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West Valley grad on trial for murder in Nevada

Sat., May 15, 2010

Ex-Marine arrested in Reno in fall 2008

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 had confided to a friend that she found two pairs 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 had 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. 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.

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