Sirens & Gavels

Ex-Spokane man on trial for murder in Reno

Murder defendant James Michael  Biela, a 1999 West Valley High graduate,  enters the court room in Reno, Nev. on Tuesday May 11, 2010 following a pre-trial conference with the judge and attorneys in the case. Biela's mother and sister live in the Spokane area. (AP Photo/Marilyn Newton, Pool) (Associated Press)
Murder defendant James Michael Biela, a 1999 West Valley High graduate, enters the court room in Reno, Nev. on Tuesday May 11, 2010 following a pre-trial conference with the judge and attorneys in the case. Biela's mother and sister live in the Spokane area. (AP Photo/Marilyn Newton, Pool) (Associated Press)

A former Spokane Valley man is on trial in Nevada for the murder of a 19-year-old college coed and sexual assaults of two other women near the University of Nevada, Reno.

James Michael Biela, a 1999 West Valley High School graduate, could face the death penalty if convicted.

His mother, Kathy Lovell, of Spokane Valley, told the Reno Gazette-Journal she believes her son is innocent. Lovell and Biela's stepfather and sister, of Spokane, reportedly are in Reno for the trial. 

Biela was arrested in Reno in November 2008 after an anonymous tip led authorities to his ex-girlfriend, who confided to a friend of finding two pair of women's thong underwear in his truck while they drove back to Nevada from Moses Lake in September 2008.

Police later matched Biela's DNA to that found on the body of Brianna Denison, who was home from college when she disappeared in January 2008. Her body was found three weeks later in a vacant lot in south Reno.

Biela, who trained at a martial arts school alongside Reno police, had been working as a pipefitter in the Moses Lake area since March 2008. Denison's slaying is a high-profile case that shook the city, officials said.

“We assume he went up to Washington to get out of this area, because the heat was on,” Lt. Rob McDonald of the Reno Police Department said in November 2008.

Shortly after his arrest, detectives seized from a Coeur d'Alene couple a truck Biela sold to an Inland Northwest car dealership. Police believe the truck was used in the three crimes - they say one of the victims described the car's interior in detail. 

Biela, a former Marine, has lived in Reno since 2002. He graduated from basic military training in San Diego in fall 1999, newspaper archives show.

His trial, expected to last three weeks, opened Wednesday with Deputy District Attorney Chris Hicks telling jurors that Biela is a man with a fetish for women's thong underwear who escalated from rapist to killer.

Tucked beneath one of Denison's legs when her body was found was a pair of women's thong underwear. One belonged to the friend Denison was staying with the night she disappeared, and forensic experts believe it was used to strangle her, Hicks said.

But Public Defender Jay Slocum urged jurors not to view the evidence with sympathy or anger, but the "cold light of reason."

Slocum said DNA evidence was not conclusive, and that while authorities say they've linked the three crimes to a single assailant, each has "very distinct facts" that shed doubt on the prosecution's theory.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

Past coverage:

Nov. 27, 2008: West Valley grad held in Reno killing

Read an AP story on the trial's opening day by clicking the link below.

SANDRA CHEREB, Associated Press Writer

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Prosecutors said Wednesday that a man with a fetish for women's thong underwear escalated from rapist to killer, with the sexual assaults of two women in 2007 near the University of Nevada, Reno and the death of a college coed in 2008.

In his opening statement to a seven-man, five-woman jury, Deputy District Attorney Chris Hicks said James Biela "graduated from serial rapist to murderer," and that after DNA and other forensic evidence is presented, jurors will reach the inescapable conclusion of his guilt.

But Public Defender Jay Slocum urged jurors not to view the evidence with sympathy or anger, but the "cold light of reason." He said DNA evidence was not conclusive, and that while authorities say they've linked the three crimes to a single assailant, each has "very distinct facts" that shed doubt on the prosecution's theory.

Biela, a Sparks pipe fitter who trained in martial arts, is charged with three counts of sexual assault and one count each of kidnapping and murder. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

Brianna Denison, a 19-year-old who grew up in Reno, was visiting family and friends during the winter break when she disappeared while sleeping on a couch at a house near UNR in January 2008. A sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, her body — covered by a discarded Christmas tree and wearing only socks — was found three weeks later in a snowy vacant lot in a business district in south Reno.

Tucked beneath one of Denison's legs when her body was found were two pair of women's thong underwear. One belonged to the friend Denison was staying with the night she disappeared, and forensic experts believe it was used to strangle her, Hicks said.

Biela, 28, also is accused of raping a woman in a UNR parking garage at gunpoint in October 2007. Another woman was kidnapped two months later from outside her apartment near UNR and driven to a parking lot where she was assaulted before her attacker drove her home and told her not to call police, authorities said.

In both of those crimes, Hicks said, the women were attacked from behind and the assailant kept their underwear.

The first woman threw away the clothes she was wearing and didn't report the crime until after Denison's abduction, but after his arrest she identified Biela as her attacker.

The second woman, an exchange student who's native language is Mandarin, was the first witness called Wednesday, and told jurors how she was grabbed from behind by an attacker who covered her mouth and choked her to unconsciousness. When she came to, she was forced to perform sexual acts.

The attacker then drove her home.

Biela was arrested in November 2008 after an anonymous tip that led authorities to his ex-girlfriend, who confided to a friend of finding two pair of women's thong underwear in his truck.

Police later matched his DNA to that found on Denison's body.

The trial before Washoe District Judge Robert Perry is expected to last about three weeks.




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