Steve Branch is an Arkansas resident who died by suicide last week after investigators identified him as a suspect in the cold case killing of Jessica Baggen.
The 66-year-old died by suicide on Aug. 3 after Alaska state police visited his home in Austin, Arkansas, according to NBC News. Investigators sought to question Branch about Baggen’s murder in Sitka, Alaska. She had been raped and murdered in 1996 after celebrating her 17th birthday.
NBC reported that Branch denied involvement in the teen’s death and refused to provide a DNA sample to authorities. He died by suicide 30 minutes after the officers left to obtain a warrant.
Baggen went missing on May 4, 1996 after celebrating a birthday party at her sister’s house, NBC continued. Her body was found two days later in the woods.
Nine days later, a man told local police that he had sexually assaulted her — although there was no physical evidence proving the claim, the outlet reported.
He was later acquitted during a trial.
For more than 24 years, the killing remained unsolved, the Anchorage News said.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety announced Tuesday that it had solved Baggen’s case using genetic genealogy, the newspaper continued.
An autopsy linked Branch’s DNA to Baggen’s body, David Hanson of the Alaska State Troopers told the Anchorage News.
Here’s everything you need to know about Steve Branch:
1. Branch Worked as an Operator at Jeff Smith Farms
Branch worked as an operator at Jeff Smith Farms, his LinkedIn states.
The family-owned business homes in on the “excavation industry” working for “major developments” as well as “smaller residential excavation services,” according to the company’s website.
“Every project is undertaken with a professionalism and dedication,” the website reads. “We take pride in our workmanship, equipment and employees, while ensuring we are delivering the highest quality for your project.”
2. Branch Was Identified as a Suspect Through Genetic Genealogy
Before Baggen’s 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,” NBC News reported.
Investigators sent a suspect DNA sample from Baggen’s body to the labs in 2018, which then uploaded it to the databases, the outlet added.
The research found a match between Branch’s DNA and the samples found on Baggen’s body, NBC said.
3. Branch Lived in Sitka at the Time of Baggen’s Murder
Branch lived in Sitka, Alaska when Baggen was murdered, NBC said.
“Sitka is an island community boldly living between the mountains and sea, where the arts flourish and an ancient native culture still thrives,” the city and borough website states.
“Surrounded by rainforest, we share our home with brown bears, bald eagles and all five species of Pacific salmon. In Sitka, we are deeply connected to the natural world around us. It informs our culture and inspires our art.”
Branch later moved to Arkansas in 2010, CBS News added.
4. Branch Had Been Investigated for Sexual Assault the Same Year as Baggen’s Murder
Once investigators learned that Branch was a Sitka resident at the time of Baggen’s murder, they soon discovered he bad been investigated for sexually assaulting another female teenager a few weeks before, the Daily Beast reported.
“Investigators established that Branch had lived in Sitka at the time of Jessica’s murder,” Maj. Dave Hanson, of the Alaska State Troopers, told the outlet.
“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 continued. “He was indicted and arrested for the incident in June of 1996, but was subsequently acquitted after a trial in 1997.”
5. Branch Leaves Behind His Wife & Two Children
Branch “enjoyed the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing,” according to his obituary on the Tribute Archive.
The page states that he is survived by his wife, Barbara, and two children, Justin Branch and Brittany Gibson. It also mentions his father, grandchildren, as well as other family members.