Murder of Brianna Denison

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Brianna Zunino Denison
Brianna Denison.jpg
Born (1988-03-29)March 29, 1988
Died January 20, 2008(2008-01-20) (aged 19)
Reno, Nevada
Residence Santa Barbara, California
Nationality United States American
Education Santa Barbara City College

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. A man named James Biela was convicted of the murder.


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.[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 Regency 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 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.[3]

In the following days, the Reno Police Department conducted a forensic investigation of the residence where Brianna was staying when she was abducted and found touch DNA belonging to an unidentified male on the doorknob[4] They also discovered that the blood on the pillow was Denison's. Investigators began focusing on a kidnapping scenario.[2]


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[citation needed] and December 16, 2007.[5]

On January 29, 2008, a woman claimed that she knew someone else that said she was raped at gunpoint in a garage on the University of Nevada, Reno campus in October 2007, but did not ever report it.[6][7][8] 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,[9] including Nevada's First Lady Dawn Gibbons (wife of Governor Jim Gibbons).[10][11]

On February 15, 2008, Albert Jimenez was returning from his lunchbreak at Subway. As he was walking he saw a bright colored fabric standing out among a pile of discarded tree limbs laying in a ditch. While he approached he discovered the neon orange socks were attached to feet. What he had thought was a mannequin at first turned out to be a deceased woman. He had heard of Brianna Denison's kidnapping but didn't think the victim resembled her picture he'd seen on billboards. Since he didn't have a cell phone Jimanez quickly returned to his place of employment, EE Technologies, to call police. When police arrived to the South Reno lot, Jimanez was told that the victim was in fact Denison.[12] On February 16, 2008, an autopsy report confirmed that the body found in a field near a Reno business park was Brianna Denison.[13]


On January 29, 2008, Reno Police released a description of the unknown perpetrator.[14] The person in question was also linked to at least two attempted sexual assaults in November and December 2007,[citation needed] and a woman claimed to have been raped in a parking garage in October.[citation needed][15] Previous victims also gave enough detailed information for police to draw up a sketch of the suspect.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] The arrest occurred while he was dropping his son off at the Stepping Stones Children's Center in Reno.[18] A DNA sample was collected from Biela.[19] He had previously been arrested in 2001 for threatening his former girlfriend's neighbor with a knife.[20]

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.[20]

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 and sentencing[edit]

On Thursday, May 27, 2010, 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.[21]


The sale of handguns, stunguns and pepper spray increased dramatically in the University of Nevada, Reno area after Denison's body was found.[22] Denison's mother founded the Bring Bri Justice Foundation to try to implement changes after Denison's body was found.[23]

On February 23, 2008, hundreds of people attended a vigil held in Reno for Denison.[24]

Media attention[edit]

The case received prominent national media attention, including coverage by national news services Fox News Channel,[2] CNN,[13] ABC News,[1] MSNBC,[9] and CBS News.[17] It was televised in 2008 on an episode of Dr. Phil[25] and was featured as Case #7 in the 2009 E! Entertainment special, Young Beautiful & Vanished: 15 Unthinkable Crimes.[26][27] The case was also on 20/20 on OWN, and on ID's Unusual Suspects, season 6 episode 1.


  1. ^ a b c "FBI Joins Search for 'Abducted' Teen". 2008-01-22. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  2. ^ a b c "FBI Joins Search for Missing Nevada Woman; Police Suspect Abduction". 2008-01-23. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  3. ^ "FBI Joins Search for 'Abducted' Teen". 2008-01-22. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  4. ^ Mikkilineni, Rupa (December 2, 2008). "Tip line played key role in cracking cold case". CNN. 
  5. ^ "Sparks construction worker accused of raping, killing former Mendocino resident". The Press Democrat. 12 December 2008. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Reno Campus on Edge After Attacks". 2008-02-17. Archived from the original on March 1, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  8. ^ Shearer, Terri Hendry & Jaclyn. "James Biela returns to court for rape and murder of 19-year-old Reno woman". KRNV-DT. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  9. ^ a b "Search for Brianna Denison continues". 2008-02-14. Archived from the original on 2008-02-13. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  10. ^ "First Lady Gibbons, Kayakers Search for Denison". 2008-02-04. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  11. ^ "Dawn Gibbons joins in Denison search". 2008-02-02. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  12. ^ "Man Who Discovered Brianna Denison's Body in South Reno, Takes Stand". 
  13. ^ a b "Police: Dead student victim of serial rapist". 2008-02-17. Archived from the original on 2008-02-18. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  14. ^ "Cops Release Description Of Reno Kidnapper". 2008-01-29. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  15. ^ "Choose Your Side: Should College Kids Be Allowed To Carry Guns". Glamour Magazine. 2012-02-15. Archived from the original on 2012-02-03. Retrieved 2012-02-15. 
  16. ^ "Police Release Sketch of Rape Suspect With Ties to Missing Brianna Denison". RPD. 2008-02-01. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  17. ^ a b "Panties May Be Clue To Serial Rapist". 2008-02-20. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  18. ^ a b "Police Arrest Suspect in Sex Assault Slaying of Reno Teen Brianna Denison". 2008-11-26. Retrieved 2008-11-26. 
  19. ^ "Former Marine pleads not guilty to raping, killing college student". 2009-01-02. Retrieved 2009-01-03. 
  20. ^ a b "Biela's father: 'Why did he do this to this lady?'". (Reno Gazette-Journal). 2008-11-26. Retrieved 2008-11-26. 
  21. ^ Hutton, Auburn (30 July 2010). "Pregnant Rape Victim Forgives James Biela In Court". KOLOTV.COM. KOLO-TV, Reno, NV. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  22. ^ "More People are Buying Guns for Protection". 2008-02-21. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  23. ^ "Bring Bri Justice hosts community sBring Bri Justice hosts community safety event afety event". Sparks Tribune. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  24. ^ "Slain student remembered as 'angel' at vigil". 2008-02-22. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  25. ^ "Sex Offenders Next Door". Dr. Phil Now. Series 1050. 7 March 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2014. the heartbreaking story of Brianna Denison... 
  26. ^ Young Beautiful & Vanished: 15 Unthinkable Crimes. YouTube. 2009. Event occurs at 9:44. Retrieved 28 April 2014. 
  27. ^ Guilfoyle, Kimberly (26 August 2009). "Young Beautiful and Vanished: 15 Unthinkable Crimes". IMDb. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 

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