Murder of Brianna Denison

Murder of Brianna Denison

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 murdered by a serial rapist.



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 the Summer Winter Action Tours Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in Reno; Denison had reportedly attended this event in the past.[1] 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.[2] 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 consequently 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.[3]

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 towards 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.[1] 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 could also be related. In that incident, the attacker brazenly raped a woman at gunpoint in a garage where campus police park their cruisers.[4] 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,[5] including Nevada's First Lady Dawn Gibbons (wife of Governor Jim Gibbons).[6][7]

On February 15, 2008 a company worker discovered a body on a company's field, partially covered in the snow. February 16, 2008, an autopsy report confirmed that the body found in a field near a Reno business park was that of Brianna Denison.[8]


On January 29, 2008, Reno Police released a description of the unknown perpetrator.[9] The person in question is also linked to at least 2 attempted sexual assault 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.[10] 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 have said that the clothing item did not belong to Denison and that it may have been left near her body to taunt the investigators. [11] Police have asked anyone who may recognize the clothing item as theirs to 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, 1st-degree kidnapping, and sexual assault;[12] the arrest occurred while he was dropping his son off at the Stepping Stones Children's Center in Reno.[12] A DNA sample was collected from Biela;[13] he had previously been arrested in 2001 for threatening his former girlfriend's neighbor with a knife.[14]

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.[14]

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 1st, 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.[15]


The sale of handguns, stunguns and pepper spray increased dramatically in the University of Nevada, Reno area after the body of Denison was found.[16]

On February 23, 2008, hundreds of people attended a vigil held in Reno for Denison.[17]

Media attention

The case received prominent national media attention, including coverage by national news services Fox News Channel,[2] CNN,[8] ABC News,[1] MSNBC,[5] and CBS News.[11] 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.[18][19][dead link]

External links


  1. ^ a b c "FBI Joins Search for 'Abducted' Teen". 2008-01-22. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  2. ^ a b "FBI Joins Search for Missing Nevada Woman; Police Suspect Abduction". 2008-01-23.,2933,324794,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  3. ^ "FBI Joins Search for 'Abducted' Teen". 2008-01-22. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  4. ^ "Reno Campus on Edge After Attacks". 2008-02-17. Retrieved 2008-02-23. [dead link]
  5. ^ a b "Search for Brianna Denison continues". 2008-02-14. Archived from the original on 2008-02-13. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  6. ^ "First Lady Gibbons, Kayakers Search for Denison". 2008-02-04. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  7. ^ "Dawn Gibbons joins in Denison search". 2008-02-02. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  8. ^ a b "Police: Dead student victim of serial rapist". 2008-02-17. Archived from the original on 2008-02-18. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  9. ^ "Cops Release Description Of Reno Kidnapper". 2008-01-29. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  10. ^ "Police Release Sketch of Rape Suspect With Ties to Missing Brianna Denison". 2008-02-01.,2933,327507,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  11. ^ a b "Panties May Be Clue To Serial Rapist". 2008-02-20. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  12. ^ a b "Police Arrest Suspect in Sex Assault Slaying of Reno Teen Brianna Denison". 2008-11-26.,2933,457717,00.html. Retrieved 2008-11-26. 
  13. ^ "Former Marine pleads not guilty to raping, killing college student". 2009-01-02. Retrieved 2009-01-03. 
  14. ^ a b "Biela's father: 'Why did he do this to this lady?'". (Reno Gazette-Journal). 2008-11-26. Retrieved 2008-11-26. 
  15. ^ Hutton, Auburn (30 July 2010). "Pregnant Rape Victim Forgives James Biela In Court". KOLOTV.COM. KOLO-TV, Reno, NV. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  16. ^ "More People are Buying Guns for Protection". 2008-02-21. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  17. ^ "Slain student remembered as 'angel' at vigil". 2008-02-22. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  18. ^ "Hate Group Plans to Picket Brianna Service". 2008-02-21. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  19. ^ "Thousands Mourn Slain College Student". 2008-02-24. Retrieved 2008-03-01. 

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