BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — The package arrived in the mail several months ago and landed on Bethlehem Detective Tom Galloway’s desk with a thud. There was no return address.
It held a plastic three-ring binder, containing several pages of meticulously organized notes. A young woman’s smiling face on the cover, the photo framed by the words “Justice for Holly.”
Nearly 40 years after 17-year-old Holly Branagan was stabbed to death in the kitchen of her Bethlehem home, tips continue to pour in about the Lehigh Valley’s most vexing unsolved murder.
Many, like the binder, come from anonymous sources who summarize the evidence and suggest a suspect. Nearly all of the tipsters get key facts wrong, Galloway said. And their guesses about the killer and efforts to bring that person to justice?
That question, police concede, may never be answered.
“In every case, obviously, the further you get from the event, it becomes more difficult,” said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli. “And when you’re this far away, it becomes really difficult.”
‘We are enamored of the dark side’
Holly was home alone and on the phone with a friend when she heard a knock on her door. It was March 28, 1979. She never told the friend who was there before she hung up, but it was clear that the pretty and popular Freedom High School senior knew her visitor.
More than 11 hours later, Holly’s brother found her in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, a large kitchen knife in her back.
Whoever brutally stabbed Holly walked away undetected.
Galloway, who inherited the case in 2007 from a string of detectives, has a theory: Holly knew and trusted her killer enough to let the person in her home. But when the conversation did not go as expected, Holly may have grabbed a knife to defend herself, enraging her visitor.
Holly could expose her killer if she lived, Galloway surmises. She fought for her life, but died on her kitchen floor.
As the case went cold over the next four decades, public fascination heated up.
And no wonder. The crime had all the elements of a television drama: A popular teenager savagely murdered in her home. A parade of sometimes reluctant witnesses from an affluent neighborhood. An investigation by inexperienced officers who inadvertently tainted the crime scene.
Holly’s father, a widower, was still reeling from his only daughter’s death when his son Sean, 19, died in a gas station explosion just a few months later. The second shocking family tragedy only deepened the mystery.
Google Holly Branagan’s name, and you’ll find people on dozens of blogs and true crime fan sites discussing the homicide. With the advent of the internet, people across the country over the past decade have tried to solve the crime through podcasts, online crime communities and through a network of former and current Bethlehem residents who keep in touch via Facebook.
“We are enamored of the dark side,” said Frank H. Farley, a past president of the American Psychological Association who studies crime. “An unsolved murder like this evokes uncertainty, and that in turn causes the human mind to become creative, to think of ways to solve the mystery.”
An unsolved murder like this evokes uncertainty, and that in turn causes the human mind to become creative, to think of ways to solve the mystery.
—Frank H. Farley, a past president of the American Psychological Association
Farley, who teaches at Temple University’s Psychological Studies in Education program, believes the people who send tips about Holly’s murder to police are likely superfans of television crime dramas.
“They feel they can be of help,” Farley said. “They enjoy the experience.”
Morganelli bluntly refers to some of those would-be sleuthers as “kooks” who want to involve themselves in the investigation for whatever reason, often wasting police time and resources. But investigators say they remain hopeful that some of the tips may prove useful.
Unfortunately, nothing discussed online or dropped in detectives’ mailboxes has brought Holly’s killer closer to justice.
Police, however, think they know who did it.
A killing in Bethlehem
Morganelli, the county’s top law enforcement official to probe the killing, recently said he would discuss with police whether to release some evidence that was previously undisclosed, including an FBI profile of the suspect.
“I think as long as we have unanswered questions, which we still do in this case, I certainly don’t want to put it to rest,” said Morganelli. “I’d like to try and find out more, if we can.”
Morganelli says he understands the fascination with the case — a violent murder in a town relatively unmarred by crime with a teen brutally slain in her own home. Having grown up in Bethlehem and a law student at the time of the killing, Morganelli always hoped the crime would be solved.
For many of Holly’s classmates, on the brink of adulthood, her death was a reminder of their own mortality and end of innocence, said Bethlehem police Chief Mark DiLuzio. The affluent neighborhood filled with large homes and dotted by woods and an apple orchard was a place where doors were left open and everyone knew each other.
I think as long as we have unanswered questions, which we still do in this case, I certainly don’t want to put it to rest.
—Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli
The Branagan case is one of about 35 unsolved homicides in the county, Morganelli said. It’s a case stymied by lost or destroyed evidence over the decades, family members, investigators and classmates who have died and an exhaustion of investigative techniques and forensic testing, he said.
“Unless someone comes forward and says, ‘Oh, this person confessed,’ and it matches, I’m not overly optimistic about solving the Holly Branagan case,” Morganelli said. “I wish we could. I don’t know who killed Holly Branagan.”
Contaminated crime scene
Former Bethlehem police officer Craig Stefko was one of the first officers on the scene when Holly’s body was found. He recently shared some new details about the early days of the investigation with The Morning Call.
There was a chilling statement on the radio: “Base, I’ve got a party with a knife in her back on the floor. Can I break in?” Stefko arrived a short time later and found Holly’s brother, Sean, and a friend, at the home. Sean led police into the kitchen and said, “There she is.”
After clearing the house to make sure no one else was inside, Stefko said the home soon became “flooded” with officers, some of whom normally would not be at a homicide scene, including officers from the traffic division.
“It was an unusual thing to have a murder and I was kind of shocked myself,” Stefko said. “I tried to get out of the house to get to my paperwork and I remember going back in and thinking, ‘Wow, there’s too many people in here.'”
Stefko said he saw officers move items around inside the home, including two chairs in the kitchen near where Holly’s body was found. As more personnel arrived to take photos, Stefko said officers moved back several items, including the chairs. He said camera equipment used by police was placed on the kitchen table, another thing that could contaminate potential evidence.
There are things investigators did years ago that we look at now and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they did that.’
—Bethlehem police Chief Mark DiLuzio
“That should have never been,” Stefko said. “I don’t fault them. It (a murder) didn’t happen a whole lot. I don’t think they had the education or the training.”
DiLuzio stopped short of saying the crime scene was botched, but acknowledged crime scene processing techniques have changed greatly in the four decades since Holly’s murder. Back then, he said, the main investigative techniques were interviews, photos of the scene, fingerprints and identification of blood types.
He agreed that in today’s standards, moving kitchen chairs would be considered contaminating a crime scene.
“There are things investigators did years ago that we look at now and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they did that,’ ” DiLuzio said. “Law enforcement is constantly advancing with education, new crime scene techniques and technology.”
Other evidence gathered in the case has been exhausted. Even though DNA was unknown to crime scene investigators in 1979, Morganelli said, the knife that was used to kill Holly was tested for the presence of DNA as well as other forensic evidence. Police say that testing cost “in the tens of thousands of dollars,” but yielded no results. Fingerprints found at the scene were also re-examined, but that effort was also unsuccessful.
Some evidence in the case, including clothing, has deteriorated because of the way it was stored at the time. Crime scene photos show officers, and even the coroner, without rubber gloves or other protective gear worn today to help preserve any shred of evidence.
Both Morganelli and DiLuzio say they believe the case cannot be solved unless someone comes forward with new information.
“You might have a missing piece of a puzzle,” DiLuzio said. “We may have the whole puzzle and just need that little piece to make it clear.”
Police have a suspect
Morganelli and Bethlehem police have a “divide” over an unnamed suspect in the case, a stunning development announced in 2014. Police say today they still believe that suspect killed Holly, but Morganelli isn’t so sure.
Both agree the evidence is only circumstantial. Authorities would not release the suspect’s name because the case remains open.
At one point, investigators identified six people who may have been involved, including male and female classmates of Holly’s as well as a person who lived in the neighborhood, Morganelli said. All were cleared over the years.
“There are cases out there that we feel we know who did it, but just can’t prove it,” Morganelli said. “I can’t personally say that the Branagan case is that kind of a case, but there are some detectives who think they know who did it. But I’m not convinced that’s the case.”
Morganelli said he’s familiar with police’s theory about the suspect, but said speculation is not enough to make an arrest, let alone a possible conviction.
Galloway has doggedly documented Branagan’s killing, filling several filing cabinet drawers in his office with yearbooks, documents, police interviews, photos and records of the suspect.
Being careful not to name the person, both Galloway and DiLuzio say the suspect was identified after repeated interviews that left them with more questions than answers about that person’s actions and behavior following Holly’s death. Police would not identify whether the person is a man or woman, or dead or alive.
“As we developed more and more information about this person, I can say that the person moved from someone we were seeking information about to a person whom we had a very strong suspicion in being involved in the crime,” Galloway said. “I personally believe that this person did that, but we can’t use my opinion in court.”
With the case languishing, Galloway still dutifully checks out every lead, even if most ultimately prove fruitless. The three-ring binder that recently arrived in his office is an example of one of those dead-end tips.
A Morning Call article published in April 1979 appears to be the first mention of a “grandfather clock in the hallway,” that was stopped at 5:20 with a pendulum lying broken on the floor. It’s a chilling detail that some theorized stopped at the exact time of Holly’s murder, a concept plucked straight from television crime drama.
But it’s not correct.
There was a clock stopped inside the home at 5:20, but it was a small cuckoo clock in the Branagan kitchen. Authorities say the cuckoo clock wasn’t damaged, nor do they know if there is any relevance to the stopped time, which could have stopped at 5:20 a.m. or 5:20 p.m.
It’s a clock that Holly’s father, Richard Branagan, often reset each day by pulling on a set of weights shaped like pine cones at the end of a long chain. Richard Branagan died in 2016, but the clock remains in the home of his widow.
The clock is one of several inaccurate leads that people often think is a critical part of the investigation, authorities say. But it’s a detail police only recently publicly acknowledged.
“It’s not my job to correct people’s mistakes or tell them something in their theory isn’t true,” Galloway said. “What if that person is the killer who is trying to see what police know?”
A drink never shared
Most of Holly’s immediate family are buried in a plot at Holy Saviour Cemetery in Bethlehem, a simple gravestone marked with a cross overlooking a nearby farm where several horses play in the snow. The plot marks the resting place for Holly, Sean and their mother, who died in 1976.
Richard Branagan’s thoughts were never far away from his children, but he had to find a way to move on, said Richard’s widow, Lee Branagan, who recently spoke about Holly’s murder. She married Holly’s father several years after the deaths of his children.
Although he hailed the efforts of law enforcement, Richard Branagan believed his daughter’s killing would never be solved, Lee Branagan said.
For years, he didn’t talk about Holly’s murder.
“Dick was a strong person, strong-minded and he was of great faith and believed in prayer,” Lee Branagan said. “I think that’s what pulled him through, to know that he had to go forward.
“You just keep these things to yourself and you suffer in silence and go forth and I think he did that,” she said.
You just keep these things to yourself and you suffer in silence and go forth and I think he did that.
—Richard Branagan’s widow on how he handled his daughter Holly’s murder
Richard Branagan’s quiet quest for justice isn’t lost on law enforcement authorities.
During his many visits to speak to Richard Branagan about the case, DiLuzio said, he was struck that Branagan wished mostly to know the truth about why someone would kill his daughter.
With each update in the case, DiLuzio said, he’d again visit the Branagan home and Holly’s father would often offer him a vodka martini. DiLuzio would always politely decline, but made a promise to raise a toast when police found the killer.
“Every time I’d see him, he’d ask if it was time for that martini and I’d have to say, ‘Not yet,’ ” DiLuzio said. “I regret that I was never able to share that drink with him.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com