Detail emerge about suspect in Brianna Denison murder |

Detail emerge about suspect in Brianna Denison murder

Staff and Wire reports
(AP photo/Kevin Clifford)Reno Police Chief Mike Poehlman listens to a question from the media during a news conference, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008, in Reno, Nev. A Sparks pipefitter 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, the victim's family and police said Wednesday.

RENO ” A former Marine who studied martial arts has been arrested in the slaying of 19-year-old Brianna Denison, abducted while sleeping at a friend’s house last January, police said Wednesday.

James Michael Biela, 27, a Sparks pipe fitter, was arrested Tuesday night and booked into the Washoe County Jail. He’s also charged with the kidnapping and sexual assault of a University of Nevada, Reno student on Dec. 16, 2007, Reno Police Chief Michael Poehlman said at a news conference.

Authorities said they arrested Biela after a Secret Witness tip and DNA linked him to the Denison slaying and December sexual assault.

DNA evidence also allegedly linked Biela to a “sexually motivated attack” in a parking lot near the campus in November. No charges have been filed in that case.

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 is 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 receiving 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 and mother of his 4-year-old son, confided to her that she found a pair of women’s underwear in Biela’s truck while traveling back from Washington state in September.

An affidavit in support of the arrest warrant states Biela allegedly told his girlfriend he’d “stolen the underwear from a woman at the Laundromat.”

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 sold his Toyota Tacoma extended-cab pickup truck to someone in Idaho. The truck has been recovered, he said.

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

After that, Harmon allowed investigators to obtain a DNA sample from her son, 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 at 5:30 p.m. on Corporate Drive in Reno while picking his son up from preschool.

Police also obtained a DNA sample from Biela and it came back at 6 a.m. Wednesday as a “100-percent match of his DNA,” Poehlman said.

Denison, 19, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was visiting her hometown when she vanished early Jan. 20. Authorities say she had been sleeping on a couch at a friend’s rented home near UNR.

Her body was found Feb. 15 in a brush-covered lot in south Reno. An autopsy showed she was raped and strangled. Two pairs of underwear were found with her body, one of them which showed Denison’s DNA as well as Biela’s and a second pair that shows DNA from an unknown source, said Poehlman.

From the beginning investigators said they believed the suspect lived in the area.

Records show Biela has lived in the Reno area since 2002, once living on Gypsum Road, just five minutes from the Mackay Court apartment from which Denison was abducted. That apartment was just 500 feet from the apartment of the December rape victim, police said.

Poehlman also said that Biela worked on the construction of some buildings on the UNR campus.

Reno police spokesman Steve Frady said Biela served in the Marine Corps but he could not provide more details. Public records show Biela was at Camp LeJeune, N.C., in 2000. One address shows Biela at an unknown company for the 2nd Supply Battalion there.

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 a Reno newspaper 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.”