Holly Branagan's Murder: 30 Years Later

This week marks 30 years the case has been cold

Jim Friedman is a local news photographer who has worked the police beat for years. He blogs about Cold Cases.

Holly Branagan Murder Update

March 28, 2009 will mark a horrible anniversary for Richard Branagan of Bethlehem, Pa. Thirty years ago his daughter, Holly, was murdered in the home where her father still lives.

Bethlehem Detective Sergeant Mark Diluzio, along with many active and retired police officers, investigators, old friends and cyber sleuths, has not forgotten this unsolved case. Neither have I. Go anywhere inside the police department and just mentioning the Branagan name, faces look down and people hesitate to say something. 

What I hear the most is, “Thirty years. It’s been that long?” 

Cold Case Blog: Who Killed Holly?

Cold Case Blog: Imbo and Petrone

The Internet is a crazy place. It’s as useful as it is dangerous. You gotta love Google though and thanks to the World Wide Web, I noticed many other people have gained an interest in Holly's case. The web is filled with bloggers who have digitized their thoughts under fictitious names and speculate about this unsolved murder. A recently published book included a story about the Branagan murder that was co-written by a friend of mine, Northampton County Coroner Zachary Lysek. A few internet posters firmly believe there is a connection between Holly's murder and her brother Sean's death a few months later. Even Richard Branagan, their father, believes the two deaths are somehow related. Are they?

So in light of the recent interest in this case, I sat down with Bethlehem Detectives Mark Diluzio and Thomas Galloway to hear their thoughts.

Holly's Brother Dies

Six months after Holly was stabbed to death in the family's kitchen, her brother Sean was working at Renners Mobil which was located on Shoenersville Road at Greenwood Drive in Hanover Township near Westgate Mall. Sean and another co-worker, Mark Viola, were cleaning some oily spots on the garage floor with gasoline, a broom and an electric high-pressure water sprayer. “This was how it was done,” Viola explained. While Mark went outside, Sean was going to spray down the floor. 

The split second that power switch was flipped, a spark ignited the vapors surrounding Sean. The report states the garage doors were closed at the time of the explosion, preventing any ventilation of the highly flammable fumes. Suddenly, Mark heard a scream.  He turned around and saw the entire garage bay engulfed in flames. Mark ran over and broke the garage door window and saw Sean on fire. Mark helped him escape through the broken window and was eventually able to stop Sean's clothing from burning any more. All the while, Sean was saying, “Don’t leave me.” 

The Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshall investigated the fire and determined it was accidental. Investigators spoke to Sean while he was in the ICU at the hospital. He was in critical condition and had a 20% chance of surviving. He was under heavy sedation with breathing tubes in his nose and throat which prevented him from speaking. Investigators asked questions that could only be answered by Sean nodding his head. He was asked about his state of mind and if he caused the explosion deliberately. He denied any intention and corroborated all of Mark's statements. 

Sean died the next day and his death was ruled accidental. 

The Phone Problem

There was a lot of talk throughout the investigation regarding the phone problem. Neighbors who were interviewed claimed the day after the murder, hey were getting calls that should have gone to the Branagan home. Coincidence? Eerie? Yes. The detectives tell me the phone lines were not cut (that was the speculation of course), but crossed. Police interviewed a Bell Telephone employee who worked on the lines the very day of her murder. He was also ruled out as a suspect.

Recent internet posts about this case attack the forensic investigation. We all know the scientific methods used today were not thought of in 1979. Did they miss anything? Did they accidentally destroy anything while investigating the scene? I don’t know. I was happily stunned to hear investigators clipped the fingernails from Holly and found at leat 15 fingerprints including a partial print from the kitchen. The partial print does not have an owner and unfortunately it is below par according to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System or AFIS standards. Diluzio and his team are working to improve the quality so it can be entered into the national database.

People said there was a big party full of teenagers in Holly’s neighborhood Wednesday night, the day Holly was murdered. There was not. An internet poster speculated that Mr. Branagans secretary, who went by the name ‘B,’ may have had something to do with the murder. Detectives tell me she was interviewed but wasn’t on the ‘A’ list.

There are a couple of names that repeatedly appear throughout the large case file. I don’t wish to post them here, but I certainly wish they would speak up. The initials are KW, SH and RT. They may have no involvement in this crime at all, but have more information to share.

Investigators say Holly was on the phone with her friend Cynthia Bove when the doorbell rang around 4:30pm. Cindy told investigators she heard voices but wasn’t sure if they were male or female. When Holly came back to the phone she said, “I gotta go. I’ll call you later.” 

Cynthia called back at 5 p.m. but did not get an answer. I wanted to know what kind of inflection Holly had in her voice. Did she sound scared or upset? Did she sound rushed or maybe she was told to say these words? Reading the report, Cynthia says, "Holly didn’t appear to be upset,” but the enunciation, tone or pitch of her voice could mean a lot. When I called Cynthia at home, a man told me he would give her the message and assured me she would probably “Not call back. She is still bothered by this.” She hasn’t returned my call.

Holly and Sean's friends are beginning to finally materialize by writing their feelings in on-line discussion groups. I spoke to a few and they still retreat to the pain and anguish they felt 30 years ago. Some do not remember or have blocked the murder out altogether. 

Holly's alma mater, Freedom High School, is planning the 30th reunion for her class this year and Bethlehem police detectives are planning to distribute a flier to those in attendance asking for information. Great idea.

Serial Killer?

Does the name Timothy Krajcir ring a bell? He is the 67-year old confessed serial killer from Indiana. Last year, Krajcir was convicted of raping and murdering nine women in Indiana, Missouri and Berks County, Pa. The killings spanned a five-year time period from August 1977 to June of 1982 (Holly was killed in 1979). Myrtle Rupp of Temple, Pa. was raped and strangled in her home in 1979. DNA found at the scene linked Krajcir to Ms. Rupp's killing. He confessed and was convicted. A persistent family member of Rupp contacted police when he first read about Krajcir and look where it got him. Her crime went unsolved for almost 30 years. Sound familiar?

Could it be Krajcir? Let’s just say it’s interesting. His MO is similar, but more importantly, he has ties to the Lehigh Valley. He could have easily been in the area in 1979. He is familiar with criminology and psychology, so much in fact, police thought a cop was behind the string of murders in Illinois. There is a history of Krajcir impersonating police officers to get inside homes.

Now I’m starting to think a "cop" rang the doorbell on Pine Top Trail in March of 1979. I won’t get my hopes up just yet, but they’re starting. Do you have anything to share about Holly? Please send me a message or write a comment below. I always return calls.  

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