November 27, 2008 in City

WV grad held in Reno killing

Man is also suspected in kidnapping, sex assault
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 
File Associated Press photo

A sign posted near a field in Reno asks for help finding 19-year- old Brianna Denison in February.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Detectives investigating the high-profile killing of a college student in Nevada will travel to Coeur d’Alene next week to search a truck once owned by the suspect, who was arrested Tuesday evening and has ties to the Spokane area.

James Michael Biela, 27, a 1999 West Valley High School graduate, was arrested in Reno and charged with the murder of Brianna Denison and the kidnapping and sexual assault of another woman a month earlier. He also is a suspect in a third case, an attempted sexual assault.

Denison, 19, was visiting her hometown from Santa Barbara City College in California when she was kidnapped while sleeping at a friend’s house Jan. 20. Her body was found in a brush-covered lot in south Reno on Feb. 15, along with pairs of panties that weren’t hers, said Lt. Robert McDonald, of the Reno Police Department.

That evidence led to a break in the case when a woman told police her friend had found a pair of women’s underwear in her boyfriend’s truck while they drove back to Nevada from Moses Lake in September.

Biela had been working as a pipefitter in Washington since March, McDonald said.

“We assume he went up to Washington to get out of this area, because the heat was on,” McDonald said. “We had over 4,000 tips coming in. It was only a matter of time, he felt, I’m sure, before he’d be one of them.”

Coeur d’Alene police confiscated the Toyota truck – which police suspect was used in the three crimes – Tuesday afternoon, said Lt. Jay Heintz.

The truck’s current owner bought it last summer and didn’t know its history, and McDonald said police will try to return it after the search. The victim in the December kidnapping and sexual assault gave police a detailed description of the inside of the truck that matches the suspect vehicle, McDonald said.

Police used DNA from Biela and from his 4-year-old son to show that Biela’s DNA matched that found at the three crime scenes, McDonald said.

Biela was arraigned before a justice of the peace Wednesday and requested a public defender, Washoe County (Nev.) sheriff’s spokeswoman Brooke Keast said. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Dec. 10.

The underwear left with Denison’s body caused investigators to believe her attacker has a fetish for women’s underwear, McDonald said.

A friend of Biela’s girlfriend apparently remembered this when she heard about the underwear found in his truck, McDonald said. The woman notified police Nov. 1.

Biela apparently told his girlfriend he’d stolen the underwear from a Laundromat, McDonald said. Police questioned Biela on Nov. 7 and arrested him Tuesday as he headed to a childcare center to pick up his son.

Police aren’t sure if Biela is responsible for crimes outside Nevada, but they’re alerting authorities in Idaho, Washington and elsewhere, McDonald said.

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 mother, Kathy Lovell, of Spokane Valley, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Biela was being held without bail. Prosecutors have the option of seeking the death penalty.

Denison’s killing shook Reno and consumed police as they searched for a possible serial rapist and killer. Biela’s arrest brought relief to many, McDonald said.

“It’ll let everybody sleep a little more peaceful,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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