NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Night Brianna Vanished’ chronicles how serial rapist James Biela abducted, sexually assaulted, and strangled college sophomore Brianna Denison to death in Reno, Nevada, in January 2008. While investigating the teenager’s case, the authorities were shocked to find him involved in the sexual assault of two more young university students in the area. However, James refused to cooperate with the police, and they had to let him go initially. So, how was he finally caught, and where is he now? Let’s find out.
Who is James Biela?
James Michael Biela was born in Chicago on Lake Michigan in Illinois on June 29, 1981. He was only nine when his family moved to Reno in Washoe County, Nevada. Reports claimed James brought life to a party or a gathering in a bar with his dry sense of humor. He also took martial arts classes and was known to have a quick temper, with some describing him as a bully. James joined the Marine Corps after high school and was promoted to Lance Corporal, but was discharged in 2001 for drug use.
After being discharged from the Marine Corps, James first came to the attention of Reno authorities when he drunkenly threatened a former girlfriend’s neighbor with a knife in 2002. He was arrested, and his former girlfriend filed a restraining order against him. James pleaded guilty in April 2003 to a misdemeanor charge involving the knife incident. The court sentenced him to alcohol counseling and restricted him from contacting the victim for a year. Yet, no DNA samples were collected because the plea was only a misdemeanor.
After his brief run-ins with the law, James resided with a new girlfriend in Sparks, east of Reno, and they had a son together in late 2004. His neighbors described him as a “nice, normal guy,” with no one noticing anything peculiar, including the law enforcement officials who trained alongside him in martial arts classes. The Reno Police Department first heard about James being a suspect in the January 2008 abduction and murder of teen Brianna Zunino Denison when a friend of his girlfriend contacted the police anonymously on November 1 of the same year.
The investigators had connected Brianna’s case with two more sexual assaults on young university students via DNA — one around 5:00 PM on November 13, 2007, and another on October 22, 2007. They interviewed the victims to find a general description of the perpetrator and the make of the vehicle he drove. When the detectives questioned James on November 1, he denied having anything to do with the crimes and turned down a saliva swab request. Still, the officers were suspicious of his nervous disposition and refusal to cooperate.
Where is James Biela Now?
The detectives also learned James had worked as a pipefitter on a construction project on the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) campus — the university where the assault victims hailed from. Besides, they learned he drove an identical vehicle the alleged perpetrator supposedly used — a 2006 4-wheel-drive Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. James denied having anything to do with Brianna’s murder and claimed his girlfriend could provide him with an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the crime.
Due to a lack of physical evidence, the police had little choice but to let James go. Nevertheless, his girlfriend consented to authorities collecting a DNA saliva sample from their son, then 4, on November 12, 2008. She had unwittingly told one of her friends about finding strange women’s underwear in James’ truck while the couple was returning from Washington State. The same friend had anonymously dropped the tip on the Secret Witness hotline on November 1.
When James’ son’s DNA matched the sample found at Brianna’s crime scene and the other sexual assault that had occurred the prior month, the police had enough evidence for his arrest. He was booked into the Washoe County Jail on charges of murder, first-degree kidnapping, and sexual assault on November 25. With James in custody, the police obtained a court order for a sample of his DNA and announced it matched the suspect on November 26. He was charged with Brianna’s murder and the two sexual assault cases of the UNR students.
James’ trial for the abduction and murder of Brianna was held in May 2010. A Washoe County District Court jury found him guilty of all five counts in Brianna’s murder and two other sexual assaults on May 27. He was sentenced to death on June 2, and the judge sentenced him to four additional life sentences. James’ defense counsel argued against capital punishment, stating how his alcoholic father allegedly abused him as a child, his being a productive member of society before his crimes, and his model behavior as a prisoner.
Furthermore, James appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court to reverse the denial of his 2012 writ of habeas corpus by the Washoe County second judicial district court. Regardless, the Nevada Supreme Court turned down his appeal on June 12, 2019. According to official court records, the 41-year-old remains on death row at the Ely State Prison in unincorporated White Pine County, Nevada.
Read More: Brianna Denison Murder: How Did She Die? Who Killed Her?