Jim Friedman is a local news photographer who has worked the police beat for years. He blogs about Cold Cases. This entry is about Holly Branagan, the Bethlehem high school senior who was stabbed to death in her own kitchen -- 30 years ago.
I grew up in Bethlehem, just a bit north of here, where major crimes usually didn't occur years ago, except one: on March 28, 1979 when Holly Moira Branagan was murdered.
Her murder must have terrified the whole city at the time, especially when details of her death became public.
Holly worked with my sister at a local deli part-time, earning some extra cash during her senior year at Freedom High School. Her father made a good living as a sales executive for a large corporation and lived in an exclusive and wooded area of Bethlehem. Her brother Sean attended Lehigh University and worked part-time at a local service station and enjoyed cars. Her mom, who'd suffered from an illness, died a couple of years before Holly.
A secluded neighborhood, well-to-do family, popular teenage girl found lying on the kitchen floor stabbed to death. “Whoever did this killed her three times,” the former Police Commissioner told me. He was referring to the many stab wounds Holly had.
Do you remember 1979? It was the year of the Three Mile Island accident and the movie "Halloween." People were so freaked out about this movie, at one point there was speculation the murder was inspired by the movie. Family members were suspects from the start. Holly’s brother Sean was questioned at length. He seemed to be the social outcast because of his hobby for fixing cars. Sean was at work one day and cleaning the floor of the garage with a flammable liquid. The fumes somehow ignited (one investigator told me an air compressor kicked on) and the garage exploded, gravely injuring Sean. I was told investigators questioned Sean in the hospital to encourage a ‘death bed confession’ but he denied any role in his sister's murder before he died.
Next month will be 30 years since Holly’s murder and the case is frozen cold. NBC10 did a "Cold Case" story with Mr. Branagan a few years ago. The Bethlehem Police Department was very helpful, allowing us to see evidence and read up on the case file. After our report aired, investigators sent the murder weapon and clothing to the FBI once again with hopes newer forensic technology would find something, but many months later the results came back negative. There were no fingerprints and all or any blood found on the evidence was Holly's.
You can click here to watch that story and interview with Holly's dad.
I recently spoke to Bethlehem Police Investigator Frank Rossnagle about Holly’s case. Due to department regulations, he has been reassigned and another detective has adopted the Branagan murder file. Of course he wants answers and hopes someone comes forward with any information that would help. John Yerk was a captain of the squad that responded to the call. He told me days ago there was “a lot of information we couldn’t get” because all of Holly's friends were well-protected by wealthy parents with hired attorneys.
“Holly was a mystery herself because her friends and she had more liberties that the rest,” Yerk said. I am sure there are many facts about this case that I haven't been told and for good reason; my experience has taught me that police hate giving out details of crimes. This case is 30 years old and at a dead end, but this blog and more questions from readers and viewers could do more help than harm.
There are so many investigations going on in this area that are unsolved. With forensic technology advancing everyday, you would have to think every case can be solved, but that is not the case. It's all about old-fashioned police work. Biological evidence goes bad, investigators retire or die, witnesses forget or don't want involvement. Many police departments and counties have a "Cold Case Squad' consisting of a small group of detectives that sift around case files to try and spot inconsistencies and raise questions. When they do, we tell you about it. Those people are my heroes. I can't imagine how it feels to make an arrest and convict someone of a horrible crime many years after the fact. I hope Mr. Branagan lives long enough to feel that.
This is where you come in. If you have any information, anything at all, that could help solve the Holly Branagan case, contact the Bethlehem Police Criminal Investigations Division: 610-865-7162.