BUT AS LAW MOVED IN, THE SUSPECT SHOT HIMSELF IN ARKANSAS
The Alaska State Troopers have solved another cold case, and this time it looks like the killer took care of justice himself.
In 1996 on a May Day, 17-year-old Jessica Baggen was walking home from her sister’s home after her 17th birthday party. She was attacked on a foot path and her body was found the May 6 in the woods along the trail near Sheldon Jackson College campus near Sawmill Creek Road. Jessica had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated, and buried under a hollowed out tree.
Several days afterward, Richard Bingham confessed to the murder, but none of the physical evidence could back up his claim. At trial in 1997, Bingham was found “not guilty” by a jury trial. Bingham suffered from alcoholism and was prone to blacking out, and the videotape of the interrogation convinced jurors that he had no actual memory of the crime to which he was admitting.
The search for the suspect continued but remained unsolved despite investigations by State Troopers, Sitka Police, and a private investigator brought in by the Baggens family. The trail grew cold.
In 2018 the Troopers began using genetic genealogy and found a fragment of DNA that was usable. The snipped profile of DNA was uploaded into a nationwide database, and a hit was found for Steve Allen Branch.
Branch had since moved from Alaska to Arkansas in 2010. This year, law enforcement investigators were able to get a match from DNA samples from a relative.
On Aug. 3, investigators interviewed Branch at his residence. He denied involvement and refused to provide a DNA sample. Investigators continued to look for ways to get DNA from Branch, leaving the residence to regroup on the problem. After they left the residence, Branch committed suicide. An investigation showed that Branch had shot himself.
Recently, the CCIU has had several major successes. The two most recent being the arrest of Steven H. Downs for the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Sophie Sergie; and the arrest in connection to the 1978 murder and sexual assault of 16-year-old Shelley Connolly.
The announcement was made today by Commissioner Amanda Price, Alaska State Troopers Major David Hanson, Alaska Bureau of Investigation Captain Andrew Gorn, Cold Case Investigator Randy McPherron, and Chief David Kanaris of the Alaska Crime Detection Laboratory.
“Each cold case represents a victim and that victim has loved ones who struggle and suffer from the loss,” said Commissioner Price.