Bridgette Zunino-Denison and Jayann Sepich share a bond that can only be understood by an unfortunate few forced to endure an unspeakable tragedy.
Their daughters, Brianna and Katie, never met, but their murders in Reno and New Mexico have linked their mothers for life — and united them in a quest to protect others.
“I knew other mothers who had lost their children to accident or illness, but being murdered is different,” Sepich said Wednesday. “Bridgette doesn’t imagine my pain, she knows my name and I know hers.”
They are urging Nevada lawmakers to pass Brianna’s Law, a measure that would allow DNA to be collected from suspects when they are arrested on felony charges and store the material in a database.
While Katie’s murder would not have been stopped had such a law existed when she was killed in 2003, Zunino-Denison and Sepich believe it could have saved Brianna.
The 19-year-old college coed was spending the night with a friend near the University of Nevada campus in early 2008 when she was abducted off her friend’s couch. Weeks later her body was found in a snowy field, having been raped and strangled. The kidnapping shook the Reno community, which flew blue ribbons during the frantic search for Dennison and the hunt for her killer.
Ten months later, police arrested James Biela and charged him with the rape, kidnap and murder of Brianna Denison.
His DNA linked him to the rape of two other women in the same part of Reno just months before his attack on Denison. Had this law been in place, Biela’s DNA from a 2002 felony arrest would have linked him to the rapes in late 2007 — meaning he could possibly have been arrested before kidnapping Brianna, Zunino-Denison said.
She could still be alive.
“They most likely would have had a hit and this would have never happened to Brianna. He would have been in jail,” Zunino-Denison said. “This is a way to hopefully save other girls and their mothers going through what I’ve been through.”
Biela, 31, an ex-Marine and pipefitter, was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death in Denison’s murder and given four life prison terms for the other assaults.
The bill, SB243, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, will be presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. A similar bill failed in the 2011 legislature. Critics cited privacy concerns. Other worried about the costs of carrying out such a testing program.
Twenty-five other states already have passed DNA collection laws like Brianna’s Law and Katie’s Law in New Mexico, and at least six states are considering legislation this year, Zunino-Denison said.
Current Nevada law only allows DNA to be collected after felony convictions. If the bill passes anyone arrested for a felony charge would be subjected to an oral swab collecting DNA data.
Opponents to the measure call it an invasion of privacy and subjecting suspects to “unreasonable searches” — a violation of the 4th Amendment.
Both Zunino-Denison and Sepich include their DNA profiles on their business cards.
“If it were a violation of privacy it would not be on the back of my business card that I hand out to random people all day long,” Sepich said. “I wouldn’t give you my Social Security number or home address — that would be an invasion of privacy.”
Last month, those claims were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Maryland v. King case which pits the state against a man who’s DNA linked him to other crimes in Maryland. The court is expected to rule by the end of June.
Because the constitutionality of the bill will be determined before the Nevada bill would take effect, passing it is a win-win situation for state lawmakers, Sepich said.
Congress passed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act of 2012 in December, granting funding to states implementing DNA collection systems in arrests. That, coupled with meetings with lawmakers in recent weeks, has Zunino-Denison much more confident this time around.
“It won’t bring Brianna back; it won’t bring Katie back,” Sepich said. “I’ve heard so many names of daughters that have just been brutally murdered, and it will bring none of those girls back. But thankfully there’s a list probably even longer of the daughters who won’t be lost.”
Chester DeWayne Turner is believed to have killed more than a dozen women in Southern California from 1987 to 1998. Many of those murders were charged because of Turner’s last arrest which required a DNA sample be collected. Had a law like Brianna’s Law been in place, most of those women would not have died because they were killed after Turner’s first felony arrest, Sepich said.
Sepich said she was inspired to push for DNA collection nationwide particularly by the long list of women Turner killed and sexually assaulted.
Her own daughter, Katie, was raped, strangled and set on fire before her body was dumped near her home in New Mexico in 2003.
The two mothers said legislation will not make up for their losses but it does bring the hope of sparing others.
“I know I will have more peace knowing this will prevent other families from going through this and from other young lives being lost, but I don’t know it’ll change how I miss my daughter,” Zunino-Denison said.
“I honestly just don’t want other mothers to have to go through this.”