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Investigators solve cold case of Alaska teen who was raped, murdered after 17th birthday party – NBC News

Investigators in Alaska used genetic genealogy to close the cold case killing of Jessica Baggen, who was raped and murdered after she celebrated her 17th birthday in 1996, authorities said Tuesday.

A suspect identified in the case, Steve Branch, 66, died by suicide last week after state police investigators traveled to his home in Austin, Arkansas, to interview him about Baggen’s murder in the city of Sitka, southwest of Juneau, Alaska State Police Maj. Dave Hanson told reporters.

After authorities tried to obtain a DNA sample, Branch denied involvement in the teen’s slaying and refused to provide one, Hanson said. Thirty minutes after the officers left to get a warrant, Branch died by suicide, Hanson said.

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“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.

Baggen vanished on May 4, 1996, after she left a birthday party at her sister’s house to walk home, Hanson said.

Her body, which was found two days later, had been buried in the woods, he said.

Nine days after that, a man contacted local police and confessed to sexually assaulting her, but no physical evidence linked him to the crime, and he was later acquitted during a trial, Hanson said.

In 2018, cold case investigators submitted a suspect DNA sample taken from Baggen’s body to Parabon NanoLabs, which uploaded it to public genealogy databases, he said.

Eventually, Branch emerged as a suspect, Hanson said. He lived in Sitka when Baggen was murdered, and he had been indicted — and acquitted — in the sexual assault of another local teenager around the time of Baggen’s killing, Hanson said. He moved to Arkansas in 2010.

After a DNA sample was obtained from a relative of Branch’s, investigators determined that he was most likely a match to the suspect DNA.

Following Branch’s Aug. 3 death, scientists matched DNA obtained from his body during an autopsy to the suspect’s DNA, Price said.

Tim Stelloh

Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News, based in California.

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Georgia Investigators

Georgia Investigators Do Not Expect More Arrests In Ahmaud Arbery Case – NPR

This booking photo provided by the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office shows William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., who faces charges of felony murder and attempted false imprisonment. Bryan is the third person charged in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.

Glynn County Sheriff’s Office/AP


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Glynn County Sheriff’s Office/AP

This booking photo provided by the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office shows William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., who faces charges of felony murder and attempted false imprisonment. Bryan is the third person charged in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.

Glynn County Sheriff’s Office/AP

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET

The director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has downplayed claims made by the third man charged in the Ahmaud Arbery murder case that he was nothing more than a witness.

“I can tell you that if we believed he was a witness we wouldn’t have arrested him,” GBI Director Vic Reynolds said in a Friday news briefing.

The comments come a day after GBI brought felony charges against William “Roddie” Bryan, the man who recorded a video of the Feb. 23 shooting and killing of 25-year-old Arbery, a black man in Glynn County, Ga., by two white men.

Bryan, 50, who is also white, is now facing felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment charges. He was arrested Thursday evening and booked into the Glynn County Jail.

“At this point, we feel confident that individuals who needed to be charged have been charged,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds added that he does not foresee any more arrests, but the investigation is ongoing.

Two other men, Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son who are also white, were charged with murder and aggravated assault on May 7.

GBI released two warrants for Bryan. The false imprisonment warrant accuses Bryan of “utilizing his vehicle on multiple occasions … with the intention of confining and detaining Arbery.” It adds that Bryan lacked the legal authority to do so.

Because of those actions, the second warrant states, “the accused did cause the death of another, Ahmaud Arbery, during the commission of a felony.”

Georgia Attorney General Seeks New Probe Into Handling Of Ahmaud Arbery Case

Reynolds said during the press conference he understood “people’s concern or curiosity” about the fact that Bryan is charged with murder, even though he is not accused of shooting Arbery nearly three months ago.

“As the warrants indicated, he’s charged with an underlying felony, ” Reynolds said. “He’s also charged with felony murder. So we believe the evidence would indicate that his underlying felony helped cause the death of Ahmaud Arbery.”

At a Friday afternoon press conference at the Glynn County Courthouse, Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, told reporters there was “no precedent” for the charges brought against his client.

“These charges, if sustained, constitute a substantial expansion of criminal liability in Georgia that many, in the fullness of time, will likely find troubling,” Gough said.

He added that Bryan turned himself in at the request of the GBI.

The Arbery family was “relieved” by Bryan’s arrest Thursday, according to a statement from attorneys S. Lee Merritt, Benjamin Crump and L. Chris Stewart, who represent Arbery’s parents.

“His involvement in the murder of Mr. Arbery was obvious to us, to many around the country and after their thorough investigation, it was clear to the GBI as well,” the statement said.

Arbery’s family has framed the death as a modern-day lynching. They say he was simply jogging through a Brunswick, Ga.-area neighborhood when he was confronted by the McMichaels and shot to death.

The case has drawn national attention, particularly after the release of the video.

Ten weeks passed between Arbery’s death and the first arrests in the case. Those arrests happened two days after GBI took over the investigation from local authorities.

More Arrests Possible In The Killing Of Ahmaud Arbery, Georgia Investigators Say

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has asked the GBI to investigate “possible prosecutorial misconduct” by Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill of the Waycross Judicial Circuit.

Reynolds said Friday that the GBI investigation into that matter is almost complete.

Carr also asked the FBI to conduct a similar probe into the first two prosecutors’ handling of the case.

Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said last week that federal authorities are “assessing all of the evidence to determine whether federal hate crimes charges are appropriate.”

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Emily Jones contributed to this report.

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