NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Night Brianna Vanished’ features the shocking abduction and murder of college sophomore Brianna Denison in Reno, Nevada, in January 2008. The teen went missing from a friend’s home on January 20, and her body was discovered almost a month later in February. However, the authorities acted fast and solved the case within a year due to a tip on their anonymous witness hotline and some DNA evidence. If you’re interested in knowing more about the case, including the perpetrator’s identity and current whereabouts, we’ve your back. Let’s begin then, shall we?
How Did Brianna Denison Die?
Brianna Zunino “Breezy” Denison was born to Jeff and Bridgette Zunino-Denison on March 29, 1988. She spent her youth in Reno and her mother’s hometown of Mendocino, California. Brianna graduated from Reno High School in Reno, Nevada, in June 2006 and studied abroad in Rome for a year with her family. Her passion for traveling and world cultures took her to Hawaii, New York, Mexico, Jamaica, Japan, Italy, Egypt, Hungary, Austria, and France. In January 2008, the 19-year-old was a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College, majoring in Child Psychology.
Known for her million-dollar smile, sparkling blue eyes, and her tremendous outgoing nature and compassion, Brianna’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life became part of her radiant personality. The teenager had returned to her Reno home for winter break and planned to attend several events associated with the SWAT 72 snowboarding festival on January 19, 2008. She listed the events she planned on attending, gave it to her mother, and informed her that she would be staying over at the home of a school friend, K.T. Hunter, also 19.
Brianna and Hunter attended the said events, ending the outing with an early breakfast at Mel’s Diner inside the Sands Regency Casino Hotel. According to reports, the girls returned home around 4:00 AM on January 20. Hunter gave Brianna two blankets, a cushion, and a teddy bear to bolster the pillow as the latter prepared to crash on the leather sofa downstairs. The former went to sleep in the bedroom she shared with a housemate, while Brianna presumably slept on the couch in clear view of an unlocked glass-paneled front door.
However, Hunter and her housemates woke around five hours later to find Brianna was not in the house. They contacted the police and her mother when they discovered a silver dollar-sized bloodstain on the pillow. The detectives arrived on the scene to find the couch smeared with blood and mascara while one of the blood-stained blankets lay on the floor. Forensic pathologists later concluded Brianna suffered an actively bleeding injury in or near her mouth, throat, or nose when her face was pressed hard against the pillow.
According to police sources, the abducted teen had left her identification, wallet, phone, and shoes behind and was likely barefoot when she left the house. Hunter informed the officers her friend was last seen wearing a white tank top and presumably light-colored sweatpants. The detectives observed the home had few curtains, and strangers could get an unobstructed view of Brianna sleeping on the sofa. Soon, the forensics team obtained an unidentified male DNA from the doorknob of the rear door.
The police also noticed Brianna had exchanged multiple texts with her former boyfriend in the hours leading up to her disappearance, the last at 4:23 AM. Yet, he was ruled out as a suspect as he was in Oregon at the time of her abduction. The authorities began sweeping the University of Nevada, Reno area with help from the FBI in search of Brianna. The search ended tragically on February 15, 2008 — a resident found her body among a pile of discarded tree limbs in a ditch. Eventually, an autopsy report concluded Brianna had been sexually assaulted and died of strangulation.
Who Killed Brianna Denison?
The suspicious male DNA failed to yield any hits in the law enforcement databases, indicating that the apparent abductor was not a known registered sex offender. The investigators examined earlier attacks against young college girls in the area and learned a young woman in the 1400 block of North Virginia Street had been abducted and sexually harassed in the early hours of December 16, 2007. They found an unknown male DNA on the victim’s clothes which matched the one in Brianna’s case.
Moreover, the police found the DNA profile linked Brianna’s case with two more attacks on young university students — one around 5:00 PM on November 13, 2007, and another on October 22 of the same year. Not just that, all the crimes occurred in the same vicinity. The officers interviewed the victims to find a general description of the perpetrator and the make of the vehicle he drove — a Toyota Tacoma four-wheel-drive pickup truck. The Reno police released the details of the unknown perpetrator on January 29, 2008.
When Brianna’s body was discovered two weeks later, the police found two pairs of women’s thong-style panties underneath one of her legs. Authorities stated the clothing items did not belong to her, and the perpetrator might have left them near her body to taunt the investigators. According to reports, the Reno Police Department received a tip several months later, on November 1, 2008. An anonymous caller reported through the Secret Witness hotline about James Michael Biela, then 27, of Sparks, Nevada, displaying suspicious behavior.
Police sources claimed a friend of James’ girlfriend had contacted the police anonymously after she confided to this person about finding strange women’s underwear in his truck. The couple was returning from Washington State, where he had taken a job in March 2008. When the police questioned James after receiving the tip, he denied involvement and declined to provide a DNA sample. Nevertheless, his girlfriend consented to authorities collecting a DNA saliva sample from their son, then 4.
The investigators found the DNA sample matched the one found at Brianna’s crime scene and the other assault that had occurred the prior month. With enough evidence to obtain warrants for James’ arrest and his DNA, the police arrested and charged him with murder, first-degree kidnapping, and sexual assault on November 25. He was convicted on all charges and sentenced to death in July 2010. The judge also handed four additional life sentences for multiple counts of sexual assault and kidnapping associated with attacks on the two prior victims.
Read More: James Biela: Where is the Killer Now?