Suspect arrested in Reno abduction, slaying

November 26, 2008 11:23:05 PM PST
A former Marine who studied martial arts has been arrested in the slaying of a 19-year-old college student who authorities said was abducted while sleeping at a friend's house, police said Wednesday.

James Michael Biela, 27, a Sparks pipe fitter, was arrested Tuesday night and booked into the Washoe County Jail on suspicion of killing Brianna Denison in January. He's also charged with kidnapping and sexual assaulting another college student in Reno on Dec. 16, 2007, Reno Police Chief Michael Poehlman said at a news conference.

Authorities said they arrested Biela after a tipster and DNA linked him to the slaying, and detectives said they were investigating whether DNA evidence connects Biela to other crimes in the area.

Biela was arraigned before a justice of the peace Wednesday morning and requested a public defender, Washoe County sheriff's spokeswoman Brooke Keast said. Biela, who was being held without bail, was not asked to enter a plea. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Dec. 10.

District Attorney Dick Gammick said prosecutors have the option of seeking a death sentence in the case.

Lauren Denison, Brianna Denison's aunt, thanked the community and law enforcement for their support and determination.

"We're pleased that this person is off the street and he cannot hurt anyone else," she said at the news conference.

Detectives began focusing on Biela after a Secret Witness tip on Nov. 1 -- one of more than 2,200 tips they received in the case, Poehlman said.

In the call, a woman reported that Carleen Harmon, Biela's girlfriend, confided to her that she found a pair of women's underwear in Biela's truck while traveling back from Washington state in September.

Biela had left the Reno area in March, around the time authorities began releasing details of their investigation, including that additional women's underwear had been found with Denison's body, Poehlman said.

Poehlman said Biela's Toyota Tacoma extended cab pickup truck had been sold in Idaho, but the truck was recovered and will be checked for evidence.

Biela first declined to provide a DNA sample when investigators met with him Nov. 7, said Reno Detective David Jenkins.

After that, Harmon, who has a 4-year-old son with Biela, allowed investigators to obtain a DNA sample from the boy, which was compared with evidence from the December rape case and Denison's killing.

Forensic scientists concluded that Biela, as the biological father, could not be excluded as a suspect, a police affidavit shows.

Police then obtained a warrant and Biela, who was under surveillance, was arrested Tuesday afternoon while picking his son up from preschool.

A DNA sample taken from Biela matched police evidence, Poehlman said.

Denison, 19, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was visiting her hometown during when she vanished early Jan. 20. Authorities say she had been sleeping on a couch at a friend's rented home near the University of Nevada, Reno.

Her body was found Feb. 15 in a brush-covered lot in south Reno. An autopsy showed she was raped and strangled.

From the beginning investigators said they believed the suspect, who taunted police by leaving two pair of intertwined women's panties with the body, lived in the area.

Records show Biela has lived in the Reno area since 2002.

Reno police spokesman Steve Frady said Biela served in the Marine Corps but he could not provide more details. Records show Biela was at Camp LeJeune, N.C., in 2000.

Gary Grate, of the Charles Graci Jiu Jitsu Academy in Reno, said Biela had trained at the martial arts center on and off for about year.

"It's been a long time, and he hasn't been in probably a year or close to that," Grate said.

Biela obtained a blue belt, one belt above beginner, Grate said.

No one at the academy, which is frequented by police officers, recalled anything suspicious about Biela, he said.

"There was never abnormal behavior at all from anyone I can recall," he said.

Biela's father, Joe Biela, told the Reno Gazette-Journal he hasn't seen his son in years.

"I did not do this, he did, and now he's going to have to suffer for it," Joe Biela said. "The cops have evidence."


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