Brianna Zunino Denison (March 29, 1988 –
January 20, 2008) was a college student from Santa Barbara,
California, who was abducted on January 20, 2008 from a friend's house
in Reno, Nevada. Her body was discovered on February 15, 2008 in a
field near a Reno business park after being raped and murdered by
Denison was at home for winter break from Santa
Barbara City College, where she studied psychology. She and her
friends had attended events tied to a Summer Winter Action Tours LLC,
(a travel agency that caters to students), Martin Luther King Jr.
weekend in Reno; Denison had reportedly attended this event in the
Brianna was last seen on January 20, 2008 at
approximately 4:00 am Pacific Time at a friend's house in MacKay
Court, Reno where she was staying after attending a party at the Sands
Hotel and Casino on North Arlington Avenue. Her friend, K.T. Hunter,
woke up at around 9:00 am and could not find Denison. A small blood
stain was found on the pillow she used to sleep with that night, which
led her friend to alert Brianna's parents and subsequently local
authorities. Denison left the house without her shoes, cell phone, or
purse. Authorities believe she was barefoot, wearing only sweats and a
white tank top.
In the following days, the Reno Police Department
conducted a forensic investigation on the room where Brianna was
sleeping and found DNA belonging to an unidentified male. They also
discovered that the blood on the pillow was Denison's. Investigators
began focusing on a kidnapping scenario.
On January 21, 2008 investigators began sweeping
the University of Nevada, Reno area in search of Denison. The Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also joined in the search efforts.
Investigators later learned that the male DNA found on the couch where
Denison was sleeping the night when she disappeared was linked with at
least 2 previous sexually motivated attacks in the same area on
November 13 and December 16, 2007.
An earlier attack on October 22 at the University
of Nevada, Reno campus was also related. In that incident, the
attacker brazenly raped Amanda Collins at gunpoint in a garage where
campus police park their cruisers. Police began interviewing nearly
100 registered sex offenders who live within a mile of the MacKay
Around 1700 volunteers helped with the search of a
100-square-mile (260 km2) area during the time Denison was missing,
including Nevada's First Lady Dawn Gibbons (wife of Governor Jim
On February 15, 2008 a company worker discovered a
body on a company's field, partially covered in the snow. On February
16, 2008, an autopsy report confirmed that the body found in a field
near a Reno business park was that of Brianna Denison.
On January 29, 2008, Reno Police released a
description of the unknown perpetrator. The person in question was
also linked to at least two attempted sexual assaults in November and
December 2007, and the rape of Amanda Collins in October in the Whalen
Parking Garage only a short distance from the university police
station. Previous victims also gave enough detailed information for
police to draw up a sketch of the suspect.
A pair of thong underwear was found near Denison's
body along with the DNA of the perpetrator and the DNA of an unknown
female. Police said that the clothing item did not belong to Denison
and that it may have been left near her body to taunt the
investigators. Police asked that anyone who may recognize the clothing
item as theirs come forward as they may know the identity of the
On Tuesday, November 25, 2008, James Michael Biela,
27, of Sparks, Nevada, was arrested and booked at the Washoe County
Jail on charges of murder, first-degree kidnapping, and sexual
assault. The arrest occurred while he was dropping his son off at the
Stepping Stones Children's Center in Reno. A DNA sample was collected
from Biela. He had previously been arrested in 2001 for threatening
his former girlfriend's neighbor with a knife.
In a press conference held by the Reno Police
Department on Wednesday, November 26, 2008, it was confirmed that the
DNA collected from Biela matched the DNA found at the crime scene,
positively linking him to both the murder of Brianna Denison and a
previous sexual assault.
At this same press conference, it was said that
Biela had been turned in by a friend of Biela's girlfriend via Secret
Witness on November 1, 2008. Biela's girlfriend had confided to this
friend that she had found underwear unknown to her in Biela's truck as
they were coming back from Washington state, where Biela had taken a
job in March. Widespread media reports began circulating that included
a police sketch of a suspect and a description of a vehicle used in a
rape the month before Brianna's abduction. According to Reno Police
Department Chief Michael Poehlman, Biela was questioned by Reno Police
Detectives after the Secret Witness tip came in. He denied involvement
and declined to provide a DNA sample.
Biela's girlfriend was also questioned and gave
police permission to obtain DNA from her four-year old son, whom Biela
had fathered. That test indicated that a direct relative of his had
left DNA at the home Brianna Denison was abducted from, and from
another rape that had taken place the month before Brianna's
abduction. With this evidence, police obtained an arrest warrant and a
warrant for Biela's DNA. Chief Poehlman announced at the press
conference that the Washoe County Sheriff's Department crime lab had
tested Biela's DNA and found it did match DNA from the Denison case
and another rape. Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick told
reporters at the press conference that he would be prosecuting the
case with one of his lead criminal deputies, Elliot Sattler, and his
office would be seeking the "maximum penalty" for Biela, up to and
including the death penalty.
It was also announced that Biela, on his way to
Washington, had sold his truck in Idaho, one which matched the
description of the vehicle used in the previous sexual assault. At the
press conference, officials said the vehicle was being returned to
Reno to be searched and used as evidence in the case against Biela.
Trial & Sentencing
On Thursday, May 27, 2010, James Michael Biela was
found guilty. The jury returned a guilty verdict for all counts
against Biela which included kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder.
The Reno Gazette-Journal reported on Wednesday, June 2, 2010, that the
jury sentenced Biela to death after deliberating for about nine hours.
Defense attorneys argued against the death penalty, stating that Biela
suffered an abusive childhood due to an alcoholic father, that he had
been a productive member of society prior to his crimes, and that he
had been a model prisoner. Jurors did not accept the mitigating
factors and handed down the death sentence for the murder of Brianna
Denison. On July 30, 2010, Judge Robert Perry sentenced Biela to four
additional life sentences for multiple counts of rape and kidnapping
associated with attacks on two victims prior to Denison's abduction
The sale of handguns, stunguns and pepper spray
increased dramatically in the University of Nevada, Reno area after
Denison's body was found. Denison's mother founded the Bring Bri
Justice Foundation to try to implement changes after Denison's body
On February 23, 2008, hundreds of people attended a
vigil held in Reno for Denison.
The case received prominent national media
attention, including coverage by national news services Fox News
Channel, CNN, ABC News, MSNBC, and CBS News. The case was also
mentioned on E! in their special on "15 Unthinkable Crimes".
Denison was also targeted by the Westboro Baptist
Church who protested at her memorial service on February 23, 2008.
Nevada Supreme Court upholds Biela death penalty
By Sandra Chereb - San Jose Mercury News
August 2, 2012
CARSON CITY, Nev.—The death sentence for James
Biela, convicted of the 2008 rape and murder of a college student in
Reno, was unanimously upheld Thursday by Nevada Supreme Court justices
who said the crimes he committed were "of the class ... that warrants
the imposition of death."
In a 15-page ruling, justices rejected arguments by
Biela's attorneys that his conviction should be overturned because the
jury's decision was motivated by passion generated by extensive news
coverage and an outpouring of public support for 19-year-old Brianna
Denison and her family.
Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College
in California, was abducted in January 2008 while sleeping on a
friend's couch at a residence across the street from the University of
Investigators said she was smothered with a pillow
until she choked, then later raped and strangled with the strap of her
best friend's thong underwear.
Denison's body, clothed only in socks, was found a
month later under a discarded Christmas tree in a weedy field in a
south Reno business district. Two pairs of women's thong underwear
were tucked beneath one of her legs.
Biela, 31, was arrested that November following a
tip from his former girlfriend who reported that he had an obsession
with thong panties. He also was charged with sexually assaulting two
other women on and around the UNR campus in the months before
Denison's disappearance. Police called the crimes the act of a serial
Biela, a former Marine and pipefitter, was tried
for all three attacks at once in 2010. He was convicted and sentenced
to die for the murder of Denison and given four life prison terms for
the assaults on the other women.
Justices rejected Biela's arguments on appeal that
the trials should have been separate and that Washoe District Judge
Robert Perry, now deceased, erred by allowing jurors to submit
The court further denied his claims that the
conviction should be reversed because one of the rape victims
identified him only after Biela was named a suspect in the Denison
murder. Justices said the woman identified him at trial as "the man
who haunts my dreams," and said such testimony alone is sufficient to
support his conviction.
Finally, the opinion written by Chief Justice
Michael Cherry said there was nothing in the record to support Biela's
arguments that the jury's verdict was the result of passion or
"To the contrary, the jury's findings of 23
mitigating circumstances and the 99 questions it asked during trial
provide ample evidence that it was attentive, thoughtful and did not
rush to judgment in the determination of either guilty or penalty,"
the ruling said.
Death penalty for James Biela
By Martha Bellisle - Rgj.com
June 2, 2010
Death for James Biela. Justice for Bri.
The blue-ribbon-lined buttons bearing Brianna
Denison’s smiling face that appeared on the lapels of dozens of people
in the courtroom after the verdict summed it up.
“It’s what we wanted,” said Lauren Denison,
“It turned out right,” said Barbara Zunino,
“Justice was served,” said retired Reno police
Detective Adam Wygnanski, one of the lead investigators on the case.
“The jury had a tough job and they did it.”
After three-and-a-half weeks of trial, testimony
from 60 witnesses and nine hours of deliberations, the seven-woman,
five-man jury rejected his lawyers’ calls for life without parole and
sentenced Biela to death for the 2008 rape and murder of 19-year-old
On the verdict form, the jurors acknowledged that
Biela experienced a cruel and painful childhood but still agreed that
he should die by lethal injection.
After the decision was announced, Judge Robert
Perry told everyone in the courtroom: “My heart goes out to all of the
innocent people who have been touched by this tragedy.” He set July 30
for sentencing Beila on the kidnapping and two counts of sexual
assault on other women.
As Biela was led from the courtroom in handcuffs,
he told his family, lining the front row, not to cry and that he loved
“We love you, Jimmy,” they called out as he passed.
On the other side of the room, where the Denison-Zunino
family sat for almost a month, was elation and a promise to use the
tragedy to make the community a safer place.
Brianna’s mother Bridgette Denison, told a news
conference after the verdict that they’re ready to fight.
“Together we lost a beautiful, vibrant and
promising life and my family and friends have suffered unimaginable
tragedy, but we can and will turn this loss into something positive
and good,” she said. “When James Michael Biela messed with my little
girl, he messed with the wrong families, the wrong group of women and
the wrong city and state.”
Through the Brianna Denison Foundation, she said
they would work to toughen laws against offenders in an effort to
prevent others from experiencing the heartbreak they’ve suffered.
Carol Pierce, Brianna’s paternal grandmother, said
the verdict has not set in yet.
“I didn’t expect that,” she said, adding she would have accepted a
sentence of either life or death. “As long as you get him off the
streets so he doesn’t hurt anybody else.”
District Attorney Richard Gammick praised the law
enforcement agencies and community for pulling together and solving
the crimes: the rape and murder of Denison and two sexual assaults in
“We had three victims that brought us all together
to get positive results,” Gammick said after the verdict. “A sexual
predator was removed from our midst permanently.”
Deputy District Attorney Elliott Sattler, who
prosecuted the case with Chris Hicks, praised the jury’s hard work and
the Denison family’s strength.
“It touches you emotionally when you deal with good
people,” Sattler said. “And the three (victims) in this case were
“It’s gratifying to know that I was a part of
Don Richter, founder of the Secret Witness hotline
that generated a tip that made Biela a suspect, encouraged the
community to continue to participate in solving crimes.
“The message we’re trying to get out is that police
fight crimes with guns and tear gas but all you need is a telephone,”
The mother of the December 2007 rape victim read a
statement from the young woman, thanking all of those who helped her
and her family.
“A simple thank you is not enough to convey how I
feel,” the mother read.
The woman was especially grateful to her victim’s
advocate “for taking such good care of me.” The advocate’s support
inspired her to become a victim’s advocate herself.
Update at 3:55 p.m. Maizie Pusich, attorney for
James Biela, planned to arrange a meeting tonight between Biela and
his family, his family said.
The family issued the following statement today:
"Our hearts go out to all the families involved in
this tragedy. This tragedy has robbed several families of their
children and grandchildren, and a son of his father. We pray for
forgiveness where forgiveness is needed. We also pray that God will
ultimately bring something good out of this whole situation."
Update at 2:55 p.m. Its death for James Biela.
After deliberating for 9 hours, a Washoe County
jury said Biela should be executed for killing Brianna Denison in
After the clerk polled the jury, Judge Robert Perry
said: “My heart goes out to all of the innocent people who have been
touched by this tragedy.”
Perry set July 30 for sentencing on the sexual
assault and kidnapping charges.
Biela sat motionless as the decision was read.
He said "I love you," to his family as he was led
out of the courtroom. They said, "I love you Jimmy" back to him.
Bridgette Denison, mother of murder victim Brianna,
handed out "Bring Bri Justice" buttons, and hugged the prosecutors
after Biela left the courtroom.
The Denison family gathered in the hallway outside
the courtroom, hugging law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick had a big smile on his
face and said he was really happy about the decision.
Gammick will hold a press conference with the
family at around 3:30 p.m.
Update at 2:18 p.m. The jury deciding James Biela's
punishment has reached a verdict.
Stay with RGJ.com for live streaming video and the
reading of the verdict.
1:30 p.m. update: The jury deciding James Biela’s
punishment is approaching the eight-hour mark in their deliberations
with no decision reached.
They just received an order of sandwiches and
salads from Pub N’ Sub, according to a bailiff.
The seven women and five men must decide whether to
sentence Biela to death for killing Brianna Denison, or send him to
prison for life.
Update at 11:47 a.m. The jury deciding the sentence
for James Biela has passed the six-hour mark in their deliberations,
and just ordered lunch.
The seven women and five men are choosing between a
death sentence, or life in prison without parole.
The same panel took about six and a half hours last
week to find Biela guilty of raping and strangling 19-year-old Brianna
Denison, kidnapping and sexually assaulting one university student,
and raping another at gunpoint.
Update at 10:05 a.m. The jury in the James Biela
murder and sexual assault trial began deliberations at 8:30 this
morning, after failing to reach a decision on his punishment last
The seven women and five men debated for two hours
Tuesday before Judge Robert Perry sent them home.
The most recent capital case in Washoe County was
with Tamir Hamilton, who was convicted in 2008 of raping and killing
16-year-old Holly Quick, a Sparks teen, in September 2006.
The jury deliberated for several hours before
sentencing Hamilton to death.
A Washoe County jury rejected a death sentence in
2003 in the case of Larry Peck, convicted of fatally shooting Reno
police Officer John Bohach during a standoff on Vassar Street on Aug.
The jury took three hours to convict Peck of
first-degree murder, and another three hours to sentence him to life
in prison without parole.
The Biela jury found him guilty last week of raping
and killing Brianna Denison in early 2008, and sexually assaulting two
other women in late 2007.
The prosecution asked for death. His lawyers urged
the jury to send him to prison for life.
The 12 jurors tasked with deciding the punishment
for James Biela will continue deliberations this morning at 8:30.
The panel, which found Biela guilty of raping and
killing Brianna Denison and sexually assaulting two other students,
deliberated for two hours last night without reaching a decision.
In closing arguments yesterday in the penalty phase
of the trial, which is in its fourth week, Deputy District Attorney
Elliott Sattler said Biela deserves the death penalty for his crimes.
Defense lawyers urged the jury to vote for life in prison without the
possibility of parole.
While the jury must decide his sentence for the
murder charge, Judge Robert Perry will sentence Biela on the
kidnapping and three sexual assault counts. No date for that
sentencing has been set.
The Murder of Brianna Denison
By Gary C. King - TruTV.com
Snatched in the Dead of Night
Brianna Denison, 19, was known for being security
conscious. A sophomore psychology student at Santa Barbara City
College, she had returned to her Reno, Nev., home for winter break and
planned to attend a number of events associated with the SWAT 72
snowboarding festival on Saturday night, January 19, 2008, before
heading back to college the next week. She made a list of the events
she was planning to attend, gave it to her mother and informed her
that she would be ending the night at the home of a friend, K.T.
Hunter, also 19. Denison, Hunter and one of Hunter's housemates then
proceeded to the SWAT events, ending with an early breakfast at Mel's
Diner inside the Sands Regency Casino Hotel.
It was about 4:00 a.m. when Brianna and Hunter
returned home, dropped off by four male companions who drove away as
the two young women entered the house. Hunter's housemate had returned
hours earlier and had already gone to bed. After they changed into
sleeping attire, Hunter gave Denison two blankets, a pillow and a
teddy bear to bolster the pillow.
Denison slept on the leather sofa downstairs, while
Hunter retired to her bedroom that she shared with another girl. She
took her dog with her and locked the bedroom door behind her. The
five-foot, ninety-eight pound Denison presumably went to sleep on the
sofa, in view of a glass-paneled front door that was left unlocked, as
Hunter and the other girls living in the house typically left their
doors. When Hunter awoke some five hours later and began looking for
her friend, all she found was a silver dollar-sized bloodstain on the
pillow that investigators would later determine had come from Denison.
"Someone walked into my house and took my friend
and did God knows what with her," Hunter said later. "It seems
unreal...she is the nicest person, honest to God. She has such a good
heart. It's so sad this happened."
Hunter, who had been friends with Denison since
high school, told police officers that she had not heard any noises
after going to bed that Sunday morning, and that her dog had never
barked. She explained that when she discovered that Denison was gone,
she had telephoned Denison's mother and then had called the police.
There were no signs of forced entry. There also
were no signs of a struggle inside the home.
Perplexed by the attractive, blue-eyed brunette's
disappearance and deeply concerned that no one had heard from her,
Hunter and Denison's family members worked assiduously to assist the
police with their investigation. Police, including Lt. Robert
McDonald, head of the robbery/homicide unit, and Detective David
Jenkins, a 32-year veteran of the department, inspected the
burnt-orange, two-story rental house on the 1300 block of MacKay
Court, near the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR) campus, shortly after
the first investigating officers had arrived to begin what initially
had seemed to be a simple missing person case. Soon it became clear
that it would be much more than that.
Upon awakening and realizing that Denison was
missing from the residence under suspicious circumstances, Hunter and
one of her roommates told the detectives, they had observed that one
of the two blankets provided to Dension remained on the couch, but
that the second blanket was lying on the floor of the kitchen roughly
six feet from the sofa and along the path to the rear door of the
house. Detective Jenkins observed that the blanket had a small blood
stain on it. Strangely, the teddy bear was missing.
As Jenkins walked through the house, he observed
that the windows and doors had few coverings, and several provided an
unobstructed view inside the house from MacKay Court as well as from
adjacent College Drive. Anyone, he opined, choosing to look inside the
windows early that morning likely could have seen Denison lying on the
sofa as she slept.
Jenkins also noted the pillow on the couch that was
smeared with blood and mascara. There were three "distinct blood
stains/transfers on the same side of the pillow and oriented below the
mascara stains," according to the detective's report. Each of the
stains were irregular in shape, approximately 1-to 3-inches in
diameter, and it was determined that one of the stains contained
saliva mixed with mucus or phlegm. Later, all of the blood stains were
identified by DNA analysis as belonging to Brianna Denison.
Following additional analysis, forensic
pathologists concluded that Denison appeared to have suffered "an
actively bleeding injury in or near her mouth, throat, or nose, at a
time when her face was being pressed hard against the pillow," Jenkins
Investigators also obtained a substance from the
doorknob of the rear door that later yielded an unidentified male DNA
profile. Had the rear door been the suspect's entrance to the house,
or his exit with Denison? Or both?
Denison had left her identification, wallet,
cellular phone, and shoes behind, and was likely barefoot when she
left the house. According to Hunter, she was last wearing a white tank
top with pink angel wings and rhinestones, with the word "Bindi"
imprinted on the back. She also may have been wearing sweatpants,
either pink or light blue.
Jenkins noted that Denison had sent and received
multiple text messages in the time leading up to her disappearance,
the last one at 4:23 a.m. It was later determined that she had been
communicating with a former boyfriend who was living in Oregon. Police
emphasized that the former boyfriend was not a suspect; he had been in
Oregon at the time of her disappearance.
The Search Continues
Reno police continued their search for Denison for
the next several days, using search crews, dogs and helicopters to
comb the areas near UNR, the surrounding snowy foothills, and other
isolated areas in the vicinity. Uniformed officers also went
door-to-door throughout the neighborhood in an effort to find someone
who may have seen or heard something suspicious around the time
Denison disappeared, but they failed to turn up anything significant.
They also searched other areas around Reno, including along the
Truckee River that runs through the center of town, and along the
Union Pacific railroad tracks, to no avail. The suspicious male DNA
did not yield any hits in any law enforcement databases, indicating
that the apparent abductor was not a known registered sex offender.
In the aftermath of Denison's disappearance,
literally hundreds of volunteers showed up daily at the "Brianna
Search Operations Center," set up inside a local casino. Fliers, along
with blue ribbons that said, "Got Bri," were distributed and
volunteers braved the harsh, cold weather of the Northern Nevada
winter each day to conduct grid searches in designated areas, all to
no avail. Even Governor Jim Gibbons' wife, Dawn Gibbons, joined in the
effort to look for clues, such as clothing or other evidence that
might shed light on what had happened to Denison.
"As a mother of a child nearly the same age as
Brianna," Ms. Gibbons, whose son had attended high school with
Denison, said, "my heart goes out to the entire Denison family. I
continue to be impressed by the overwhelming community support and
many volunteers dedicated to the ongoing search efforts. This tragic
case has touched the hearts of so many across the state."
Despite the best efforts of everyone involved in
the search for Denison, detectives knew that time would soon be
working against them, if it wasn't already. "It is hugely important to
solve a case like this in the first 24 to 36 hours," Reno police
commander Ron Holladay said. "Every bit after that reduces our chances
of finding her alive."
Denison's relatives described her as a responsible
and caring young woman, and maintained that she would have contacted
them if she could. Their fear for her well-being increased with each
An Earlier Attack
As investigators worked to determine what had
happened to Brianna Denison, they examined earlier, non-lethal attacks
against young college girls in the area for links to the
disappearance, either physical evidence, a suspect's modus operandi,
or both. In the early morning hours of December 16, 2007, Reno police
officer Andrew Hickman and several other officers had been dispatched
to an address in the 1400 block of North Virginia Street to take a
complaint from a young woman who had been kidnapped and sexually
The woman explained that she lived alone in an
apartment in the immediate vicinity, and that she had arrived in her
vehicle at approximately 2:00 a.m. As she exited her vehicle in the
apartment complex's parking lot, she said, she had been physically
assaulted by a stranger who knocked her to the ground and attempted to
choke her with her right arm. Failing in that effort, he had placed
his hand over her nose and mouth, causing her to pass out. He had then
taken her to a nearby pickup truck and forced her inside. He had
covered her face with a hooded sweatshirt.
Her assailant had then driven a short while,
perhaps three or four minutes, stopped in a dark and secluded area,
and told her, "If you see my face, if you tell the police, I will kill
you," before sodomizing her. When he had finished his sexual assault,
he drove her back to her residence, keeping the panties that she had
been wearing and telling her that he "might be back."
The victim told the investigators that her
assailant was wearing a red short-sleeve shirt, with a blue neckline
and a slick finish, like silk or polyester. She thought the shirt
might have had a word embroidered on the upper left breast. She
recalled that attacker wore pants like sports pants, made out of a
soft material with an elastic waistband but no zipper. She also said
that she had seen a baby's shoe on the front-seat floorboard.
The victim was examined for evidence of sexual
attack, and several swabs were submitted to the Washoe County Crime
Laboratory for analysis. The lab established the presence of a foreign
Y-chromosomemaleDNA profile. The victim's clothing was also examined
and gray fiber consistent in appearance with that of automobile
carpeting was found. Most compelling of all, the DNA profile matched
that of the DNA profile in the Brianna Denison case. Detective Jenkins
noted that the December attack had occurred in the same neighborhood
from which Denison had been abducted, at a location less than five
hundred yards away.
During follow-up interviews with the December
victim, Jenkins learned that the attacker had been a white male,
likely between the ages of 20 and 30 years old, between 5 feet 9
inches and 6 feet 3 inches in height, with a large or somewhat heavy
build and brown hair. He was described as having "thick, meaty"
fingers, and spoke clear, fluent English with no discernible regional
dialect or accent.
Other Previous UNR Attacks
The December sexual assault had not been the only
such crime committed against an area woman. At approximately 5:00 p.m.
on November 13, 2007, a 21-year-old female UNR student had been
walking through the parking lot of an apartment complex in the 400
block of College Drive when an unknown male approached her from behind
and placed her in a choke hold. The attacker dragged the victim
between cars, and at one point pushed her to the ground and groped
her. She fought back, screaming despite the suspect's commands for
silence. Apparently fearing her noise would draw attention, the
attacker kicked the victim in the head and arm and then ran away,
leaving behind a few packages of unopened condoms. DNA evidence from
that assault was linked as well to the December assault and to
Another earlier attack, which had occurred on
October 22, 2007, against another female UNR student in a UNR parking
garage, was also considered possibly linked to the other assaults. In
that case, a UNR student had been raped in the parking garage.
Detectives said that the circumstances of the assault and the
attacker's method of operation were similar to the other cases, but
the October case was not immediately connected to the others.
Reno investigators told America's Most Wanted the
suspect appeared to be seeking dominance and power over his victims,
escalating in the severity of his attacks. All of the female victims
were similar in appearance: petite with long, straight hair.
The Suspect's Vehicle
The December victim told Detective Jenkins that the
vehicle into which she had been forced was a late-model pickup truck
with an extended cab. It had reclining bucket seats, gray or black
upholstery and carpeting, a narrow raised center console with a hinged
lid between the seats, and adjustable headrests. The truck had an
automatic transmission, and the victim had noticed that the interior
cab lights were located above the rear-view mirror. It also required a
big step up to get inside.
Jenkins took the vehicle's description to a number
of local automotive collision repair businesses and discovered that a
number of Toyota Tacoma four-wheel-drive pickups made between 2001 and
2006 matched the description.
After additional interviews with the victims of the
previous attacks, the Reno Police Department revised their suspect's
description. He was now believed to be in his early 20s to mid-30s,
and the skin of his abdomen, groin and upper legs was noticeably
lighter than that of his hands and forearms. He wore a mustache and a
goatee, with a gap where there was no hair between the ends of the
mustache and the top of the goatee. His groin was also described as
being without hair, as if hair-removal cream or some similar process
of hair removal had been used.
A Body is Found
By the third week in the search for Denison, Reno
police estimated that they had received more than 1,000 tips that they
were continuing to pursue. However, on Saturday, February 16, 2008,
their search for Denison came to an end. A woman's body found lying in
a field in South Reno the previous day was positively identified as
Brianna Denison. According to the autopsy report, she died of
strangulation. Because the area had previously been covered in snow,
police believe the body had been there for more than a week, possibly
longer. The location was about eight miles from Hunter's home where
Denison had last been seen.
Two pairs of women's thong-style panties were found
beneath one of Denison's legs, containing male and female DNA profiles
that did not match Denison's DNA profile. One of the panties, however,
contained the same DNA profile of the still-unidentified attacker.
Swabs taken from the victim revealed the presence
of sperm, and DNA tests showed that the profile obtained from the
sperm was consistent with the unknown male profile that had been
obtained from the rear door of the house from which Denison had been
abducted and with that obtained from the two prior attacks. There was
no longer any question that Reno had a serial rapist on its hands, one
that had escalated to homicide.
The Manhunt is On
A week after her body was found, a "Live, Love and
Unite" ceremony was held at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in
memory of Brianna Denison. More than 3,000 mourners attended as police
continued the search for her killer. Police advised people to be aware
that the attacker's behavior and appearance might have changed since
the discovery of Denison's body, noting that such changes would be
apparent to people who were close to him. They asked anyone noticing
unusual behavior or someone making marked appearance changes to
contact the police.
By early April 2008, police had received more than
4,000 tips in the case, but none of them had led to a suspect. The
Regional Sex Offender Unit, which comprises officers from the Reno and
Sparks police departments and the Washoe County Sheriff's Office,
interviewed 100 sex offenders residing within a mile of the MacKay
Court residence, and contacted more than 1,700 registered sex
offenders living in Washoe County, creating a backlog in DNA
processing. Funds were quickly raised to help speed up the process,
but a suspect remained elusive.
On November 1, 2008, the Reno Police Department
received a report from an anonymous caller through the Secret Witness
tip line that a man by the name of James Biela, 27, was exhibiting
strange behavior and fit some of the suspect criteria that police had
developed in the various cases over the past year. Detective Adam
Wygnanski was assigned to follow up on the tip, and met with Biela on
Wygnanski explained to Biela that he was working
the Brianna Denison case, and that Biela's name had come up along with
a number of other male subjects. He asked Biela for a saliva swab to
eliminate him as a suspect, but Biela refused to provide it. Wygnanski
noted that Biela was very nervous during their meeting, and would not
make eye contact with him. Wygnanski also observed that Biela matched
the physical characteristics of the attacker provided by the December
2007 victim. Before the interview concluded, Wygnanski confronted
Biela with reports that Biela had worked as a pipefitter on a
construction project on the UNR campus, but Biela denied them.
Although Wygnanski determined that Biela was the
registered owner and frequent driver of a 2006 4-wheel-drive Toyota
Tacoma pickup truck with an extended cab, with gray colored interior,
during the timeframe of the sexual assaults and Brianna's
disappearance. Biela denied having anything to do with Denison's
murder, and he claimed that his girlfriend, who was also the mother of
his child, would provide him with an alibi for his whereabouts at the
time of Denison's disappearance. Wygnanski, lacking physical evidence
that would ensure a conviction, had little choice but to let Biela go.
Born June 29, 1981, in Chicago, Ill., James Michael
Biela was 9 when his family moved to Reno. Later in life, he could be
the life of a party or a barroom gathering, known as a funny guy who
took martial arts classes. But he was also known to have a quick
temper, and some described him as a bully. He joined the Marine Corps
after high school and was promoted to the rank of lance corporal, but
was discharged in 2001 for drug use.
In 2002, upon his return to Reno, Biela came to the
attention of authorities when he drunkenly threatened a former
girlfriend's neighbor with a knife and was arrested. The former
girlfriend filed for a restraining order against him, and he pleaded
guilty in April 2003 to a misdemeanor charge involving the knife
incident. Biela was sentenced to alcohol counseling and ordered to
have no contact with the victim for a year, but no DNA samples were
collected because the plea was only to a misdemeanor.
Following his earlier run-ins with the law, Biela
lived with a new girlfriend in Sparks, east of Reno, and they had a
son together. Neighbors described him as a "nice, normal guy," and no
one noticed anything peculiar about him, even the police officers who
trained alongside him in martial arts classes.
Interview with a Girlfriend
On November 12, 2008, Detectives Jenkins and
Wygnanski met with Biela's girlfriend. During the interview, she said
that she had been involved with Biela for the previous six years and
confirmed that they'd had a child together, who was 4. However,
although they had been living together, the girlfriend could not
account for Biela's whereabouts during the early morning hours of
December 16, 2007, or on January 20, 2008. She said that their
relationship had been tumultuous at times, and that it had not been
uncommon for Biela to leave their residence for days at a time during
the timeframe in which the detectives were interested. She said that
he claimed that he had been sleeping in his vehicle during the
Between March and September 2008, she said, Biela
had left the Reno area to work as a pipefitter in the State of
Washington and sold his Toyota Tacoma pickup, replacing it with
another vehicle. When Biela had decided to move back to the Reno area,
his girlfriend recounted, she had traveled to Washington to help him
make the move. While with him there, she said, she had discovered
petite women's thong panties inside his vehicle. When she confronted
him about them, he told her he had stolen them from a woman at a
laundromat in Washington.
Biela's girlfriend then volunteered to provide a
DNA saliva sample from Biela's son so that it could be compared to the
DNA evidence that had been developed during the course of the
investigation. Both Jenkins and Wygnanski witnessed the DNA reference
sample as it was collected from the child. Afterward, the detectives
delivered it to the Washoe County Crime Laboratory.
On November 25, 2008, after comparing the child's
DNA profile to that of the suspect's DNA profile, it was determined
that James Biela could not be excluded from the suspect's DNA profile
and that the child was closely related to the suspect in Brianna
Denison's death. Biela was subsequently arrested at a South Reno
daycare center when he arrived to pick up his child, and was booked
into the Washoe County Jail on charges of murder, first-degree
kidnapping, and sexual assault. Once police had Biela in custody, they
obtained a court order for a sample of his DNA, and announced the
following day that his DNA matched the suspect's DNA.
With the DNA results finally available, Biela was
then charged with raping a UNR student in one of the university's
parking garages, and with the December 2007 kidnapping and sexual
assaulting of the other UNR student in December 2007.
Biela's trial for the abduction and murder of
Brianna Denison was held in May 2010. On May 27 a Washoe County
District Court jury found James Biela guilty of all five counts in the
murder of Brianna Denison and sexual assault of two other young women.
On June 2, 2010, Biela was sentenced to death.