Sentinel Staff Writer

The Daily Sentinel, Sitka, Alaska
Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Sitka police posted "wanted" notices all over town this week, seeking information related to the 1996 murder of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen.

The police department also has brought in two out-of-state detectives to re-investigate the crime.

The notices posted on telephone poles and in the harbors have pictures of two personal possessions of the slain girl that were missing when her body was found: a 5-by-7-inch green cloth purse and a teak pipe decorated with inlaid brass or copper stars.

"These are items we think her assailant took from her," Police Chief Bill McLendon said Monday. "Because they were taken, we think it's likely the assailant kept them."

Police are hoping someone will remember seeing the items and be able to provide direction for the renewed investigation into the Sitka teen-ager's rape and murder in May 1996.

"We think either of these would be a crucial piece of information to assist us," McLendon said.

A Sitka man, Richard Bingham, was tried for the assault and murder in 1997, but was acquitted after a jury trial. The main evidence against Bingham was a rambling statement to police that the prosecutors said amounted to a confession. The DNA evidence from the crime scene "was inconclusive," police said at the time. Bingham said he was drunk the night Baggen was killed, and the jury agreed with the defense that his allegedly self-incriminating statements were the result of suggestions by the police in the course of their interviews with him.

McLendon, a Texas lawman who was hired as Sitka police chief in 1999, reviewed the old files and decided a renewed investigation was warranted to identify Baggen's killer. The new effort has included hiring two nationally known private investigators from California and New York, who McLendon said are "starting from square one" on the investigation.

The detectives, forensic scientist Brent Turvey of California and retired New York Police Department investigator John Baeza, have been working with Sitka police to re-examine all the evidence, review the list of possible suspects, and follow up with forensic techniques that were not previously tried or that had not been developed at the time of the first investigation.

Among the new technologies, McLendon mentioned a recently proven process that can lift latent fingerprints off clothing. McLendon said results of tests on Baggen's clothing are still pending.

The police chief said that in the past several months investigators have analyzed blood and hair on Baggen's clothing and from the place where her body was found. From that analysis, they determined hair and blood were present from one person other than Baggen.

The detectives have also been going over a list of "several hundred" possible suspects, who are being asked to submit DNA samples.

"We've been getting a substantial-amount of return on that," the chief reported. "We've been able to exclude a large number of people from the suspect list."

So far, he said, those who have been approached have been cooperative about providing samples. As for Bingham, "He has been forensically excluded," the chief said.

McLendon said the hired investigators have an outstanding record solving criminal cases all over the country.

"They're excellent," he said. "I'd be wrong in saying 'We're going to solve this case,' but I have high hopes. We're going to solve this thing, or at least make sure we're going to do everything we now know can be done forensically. They're extremely optimistic, as am I."

The police chief said the money for the special investigation is coming from outside the regular department budget, but did not disclose the source.

"It will have a zero impact on the police department budget," he said.

Baggen was found dead in a patch of woods near the Indian River footbridge on Sawmill Creek Road, following a two-day search. She disappeared while walking from a relative's home on Sawmill Creek Road to her house a mile away on Barlow Street.

Anyone with information about the' two items, or anything related to the; case, are asked to call the Sitka police department at 747-3245. Those wishing to remain anonymous may call the Sitka crime line at 747-8980.