Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Murder of Brianna Denison

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Brianna Denison vanished under suspicious circumstances on January 20th, 2008. Her body was later found hidden under some tree limbs in a roadside ditch in Reno, Nevada. The 19-year-old college student had been raped and strangled to death.

The night before she vanished, Brianna and a friend attended a party together at a local Sands Regency. Brianna and her friend later returned to her friend’s home near the University of Nevada Reno. The two girls went to bed upon their return, however when Brianna’s friend awoke the following morning, she realized that Brianna was missing. She also noticed that there was a bloodstain on the pillow that Brianna had slept on the night before. The police were called, and a massive search for Brianna was launched in the Reno area.

Weeks later, on February 15th, 2008, a man returning to work from his lunch break spotted Brianna’s body under some tree limbs in south Reno. An autopsy confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated to death. 

Brianna’s disappearance and murder occurred after a string of sexual assaults were reported at the University of Nevada Reno. DNA found on the bloodstained pillow confirmed that the sexual assault cases were, in fact, linked to Brianna's case. At that point, investigators were tasked with finding this serial offender before there was another victim. 

The late 2007 assault cases.

Three months before Brianna’s disappearance, in October 2007, a female UNR student was reportedly raped inside a parking garage near campus. 
Nearly two months later, in December 2007, another female UNR student was abducted from her apartment and sexually assaulted. 

The victim of the December 2007 abduction and assault said that the perpetrator reportedly attempted to strangle her, and when that did not work, he put his hand over her nose and mouth until she passed out. He then covered her face with a hooded sweatshirt and drove her to a secluded area. Before sexually assaulting her, the perpetrator said, "If you see my face, if you tell the police, I will kill you."

After the assault, the perpetrator then drove the young woman back to her apartment. He reportedly kept the underwear she was wearing and told her he might return. 

The young woman later contacted police to report the incident. She described her assailant to the best of her ability. She was swabbed for DNA, and investigators were able to determine that she had been assaulted by a white adult male. 

Link to Brianna's case. 

After Brianna disappeared, investigators conducted forensic testing on the pillow found with a bloodstain. DNA from both Brianna and an unidentified male who had been linked to the December 2007 assault were found on said pillow.  At that point, it was clear that whoever was responsible for the December 2007 assault was also responsible for Brianna’s disappearance. 

Brianna's body was found about two weeks later. At that point, investigators believed they had the perpetrator’s DNA; however, they still were unable to identify him. A public appeal was made for anyone with information about this person to come forward. 

An anonymous tip.

Finally, in November 2008, an anonymous person told police that a man named James Biela had behaved in a way that matched the behavior of the reported suspect in Brianna’s case. 

James Biela. (

DNA from Biela's son and an arrest.

Biela was interviewed, but reportedly refused to provide a DNA sample to police. However, police later spoke to Biela’s girlfriend, who provided them with a DNA sample from her and Biela’s son. Investigators were then able to positively match the DNA from both the 2007 assault and Brianna’s murder to Biela. 

He was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with raping and killing Brianna, kidnapping and sexually assaulting another student, and raping a third student. 

A conviction.

Biela pleaded not guilty to all charges. However, a jury ultimately convicted him in May 2010. On June 2nd, 2010, Biela was sentenced to death. He currently remains on death row. 

Tragedy struck the Denison family once again nearly 10 years later, when Brianna’s relative Caitlin Denison (19) vanished on January 15th, 2018. The young woman remains missing today. A write-up on her case can be found here.

Biela vs. State
Crime Library

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