RENO, Nev. — A former Spokane man was convicted today of raping and strangling a 19-year-old college student during a string of attacks that had the city of Reno on edge two years ago.
A Washoe County District Court jury found James Michael Biela guilty of all five counts tied to the murder of Brianna Denison and sexual assault of two other young women.
Biela showed little emotion, standing with his hands crossed in front of his waist as the verdict was read.
“It’s a good verdict, well deserved,” District Attorney Dick Gammick said. “Cases like this always strengthen my faith and belief in the jury system.”
The same jury that took about six hours to reach a verdict now must decide whether the 1999 West Valley High School graduate should be sentenced to death. Biela’s mother lives in Spokane Valley and attended his trial.
Police believe Biela lived and worked in the Moses Lake area for several months after the attacks.
He sold the truck believed to have been used in the crimes to a car dealership that then sold it to a Coeur d’Alene resident. The truck was seized shortly after Biela’s arrest.
The sexual assaults began in the fall of 2007 around the University of Nevada, Reno, campus just north of the downtown casino district and culminated in Denison’s strangulation in January 2008. Detectives said it was the work of a serial rapist who stalked petite women and had a fetish for thong underwear.
Fueled by thousands of tips and calls to an anonymous hot line, a nine-month-long manhunt led authorities to Biela, who was arrested in November 2008 after his ex-girlfriend let police take DNA from their son.
Biela’s public defenders called only one witness during the trial. A DNA expert argued there was less certainty in the DNA match than prosecutors contended partly because the samples were gone when he went to test them to verify the county crime lab’s conclusions.
Biela, an ex-Marine who studied martial arts, initially told District Judge Robert Perry earlier this week that he wanted to testify on his own behalf, but then changed his mind on the advice of his lawyers.
Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College, had been home visiting friends when she was kidnapped while sleeping on a friend’s couch near the Reno campus on Jan. 20, 2008.
Her body clad in only in socks was found in a field 26 days later beneath a discarded Christmas tree along with two pair of thong underwear.
The two other assault victims said their assailant took their underwear.
After the verdicts were read, Denison’s mother, Bridgette Denison, said the family would have no comment until sentencing was completed. Biela’s lawyers also declined to comment.
Deputy District Attorney Elliott Sattler began his closing arguments late Wednesday with a reference to the comment a co-worker of Biela’s said he made the day Denison’s body was found: “The (expletive expletive) probably had it coming.”
Sattler said that comment offered “chilling insight into the mind of a killer.”
“Sometimes people do get what they have coming,” he said. “In this case, it’s time for the defendant to get what he has coming.”
Jay Slocum, one of Biela’s public defenders, said prosecutors were glossing over significant differences in the three attacks that would suggest the crimes were not committed by the same person.
The first victim was raped at gunpoint in October 2007 and the second ordered to perform oral sex in December 2007 before Denison was raped and killed in the final attack.
Slocum told the jury the standard is “not did you think Mr. Biela probably did these crimes or quite likely did the crimes.”
“The standard is beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “If the state has not met its burden, you are following the law to say not guilty.”