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James Michael BIELA





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Serial rapist - Kidnapping
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 20, 2008
Date of arrest: November 25, 2008
Date of birth: 1981
Victim profile: Brianna Zunino Denison, 19
Method of murder: Strangulation with the strap of her best friend's thong underwear
Location: Reno, Washoe County, Nevada, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 2, 2010

photo gallery


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 James Biela.


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 past.

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 Court home.

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 Gibbons).

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 perpetrator.


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 and murder.


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 was found.

On February 23, 2008, hundreds of people attended a vigil held in Reno for Denison.

Media attention

The case received prominent national media attention, including coverage by national news services Fox News Channel, CNN, ABC News,[1] 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 Nevada, Reno.

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 rapist.

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 questions.

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 prejudice.

"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 -

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, Brianna’s aunt.

“It turned out right,” said Barbara Zunino, Brianna’s grandmother.

“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 Denison.

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 them.

“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 late 2007.

“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 outstanding women.

“It’s gratifying to know that I was a part of producing justice.”

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,” Richter said.

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 early 2008.

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 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 night.

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. 22, 2001.

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 -

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 said.

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 passing hour.

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 assaulted.

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 Denison's disappearance.

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.

Secret Witness

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 November 7.

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 absences.

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.

Damning DNA

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.



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