally strangled.
“On May 6 searchers found the shirt Jessica had been wearing when she was last seen alive,” Maj. Dave Hanson, of the Alaska State Troopers, said Tuesday 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.”
The case shocked the small town of 8,000, where kids felt safe and spent their free time fishing and playing sports. Her obituary, as described in the Anchorage Daily News, told of a teen who loved to cook and listen to Willie Nelson, and had especially loved what they called “Thanksgiving pie-making marathons.” She had plans to attend college in Arizona after graduation and pursue a career in photography.
For 24 years, the case remained a cold one. One man falsely confessed to the murder and more than 100 others were cleared through DNA from forensic evidence taken from the crime scene.
Then on Tuesday, a week after a 66-year-old man named Steve Branch took his own life after refusing to give a DNA sample to the Lone Oak Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas—which was working on the request of the Alaska Department of Public Safety—police announced they had solved the case.
Alaskan officials had recently solved two other murders through genetic genealogy by sending historical forensic DNA coding to Parabon NanoLabs, which then searched online ancestry databases. The research led them to Branch, who lived in Sitka when Baggen disappeared. When he refused to comply with the request for DNA, police left to get a warrant for his arrest. A half hour after the police left his home, Branch shot himself in the head.
A week later, police say that Branch’s DNA matches the samples found on the teen’s body. The use of genetic genealogy is not tested in court. The two other Alaska cases that led to arrests have yet to go to trial.
The most recent involved 44-year-old Maine man Steven Downs, who was arrested in February 2019 after genetic genealogy tied him to the murder of Sophie Sergie, who was found dead on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in 1993, according to the Anchorage Daily News. A few months later, in September, 62-year-old Donald McQuade was arrested in Oregon for the murder of an Anchorage teen named Shelley Connolly, whose body was found in a road ditch in 1993.
The focus on solving cold cases in Alaska was given a boost in 2018 by the family of another missing teen, Bonnie Craig, whose case was solved in 2016, 17 years after she was raped and murdered. The Craig family started a fund to pump money into the department that investigates cold cases, which has now led to the conclusion of the three recent cases.
In the case of Baggen’s killer, after finding Branch’s family tree, they found that he had not only lived in Sitka when she was killed, but had also been investigated for sexual assault that same year. “Investigators established that Branch had lived in Sitka at the time of Jessica’s murder,” Maj. Hanson said Tuesday. “The Cold Case Unit also learned that in March of 1996, only a few weeks prior to Jessica’s murder, 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.”
At a press conference in Anchorage on Tuesday, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said Baggen’s unsolved murder “haunted” the department. “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. “There is no amount of time that can pass that a case can not be a priority for this department.”