Murdered: Moira “Holly” Branagan

Moira "Holly" Branagan

Moira “Holly” Branagan

Moira “Holly” Branagan (Dec 8, 1962 – March 28, 1979) was a senior at Freedom High School. She had a part-time job at a local deli. Her father worked as a sales executive for Lone Star. He was away on a business trip the night she died. Her mother, who’d suffered from leukemia, had passed away around Thanksgiving, 1976. Holly’s brother Sean attended Lehigh University and worked part-time at a local service station. He enjoyed fixing cars. The family lived in an exclusive, secluded, and wooded area of Bethlehem.

Branagan was found stabbed 18 times in the back with a 10-inch kitchen knife. The autopsy showed she had 15 serious knife wounds, three less serious wounds, and two defensive wounds on her hands from apparently trying to ward off the knife attack. The attack was so violent that the kitchen knife used to kill her, broke off in her back. The time of her death was estimated at before dusk on March 28, 1979. Sunset according to locals was around 630pm.

The police found no evidence of burglary or forced entry. Moira “Holly” Branagan had been dead about 18 hours before she was found. She had not been sexually assaulted.

Detective Galloway said that the murder appeared to be unplanned but it had a viciousness that points to a crime of high emotion. He said Branagan didn’t live long into the struggle, but that 30 to 40 seconds might have felt like an eternity to her. I agree that this was a highly personalized crime. Police suspect the cheery high school senior knew her attacker. Again, I agree.

No fingerprints were found on the murder weapon but it was wiped clean. Someone had taken the time, after the rage was gone, to wipe clean the knife and erase traces of fingerprints. So, our enraged killer calmed down at the crime scene! That means that the killer stayed long enough to reach that cooling down moment. From there, it can be concluded that maybe there are traces left in other spots of the house IF the killer walked around AND that the killer may have had time to plan an escape.

Now remember that Branagan was stabbed 18 times. That means her body was drenched in blood and of course, the attacker was drenched as well. Where did this person go to clean up? I suspect that the killer used the Branagan house to clean up. Walking around the neighbourhood in bloody clothes would attract too much attention, a risk you do not take even in a secluded area. And since the killer knew that nobody else was home or would come home…the killer had all the time in the world. To assume the latter, we conclude that the killer knew the entire family schedule. Branagan most likely told her killer that her dad had left for a business trip and that Sean was hanging out with his friends. Since Sean slept over quite often, Branagan would not be surprised if he did it again when their dad was gone on a trip. And she must have mentioned that!

The killer most likely used the shower or a big sink in the laundry room to clean up. This means that the drains could hold clues and I am sure police checked the drains and have preserved what they found there. But the question is, how did the killer walk around without making foot prints? Did the killer take off shoes after the attack and walked around on either socks or barefoot?

If you say “yes” here than you say “yes” to an accomplice!

Let me explain. The killing was a most personalized attack, highly emotional, and centered on something Branagan did or said. Remember that there was no sexual assault so most likely the attack was triggered by something Branagan said or claimed she would do. To me, this means that the killer was a teenager, a friend she let in suspecting no danger at all.

After the teen realized what had happened, the teen called for help from someone who the teen knew, would never give away what had happened. Someone who would come to the rescue no matter what… a parent!

This parent showed up unseen, most likely by foot, with a fresh set of clothes including shoes. This parent gave precise directions what to do and made sure that everything that was touched got wiped off and that any cloth went into a plastic bag to be taken out of the house. That bag most likely went into a bonfire, the fire place, etc. This parent helped erase all the traces of what had happened.

Now you will probably say: “Did police check the phone records?” because that would be the easiest way to catch whoever is responsible. But there are two more scenarios here: whoever killed Moira “Holly” Branagan came prepared or whoever killed Branagan had previously arranged to be picked up.

In scenario 1, the killer came with a new set of clothes including shoes, etc. This would mean that Branagan’s death was planned and that the killer is a cool-headed person, well-organized and, someone who had a clear motive. This does not really fit with a highly personalized crime.

In scenario 2, the killer had previously asked to be picked up by an unsuspecting parent. At pick up time, the parent saw what had happened and then directed the teen what to do.

I assume that the killer’s family moved away from the Branagan neighbourhood after the murder citing a new career opportunity, health reasons, family emergencies, etc. It is the kind of family where you will not suspect their move NOT to be about careers or promotions and most likely, it is a family that works for a company where such new assignments are very common, so an international company, oil company, etc.

The murder of a friend, and that was what Branagan was to the killer, must have terrified this young adult. Maybe he was a rejected boyfriend or date; maybe she was a jealous friend.

That is right; here is smoking gun number 1: the killer is not necessarily a teenage boy! It could have been a girl. Maybe a girl empowered by drugs. Small amounts of marijuana were found in Holly’s pocketbook. Police didn’t make a big deal out of this and I am not either, but I wonder, did the autopsy report state that they found any drugs in Branagan’s body? If so, Branagan and the killer could have smoked together. The drugs may have given the killer just that bit of an edge that Branagan never knew was inside that person.

Her friends said that she was a good girl who smoked and drank a little, but that was all. Remember that there did not seem to be evidence of a “room to room” struggle? If Branagan had been smoking drugs, could the effects have slowed her down? Remember that she only had two defense wounds. Being under the influence might have made her so slow that her defense was no match at all for the attacker. That could lead us to conclude that maybe only Branagan had used drugs and the killer was not. Reduced strength in Branagan makes a female attacker possible.

Let’s us get a rumour out-of-the-way.

Holly’s brother Sean lived under a cloud of suspicion ever since he and his best friend found Branagan dead. You have to understand that Sean was the odd one in the neighbourhood. He worked part-time at a local service station. He enjoyed fixing cars. In an exclusive neighbourhood, you are eyed suspiciously if you enjoy repairing automobiles. To some it does not matter that the repairman is good at heart. He is odd for enjoying working with his hands! He was questioned at length by police.

One day in September 1979, Sean was cleaning the floor of the garage with a flammable liquid. The fumes somehow ignited (one investigator said an air compressor kicked in) and the garage exploded, gravely injuring Sean. 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.

On the night Branagan lost her life, Sean was at a friend’s house not far away. Sean spent a lot of time there and was like a family member to that family. He kept calling the house to tell Branagan that he wasn’t coming home. He was sleeping at his best friends house and they were working on a car. The friend’s family was home and they all knew that Sean had been there all night. Sean kept getting a busy signal. However, he did not think that was so unusual for his teenage sister, to be on the phone with nobody around to tell her to hang up!

When Sean still got a busy signal around 10 or 11:00 am the next morning, he and his friend went to the Branagan house where they found her. After opening the door, his friend walked in first. Approaching the kitchen, he stopped abruptly causing Sean to bang into him. The friend turned, pushed Sean out, and ordered him to run next door for help. That neighbour later returned with the police. Once outside, neither his friend nor Sean reentered the house.

Let’s go back to the time line. This is what we know:

4:40PM – Holly was making plans to go for pizza at 6pm with one of her friends. She had been on the phone with a friend around 4:30pm on the 28th, and ended that call by saying that there was someone at the door. Whether this was an excuse to end the call or whether someone was truly at the door, we do not know. She told the friend she would call back but never did.

4:45PM – Holly called her Dad’s office, spoke to a secretary, and asked if her Dad had already left for a business trip to New Jersey. That is the last time that anyone spoke to her, that we know off!

5:00PM – The friend to whom Holly said that she would call back, tried to call Holly again. The phone rings but nobody answers.

5:20PM – Police found a clock that had stopped working at this hour. They found the pendulum on the floor. There was some sign of a struggle inside but definitely not a struggle going from “room to room.”

6:00PM – Holly’s friend drives to the Branagan home to go for pizza. This friend rings the doorbell, gets no answer, and leaves.

7:00AM One of Branagan’s best friends stops by to pick Branagan up for school on March 29, 1979. Let’s call her Brenda. She honked the car horn, knocked on the front door while the Branagans’ dog, Clancy, pawed the window. But Holly does not come out.

Brenda decides to look into the windows. The Branagan house has a unique structure. The front door is flanked by long narrow windows. When you walk in, you will see on the first floor the garage and utility room to the left and right. The main rooms are on the second story. The kitchen is in the back. There is a deck to the front and back of the house. Trying to peek into the kitchen can be done by walking around the back, then up on the deck, towards the kitchen in the back.

Brenda climbed the steps to the second-floor porch to peek into the kitchen in hopes to find Branagan, but something — she’s not sure what — stopped her. Holly’s body was later found in that kitchen. Brenda left to go to school.

Now meet smoking gun number 2: the family dog! A cocker spaniel named Clancy. I could not find out how old the dog was at the time of Branagan’s murder but if the dog was inside when the attack occurred the dog would have sensed something was wrong and would have come to Branagan’s aid. Even if the dog at first did not sense anything, the smell of blood would have alerted the dog that something was very wrong. In both cases, the dog would have come to help Branagan and would most likely have jumped on and bitten the killer. So did anyone went to the doctor, emergency room, or convenient care with a dog bite in the hours or days after Branagan was found?

If the dog did not bite the attacker it could confirm that the killer knew Branagan well, and the house, and the family, and the dog. The killer knew the dog so well that the killer was able to calm the dog. Remember that Brenda mentioned that the family dog came to the door? The dog may have barked at her but she never said the dog was in a state of panic! Now how is that possible?

Even if the dog was not present when Branagan was attacked, the minute the dog would come in and find Branagan on the floor, the dog would first raise hell (nobody of the neighbours mentioned any noise that could have alerted them) and then the dog would have tried to keep Branagan warm to save her. That would mean that police would have found the family dog’s hairs on her body and in the blood samples. They never mentioned that. I think police has a lot more evidence than they will tell the media and for good reasons. However, in the many articles about this case nobody mentions dog hair found on Branagan.

So what does this mean? Was Brenda mistaken and did the dog bark like crazy and she misinterpreted it? Or did Brenda indeed find a mad barking cocker spaniel, walk around the house as she stated, to peek into the kitchen, and then got scared, fled to her car, and not knowing what to do, just went to school? Is it possible that Brenda actually did see something but in her panic did not dare to mention it?

I wonder how the dog could have been kept quiet during the attack or after, and whether Brenda saw normal dog behaviour that morning when she came to pick up Branagan to go to school. Maybe the dog was not in the house at all the entire time. Maybe whoever came into the house convinced Branagan to lock up the dog. Maybe the dog was not a hero. Either way, I have not been able to find more information about the dog’s whereabouts on that fateful day.

NBC10 did a “Cold Case” story with Mr. Branagan a few years ago, see the video clip below. After the report aired, investigators sent the murder weapon and clothing to the FBI once again with hopes that 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.

Police had mentioned before that it was extremely difficult for them to get answers in this case since Branagan’s friends were not talking. Police stated they were sure that there are many facts about this case that they haven’t been told and for good reason; someone is protecting their own child!

Writing this post was extremely difficult since there are too many gaps. A lot of information is missing. Things people said do not make sense and I realize this post is far from complete.

I must mention a third smoking gun: the phone. Remember that Branagan told her friend she was going to hang up to open the door for someone? That friend tried to call back but nobody picked up the phone. Then later on, Sean continuously got a busy signal. Again, 2 scenarios:

Branagan, after the attack, tried to crawl to the phone but only managed to knock the horn off hence the busy signal. Or, whoever used the phone last was in a state of panick, made the call, dropped the horn, and later forgot all about it.

That Branagan might have lived through the entire attack and could have had the time to crawl to the phone, seems impossible especially if the killer was still around. In the second scenario, we stumble on the phone records again. I bet police have those phone records. If I am right, they also know what number was dialed last. And here is the only scenario that would make sense: the number last called belonged to a person in a powerful position. Powerful enough to have a strong hold on police. Strong enough for them to only release the least on information and nothing else.

I hope that the years have weighed heavily on the parents’ and the teen’s conscience and that hopefully, enough time has passed for them to pack up the courage to come forward and give Mr. Branagan the answers he has looked for. He needs to know “why” this happened. He tragically lost his wife to leukemia and within six months time, both his children are dead. He has waited patiently for someone to come forward to tell him the truth. That is all he seeks now. I hope that before this man passes away himself, we can give him the answers.

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  1. […] Moira Holly Branagan was a senior at Freedom High School, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Branagan was found stabbed 18 times in the back with a 10-inch kitchen knife. […]

  2. […] Moira Holly Branagan was a senior at Freedom High School. […]