The 10-month-long investigation into the rape and murder of Santa Barbara City College student Brianna Denison culminated in the arrest on Tuesday, November 25, of James Michael Biela, a 27-year-old construction worker from Sparks, Nevada. The 19-year-old sophomore psychology student disappeared while sleeping at a friend’s house in her hometown of Reno on January 20, and her strangled body was found in a field on February 16. DNA evidence and a “secret” witness – reportedly a friend of Biela’s girlfriend, who called in a tip on November 1 – led the authorities to Biela, and he was picked up and booked at about 9 p.m. on Tuesday for kidnapping, murder, and sexual assault. No bail has been set.
Reno police said that Biela, who was arrested while picking up his son at the Stepping Stones Children’s Center in Reno, had taunted investigators by leaving two pairs of intertwined panties near Denison’s body, which was found near the University of Nevada at Reno campus. That evidence linked Biela’s DNA – which was initially screened via his four-year-old son – to two other sexual assaults that happened between October and December 2007. He has been living near the university since 2002. The secret witness – just one of the 2,278 tips to come in on the FBI-aided investigation – told police that Biela’s behavior made him a likely suspect, specifically when he was confronted about a pair of women’s underwear in his car.
Following the tip, police began tracking Biela, who worked as a pipe fitter. It was determined that in March 2007, about the time when the description of the attacker and related vehicle was released, he took a job in Washington state. He sold his extended cab Toyota truck, which matched the police description; police have recovered the vehicle and are doing fiber tests for more evidence.
Earlier this month, Biela was asked by police to give a DNA sample, but he refused. Instead, authorities contacted his girlfriend, and she helped them get DNA evidence from Biela’s son. That was a match to DNA evidence collected both at the scene of the kidnapping and on the rear door of the apartment where Denison went missing.
Denison was last seen alive sleeping on the couch of a friend’s house near the university after a night out with friends on her winter break. She was sleeping near an unlocked sliding glass door, which made her visible from outside, said authorities at the time. Left behind were her cell phone, purse, clothing, and two pairs of shoes, which had not been touched. A silver dollar-sized spot believed to be blood was found on the pillow.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said, “No one should have to suffer as Brianna Denison did. Brianna became everyone’s daughter.”
The SBCC student’s aunt Lauren Denison also spoke at the press conference, and told reporters, with tears in her eyes, “We are pleased that this person is off the street and he cannot hurt anyone else.”
The District Attorney in Washoe County has vowed to prosecute Biela to the maximum extent of the law.