Thawing out Alaska’s cold case murders

The case had grown cold.

It was a discouraging inevitability. Sitka Police spent hours combing the area around the crime scene, collecting scattered clothing, traces of blood and hair, even the victim’s jewelry. The body had been found, buried naked beneath a fallen tree near a bike trail the victim had walked down just two mornings earlier. Police uncovered a short-sleeved blouse, a dark green letterman jacket, and a single sock. The cause of death was established: sexual assault followed by asphyxiation from a wad of mud and leaves forced down the throat. A man came forward claiming to be the murderer, with a detail-matching confession that made him a believable suspect.

Yet for all the evidence collected in the case of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen’s murder on March 4, 1996, further discrepancies remained. There was no physical proof linking Richard Bingham, a 35-year-old college janitor, as the killer. A jury eventually found him not guilty. The actual location of Baggen’s sexual assault and killing could not be fully determined either; it was possible she had been taken from the bike trail and her body returned and buried once the deed was done. Substantial suspects dwindled as the investigation progressed. Eventually, leads dried up and the hunt for Baggen’s killer slowly froze over in the small town of Sitka.

Fifteen years later, the case is in the hands of the Alaska State Trooper’s Cold Case Unit. Baggen’s murder is one of 99 unsolved homicides registered by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, a  number the Cold Case Unit hopes to reduce.

The CCU is a division of the State Troopers that looks into these unsolved murder cases. Because the manpower and resources don’t exist for active duty officers to pursue cold case files, and a high level of dedication and experience is needed, the CCU is comprised of retired law enforcement personnel. The current members are retired trooper Jim Gallen, retired APD Captain Bill Gifford, and retired trooper James Stogsdill.

The three work together on the 19 cold cases currently being investigated, sharing any new information and tips that are received and collaborating on research.

“We’ll go back through the reports, reevaluate interviews, search through evidence,” said Gallen. “We’re looking for anything that could have been missed the first time around.”

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The CCU investigators have to review large numbers of detective notes, patrol reports, photographs, electronic information, laboratory documents, crime scene drawings and diagrams, witness lead sheets, and suspect bios—most often for cases decades old that relied on outdated technology.

“It is a long-term commitment to pick up one of these cases and pursue it,” said CCU Supervisor Lieutenant Craig Allen.

Generally a case is brought to the CCU after it goes untouched for two years, but these unsolved mysteries can often remain shelved for much longer. In the case of Baggen’s 1996 murder, CCU members didn’t reopen the investigation until Sep. 2007, more than half a decade after the original case had come up empty handed. The delay was due to the ever-growing list of cold cases given to the unit. With limited CCU staff and available resources, many of the files have to be put on hiatus.

“It’s a very demanding process,” said Gallen. “There are only three of us working on all of these old cases; things progress at a slow rate. We rely greatly on new tips to help us move forward.”

Karen Foster, the mother of recently solved cold case victim Bonnie Craig, is hoping to increase the number of these tips for the CCU.

Following her daughter’s death in 1994, Foster established a non-profit reward fund called “Family and Friends of Bonnie Craig” to find Craig’s killer. Many Alaskan residents contributed money to the cause, but when the murderer was finally identified and convicted in July 2011, the funds were no longer needed for Craig’s case. Foster decided to use the money to build up public interest and bring in tips for other unsolved Alaska murders, through the Homicide Reward Fund.

The fund will target four specific cold cases. According to Mark Weissler, a member of the Homicide Reward Fund’s board, these four cases were chosen as the most likely to benefit from tips and public interest. He said up to $20,000 would be rewarded for any information leading to the arrest or conviction of the killers.

“Let’s get these terrible murders solved so [the victims’] families and communities can heal,” Foster said in a September press statement for the Homicide Reward Fund. “Someone out there has information; that piece to the puzzle that law enforcement needs. Everyone deserves justice.”

A small, worn-down memorial still adorns the footbridge in Totem Park near the spot Baggen’s body had been discovered 15 years ago. It stands as a memento to the unsolved murder cases in Sitka, Anchorage, and all across the state of Alaska.

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If you have any information regarding these or other cold cases, please contact the Alaska State Troopers Cold Case Unit at 907-269-5611.