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Authorities in Alaska have closed the book on the decades-old cold case killing of a 17-year-old girl after a newly identified suspect in the case killed himself less than an hour after he was questioned by state troopers.
DNA obtained from Steve Branch, 66, of Austin, Arkansas, at his autopsy matched evidence left at the scene where Jessica Baggen, 17, was sexually assaulted and killed in Sitka, Alaska in 1996, Alaska State Troopers said on Tuesday.
Branch killed himself earlier this month after speaking to investigators and denying that he had anything to do with Baggen's murder; he refused to provide a DNA sample.
"Approximately a half hour after the investigators departed, Branch shot himself. The Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident and uncovered overwhelming evidence that Branch took his own life," state troopers said in their post.
Baggen disappeared in the early hours of May 4, 1996 while walking home from her sister's house — just a day after her 17th birthday, according to The Associated Press.
Her body was found buried in a hollowed-out area under a fallen tree two days later. Baggen was discovered near the campus of a former private college on a Sitka island.
Although a suspect linked by circumstantial evidence confessed to killing Baggen in the days following her death, the man was ultimately cleared by physical evidence and found not guilty.
The case went cold for more than two decades until authorities uploaded a DNA sample to a public genealogy database in 2019 — soon identifying Branch, who had been accused of another sexual assault around the same time Baggen was killed, as a suspect.
He was acquitted of the separate sexual assault charge and relocated to Arkansas, the AP reported.
“While nothing will ease the pain or bring Jessica back, I am humbled and proud of the work that many law enforcement professionals did over the years to bring closure to her family and friends. They never forgot about Jessica or the people that loved her,” Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said.
“Each cold case represents a victim and a family that is grieving while awaiting justice. Each case, no matter how old, matters to us.”
“While Branch will never face a jury of his peers in this case, we can finally say that Jessica’s case is solved,” Price said at a press conference, according to the AP.
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