April 02, 2022
It was May 4, 1996 and Jessica Baggen had just finished celebrating her 17th birthday at her sister’s place in Sitka, Alaska. Her parent’s home on Barlow street was around a mile away from her sister’s house so Jessica decided to walk.
It was around 1AM when she began making her way back, much later than her usual curfew but she had permission to stay out a little later than usual as she was celebrating. Her parents weren’t worried at first, they figured she was just enjoying the celebration and had lost track of time, however, as the night dragged on they became fearful that something had happened to her and contacted the police to file a missing persons report.
Jessica Baggen would not make it home that night, nor would she ever be seen alive again.
Two days later while searching for the missing girl, police found a short-sleeved blouse with traces of blood on it, a green letterman jacket, some jewellery and a single sock strewn near a bike path opposite Sawmill Creek Road that students often walked along to get to and from the nearby Sheldon Jackson College Campus. A couple of hours later they discovered Jessica Baggen’s naked body buried in a wooded area around 20 meters from the bike path in a shallow grave beneath a fallen tree. The ground beneath the tree was hollowed out and earth and leaves had been hastily pushed into the hole in an attempt to cover the victim’s body. A small pouch with a pipe that Jessica was known to be carrying that night was never recovered.
Autopsy would reveal that she had been raped and the teenager’s eyes were blacked, suggesting that she had been struck across the head or face. The cause of death was either strangulation or asphyxiation and fistfuls of soil and leaves had been shoved down her throat, blocking her airways until she suffocated to death. A small bone in her neck had been damaged, an injury consistent with strangulation.
Richard Bingham, a janitor in his mid-thirties employed by the nearby college, confessed to the crime within a week. Reports state that he knew significant details about the murder, however his confession would turn out to be false and he would eventually be acquitted by a jury in 1997 for lack of physical evidence. Many believe the police attempted to coerce a confession from the paranoid man, who would, according to his friends and brother, often get black out drunk and paranoid about what he’d done during the gaps in memory after heavy drinking sessions. Bingham went to the police fearing he had killed the teenager and said he had been having what he believed to be flashbacks of him committing a crime and throwing something into a local river before washing his hands clean. He could not describe what clothing the victim had been wearing that night, nor could he recall any significant details like stuffing soil down her throat to kill her. He said that he had seen her walking across the campus in a black dress, which was not accurate.
There was no evidence that he had harmed Jessica Baggen that night and no DNA on either himself or the victim linking him to the crime. He was also said to have alibis confirming his whereabouts on the night of her murder.
The victims family hired a Private investigator but that too yielded no results.
Despite there being upwards of 100 DNA profiles tested over the years, the case remained cold.
Then, in February 2019, investigators entered a sample of the suspects DNA profile into a public genetic genealogy database and used the results to track down a promising suspect. They finally had a name: Steven Allen Branch.
On August 3, 2020, officers went to interview the now 66-year-old suspect at his home in Austin, Arkansas, where he had relocated in 2010. Branch denied raping and killing the teenager in 1996 and also declined to give a voluntary DNA sample to be tested against the profile found on the victim. Records show that Steve Branch had committed a sexual assault against another teenage girl in Sitka the same year Jessica Baggen was slain, however, he was acquitted.
Less than an hour after the police interview Steven Branch committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The police obtained a warrant to collect a DNA sample during his autopsy to be tested against the profile of the killer- it was a match. Finally, over two decades and one false confession later, the rape and murder of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen was finally solved.
Although her killer could not be brought to justice before a court of law and answer to his crimes, the family finally had closure.
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