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Cops Found Killer After 24 Years, Didn't Get to Arrest Him

As authorities closed in on Steve Branch in 1996 rape, murder of 17-year-old, he killed himself
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 12, 2020 8:58 AM CDT

(Newser) – Alaska State Police were pretty sure they'd found their man when they arrived at the Arkansas home of Steve Branch last week. But 66-year-old Branch—suspected of raping and killing Jessica Baggen after her 17th birthday party in Sitka, Alaska, in 1996—refused to provide a DNA sample, so authorities left to get a warrant. Just a half-hour later, Branch fatally shot himself, per KCAW . "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 a Tuesday press conference, per NBC News . DNA from Branch's body was found to match a DNA sample taken from Baggen's body and submitted to public genealogy databases in 2018. Authorities expected that. Branch had emerged as a suspect through genetic genealogy and had a suspicious background.

He'd been indicted but acquitted in the sexual assault of another teenager in Sitka around the time of Baggen's death. He'd also lived at properties opposite a well-used bike path, where Baggen's body was found beneath a hollowed-out tree, per the Anchorage Daily News and KCAW. In 2010, Branch moved to Arkansas, where Alaska authorities located him on Aug. 3. They had previously requested the help of Arkansas police in acquiring a DNA sample from a discarded item, but that effort ultimately failed. In an interview, Branch denied killing Baggen, who would've turned 41 in May. She'd been walking the mile home from his sister's house, where she'd celebrated her birthday on May 4, 1996, when she was raped and strangled. The Daily News reports another man confessed to the crime in 1996 but was acquitted after the confession was found to be coerced. (Read more cold cases stories.)

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