The night Brianna vanished
NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Josh Mankiewicz Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/21/2008 9:38:03 PM ET 2008-03-22T01:38:03
TRANSCRIPT

This story originally aired Dateline NBC on March 21, 2008.

It's a small town that's busy growing up -- a cool, dry place built on sin and risk, lubricated by money and the endless thrill of possibility.

But this year, a different game of chance has consumed Reno. A criminal is on the loose, and the police, the FBI, and nearly everyone in this town is either looking for him -- or trying to avoid him.

Victoria Campbell: He's out there. Somewhere. We don't know where. We don't know who. And we don't know who could be next.

There is fear that he will strike again, and fear that his crimes are escalating in violence.

The search for this man is unprecedented in Reno history. Police have plenty of evidence, but weeks have passed since his last brutal crime. There is still no arrest.

Jaclyn O’Malley: This is probably one of the most horrible things that has happened in Reno in quite some time.

Breanne Hamm: At school, I won't go anywhere alone. I have to have somebody walk me to my car.

Women are afraid and getting prepared.

Erin Whipple: If you get grabbed from behind, you can thrust it into somebody's thigh, or their rib cage. And hopefully get a chance to run away.

It all started with a girl who disappeared.

(TV news report)

Anchor: And Reno police tell us they are still working with detectives trying to find a missing 19-year-old woman.

Her mother never stopped hoping.

(TV news, Feb. 14)

Bridgette Denison: She's out there. I know she's out there and I just -- there is no way I can finish my life without her.

And it seemed the entire town hoped right along with her, as hundreds of people searched through the snow for a 19-year-old daughter of Reno named Brianna Denison.

Brianna, a dazzling beauty with a 1,000-watt smile, was, by all accounts, a straight-arrow kid with a huge heart.

Danielle Detomaso: Brianna was the nicest person I have ever met. And throughout my life she's taught me a lot about kindness.

Danielle Detomaso has known and loved Brianna since they were in nursery school.

Danielle Detomaso: She did not miss a birthday for anyone. Acquaintance, best friend, family members, everyone, she called them on their birthday.

Brianna's dad passed away suddenly when she was just 6-years-old, and her younger brother an infant.

Her mom, Bridgette Dennison, says that made their family even closer.

Bridgette Denison: We had to team up. And the kids all had to help. You know, I had a little baby. And she became very protective of me. And for good reason -- because I was all she had left.

As Brianna grew up, Danielle says everyone noticed the close bond between Brianna and her mom.

Danielle Detomaso: They were like best friends almost. They did everything together.

Josh Mankiewicz: As she got older, she stayed close. That doesn't happen with a lot of kids.

Bridgette Denison: She stayed close and she followed the rules. And the more she followed the rules, the more freedom she had.

Their close relationship continued through Brianna’s high school years. But that said, Brianna was still a kid -- and nobody's perfect.

Bridgette Denison: When she was younger, she could be a brat. But once she turned about 15, she just was responsible.

And two years ago, after her high school graduation, Brianna decided on college in California. Her mom found it hard to let go.

Josh Mankiewicz: What's it like to send your oldest child off to college?

Bridgette Denison: It was horrible. It took a year and it was a little easier this last semester.

This was Brianna’s sophomore year at Santa Barbara City College. She had a steady boyfriend, was studying psychology, and wanted to work with kids.

Even apart, Brianna and her mom kept in close touch.

Bridgette Denison: She would text me pictures of this-- of sunsets when she knew there was snow on the ground here. She would, you know, call me from the beach. "I’m watching dolphins."

But back home in Reno, Bridgette still couldn't shake all her fears.

Josh Mankiewicz: You worried about her away from home?

Bridgette Denison: Yeah. I wake up having dreams when I call her. I called her, like, at midnight, "Are you okay?"

Josh Mankiewicz: Over-protective mom?

Bridgette Denison: I just had to ease my mind that the dream wasn't real.

Then came winter break.

Josh Mankiewicz: And you thought great, home, safe.

Bridgette Denison: Yeah. I never really felt like she was unsafe because she was so responsible.

Back in Reno, Brianna picked up with her friends right where she left off.

One of those friends was KT Hunter, who has known Brianna since high school.

KT Hunter: She was just so happy and so funny and, you know, and then we decided to go to the S.W.A.T. together.

S.W.A.T. stands for "Summer Winter Action Tours." this one was basically a three-day celebration for college students, with snowboarding by day and concerts and parties into the night at the casinos along Reno’s strip.

On Friday, Jan. 18, Brianna went to KT's house just off the campus of the University of Nevada-Reno, where KT goes to college.

Among the young women at the house getting ready for a night on the town was another University of Nevada-Reno student -- Jessica Deal.

Jessica Deal: We're doing our makeup, getting ready for a fun night. We all went over for the kickoff party and dancing. And it was just a great night. … And we made it back to KT’s house perfectly fine. All three girls crammed in KT’s queen-sized bed, and it was very uncomfortable. But we made it, and we made it home.

Saturday, Jan. 19 was the last day anyone saw Brianna Denison before she vanished.

The day started with Brianna puttering around her mom's house in sweats, doing laundry, staying grungy. Later, she and her mom Bridgette went to the movies and caught "27 Dresses," a chick flick they both enjoyed. That evening Bri was supposed to head out for a second night of music and parties with her friends. But she had both a cold and some second thoughts.

Bridgette Denison: She was thinking about not going out. And I said, "You can be sick tomorrow. You really like this band."

Brianna got her things together. At about 9 pm, she went into her mom's bedroom and gave her a hug goodbye.

Bridgette Denison: She had a big bag on and she was still in her grungy clothes. And I’m, like, you know, “What are you doing?" and she said that she was going to change at her friend’s house to go out.

And then a final exchange: Bri, who was once again planning to spend the night at her girlfriend KT Hunter's place, asked her mom if she wanted Bri to check in with her at the end of the night.

Bridgette Denison: Because she always called or text to let me know she was home.

Josh Mankiewicz: And you said?

Bridgette Denison: I said "no" because I knew where she was staying.

By 10 pm that night, Bri and her friend KT were at the concert -- and having a blast.

KT Hunter: She wanted to get close to the front and enjoy it. We pushed our way to the front. We had so much fun dancing and stuff.

At some point between 12:30 and 1 a.m., KT and Bri hooked up with another girlfriend, Jessica Deal. All three left the concert together on a shuttle bus.

Jessica Deal: I actually got a picture of her when we were driving. We were riding the bus. And that was the last picture, I think, that was taken of her.

The bus took them back to downtown Reno. It's familiar turf for the young women who went to college nearby -- and for Jaclyn O’Malley, crime reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Jaclyn O’Malley: Downtown Reno is not necessarily a safe place to be at night. A lot of drug trouble. Meth addicts. Robbers.

Bri and her friends were dropped off at the Sands Regency Casino Hotel, ground zero for the college party crowd that weekend.

Jessica Deal: Every room was filled with college students. It was just really fun to walk around and see everyone mingle.

As KT recalls, it was all good fun -- and good vibes.

Josh Mankiewicz: During that time, meet anybody new? Anybody that later seemed suspicious to you?

KT Hunter: There was nobody we met or anything that seemed suspicious.

Bri, 19, and her friends were drinking. KT says Bri had a couple, but she wasn't out-of-control drunk that night -- because, KT says, Bri was never out-of-control drunk.

Josh Mankiewicz: She knew what she was doing?

KT Hunter: She was-- most of the time-- wouldn't even drink with her friends when she went she out. But she was perfectly sober.

About 2 a.m., Jessica decided to leave the party and head back to KT’s place to crash. She said good night to her friends, went outside, and decided to flag down a guy driving an SUV in the parking lot -- a total stranger -- to get a ride home.

Jessica Deal: I could have probably easily walked. But it was freezing. So I just got a ride from the parking lot. Someone was leaving. It was a bad idea.

KT and Bri had breakfast at a casino diner. Then a friend dropped them off at KT’s home. It was about 3:30 a.m. At the house, Brianna made a fateful decision: instead of sharing a crowded bed with Jessica and KT as she had the night before, she opted for the living room couch.

KT Hunter: She wanted to text her boyfriend and maybe even call him because they were fighting at the time. … So, she's, like, "you know what? I'll just sleep on the couch.” So, I get her pillows, blankets, and she kind of just goes on the couch.

The couch was a few feet from the front door. And the front door was glass-paned, giving anyone on the street an easy view of the couch. And that night, the front door was unlocked, which was not unusual at 1395 Mackey Court.

KT Hunter: It was kind of like a hotel. We all lock our individual doors. But the living room's kind of just the lobby that we just kind of left it unlocked in case someone forgot their keys.

Around 4 a.m., KT said good night to her friend and went into her bedroom, right next to the living room.

KT Hunter: And I’d -- last words were, "if you need anything, just come in my room."

At 4:23 a.m., Brianna text messaged her boyfriend in Oregon. Exactly what happened after that in the pre-dawn hours of a 24-hour town -- a town with a big heart and a seedy center -- exactly what happened to a lovely college sophomore that morning of Jan. 20 was a mystery because by 9:00 a.m., the couch was empty. Brianna Denison had vanished.

Sunday Jan. 20. After a long night of music and partying, Jessica Deal and KT Hunter woke up about 9 a.m. at the house on Mackay Court.

The two had slept in KT’s bedroom and their friend Brianna Denison had taken the living room couch. But that morning, KT and Jessica made a surprising discovery.

Jessica Deal: We went out to the kitchen; started making breakfast. The kitchen was right in front of the couch. And Brianna wasn't sleeping there anymore.

At first, they weren't concerned. This was a student house after all and college kids were always coming and going. They figured Brianna had traded the couch for a bed during the night.

Jessica Deal: KT pointed to the couch and was like, "where's Brianna?" And we figured maybe she was upstairs in one of the roommate's empty rooms.

KT went upstairs to the bedroom where she thought Bri was sleeping.

KT Hunter: And I knocked on the door, just was, like, "hey, time to get up."

At about 9:45, KT tried once again to rouse Brianna. Once again, she got no response.

KT Hunter: I just am pounding on the door. And things start entering my mind. So, I start just pounding on my other roommate's door. Just all these things running through my mind, like, "What is going on? Where is Bri?"

Only then did it hit KT that Brianna was not in the house. She was, in fact, nowhere to be found -- even though her things were still there.

KT Hunter: Her cell phone was there, her shoes were there. I know she went to bed in a tank top. Her purse is there. Her whole life was there. And so I couldn't understand where she could've possibly gone.

Especially since it was wintertime and freezing cold that night and Brianna hadn't even taken her shoes with her. KT called Brianna’s mom, Bridgette.

Bridgette Denison: She called around 10:00.

Josh Mankiewicz: And your first thought was?

Bridgette Denison: Not good.

Josh Mankiewicz: So you worried right away?

Bridgette Denison: Well, yeah, because her cell phone was there. And she had no car. And she said that her shoes-- you know, everything she had was still at the house. I knew she wasn't out walking around with no shoes on. So I said, "I’ll be right there."

Back at the house, KT made another discovery -- this one terrifying. There was blood -- a small amount, two spots and a spatter -- on the pillow that had been under Brianna’s head.

KT Hunter: And I called her mom right back. And I’m, like, I was just in hysterics, crying. I'm, like, "There's blood on the pillow." And so, then I called 911.

Bridgette couldn't get to KT’s house fast enough.

Josh Mankiewicz: So your mind's got to be working overtime at that time--

Bridgette Denison: Well, I was really freaked out. I mean, there was obviously, you know-- it was something really bad, blood, and my child without her cell phone. I mean, what kid is without their cell phone?

Stunned, reeling -- Brianna’s family and friends were suddenly living a nightmare. A short time later, when Bri's aunt Lauren Denison arrived at the house, police cars were everywhere.

Lauren Denison: Bridget is an incredibly strong woman. And she just broke down into tears. And these young girls that live there or were there, you know, were crying too. And the police department was trying to figure some things out.

Lieutenant Robert McDonald heads up the Reno police department's detective division. McDonald was off that Sunday. But he got a call at home.

Lt. McDonald: This was a case that was, you know, didn't have a good sound to it right from the beginning. And that's when I got dressed and headed in to work.

Things started to happen fast. Lieutenant McDonald and his colleagues quickly agreed they were looking at a possible abduction. They had a young woman to find.

Lt. McDonald: Washoe County Search and Rescue had come out and already started a search of the neighborhood. Our patrol division was already going from door to door, trying to find out if anybody saw anything unusual, heard anything.

Family and friends gathered at Bridgette’s home asking what they could do.

Bridgette Denison: And I said, "I need this in the media. And they went with it and they didn't stop.”

(TV news broadcast)

“Denison is described as 5 foot tall, 98 pounds, was last seen wearing pink sweats and a white tank top…”

KRNV-TV reporter Victoria Campbell remembers hearing the story on the news that night.

Victoria Campbell: And I remember thinking that's odd in Reno. We don't usually see kidnappings. And especially of a 19-year-old. I mean, she's an adult. It was a case that kind of caught my eye.

Monday, Jan. 21
The day after Brianna disappeared. Police went door to door again. Search crews went out with dogs and helicopters, and the FBI joined the hunt.

As a shattered, terrified family waited for the one call -- the only call -- that mattered, Brianna’s grandfather pleaded for her return.

(TV news from Jan. 21)

Bob Zunino: If she's with somebody right now, whoever it may be. We want her back.

After Brianna Dension vanished from the house on Mackay Court in the early hours of Jan. 20, Reno police quickly realized they had an abduction case on their hands.

There was the blood on the pillow and tests proved it belonged to Brianna.

They also found DNA of an unknown man at the scene.

But there were no witnesses. No scent of Brianna outside the house. And all her things were still inside. KRNV-TV crime reporter Victoria Campbell.

Victoria Campbell: So of course the implication was she had not left the house under her own power. Perhaps she had been carried out. Why would she have been carried out? People started to assume the worst.

Search teams canvassed nearby neighborhoods and fanned out to canyons, fields and rivers.

Victoria Campbell: I think one of the most chilling things I saw was the police and public works officials lifting all of the manhole covers and checking all of the sewers to see if this young lady, right out in front of that house, had been thrown down a sewer.

Pictures of Brianna went up all over town along with ribbons -- in blue, her favorite color.

Victoria Campbell: The family set up a command post at a local casino. And that's when we saw hundreds of people coming forward in this community and volunteering to search.

Jennifer Bushman: We are the biggest little town in the world. It's up to us to find her.

By this time, the city of Reno had all but adopted Brianna Denison. Reporter Jaclyn O’Malley.

Jaclyn O’Malley: You know, everybody just kind of says if that was my daughter, if that was my sister, my friend, I would want you to be looking for her too.

Early on, police had one potential suspect.

Holladay: That is our person of interest, it's somebody we need to talk to.

Remember the man who drove Jessica back to KT’s home the night of the abduction? The total stranger she flagged down?

Investigators released an image of his vehicle and urged him to come forward. They had questions for him.

Lt. McDonald: We had an individual that's unknown to these women that was -- had drove one of them home to the residence. Could have come back and certainly abducted Brianna.

But within days the man did contact police. He was cleared.

Victoria Campbell: When they ruled him out , they had to start looking elsewhere.

But Reno police were working another theory of the case: that this was no isolated incident, that Brianna’s abduction was the work of a criminal they were already looking for. It’s a man who police believed had committed two earlier assaults against college students.

On Nov. 13 , two months before Bri vanished, a 21-year-old woman in an off-campus parking lot was grabbed from behind and groped.

Lt. McDonald: Put his arm around her and knocked her to the ground. Told her not to scream. And of course, she did scream. So he jumped up and fled.

But police believe he dropped something as he ran: condoms.

Lt. McDonald: They were clean. They were pristine. And they were not in a box. So that indicated to us, you know, they were probably dropped by the suspect.

One month later, on Dec. 16, there was another assault. This one was more serious. A 22-year-old foreign exchange student was attacked outside her home in the early morning hours. Once again, the attacker came at his victim from behind.

Lt. McDonald: Arm across the chest from one arm, and then the other hand cupped to her nose and her mouth. She went unconscious shortly after that, most likely from being smothered . The next thing she remembers is coming to in a vehicle.

The woman was driven a short distance, and then she was sexually assaulted inside the car.

Lt. McDonald: During the assault, she was  told not to look at the suspect. When the assault was over, she was brought back to her residence and told to get out of the car and not look back.

She never did see his face, but even so the woman gave police a lot of information. Her attacker was a white male, with tanned arms and soft hair on his chin. No body odor. No accent. And that wasn't all.

Victoria Campbell: She said that his pubic hair had been shaved. And that's what they have to go on still. Is the help that she provided from that terrible experience.

The woman also gave police a detailed description of the suspect's vehicle. It had a step underneath the passenger side .. So police concluded it was a pickup truck or an SUV. Inside: a radio with distinctive red and blue lights. And this intriguing tidbit -- on the floorboards was baby shoe. But even more important was something else the woman gave the police -- her attacker's DNA.

Lt. McDonald: The lab started working real hard at that point trying to you know analyze all the DNA evidence that was in those cases.

Days after Brianna disappeared, investigators caught a huge break. They learned that DNA from both of the earlier attacks was a match with the DNA found at the house where Brianna vanished. Meaning that police were now looking for a serial sex offender.

Cmdr. Struffert: The DNA evidence from the scene of Brianna’s abduction has been linked to DNA evidence from an abduction and sexual assault that occurred nearby.

For Brianna’s family, it was devastating.

John Zunino (Brianna’s uncle): I mean, it was clear that this was a rapist now that had Brianna … and that was like a big sock in the stomach. It took our breath away, all of us.

And there was more.

Police believe another incident is linked to Brianna’s case: 24 hours before she was abducted, they say the same man attempted a break-in at the home of the foreign exchange student, his second victim.

Lt. McDonald: She was awakened by somebody at the back door, trying to gain entry. So much so, with so much force, that the door was actually bowed out, and the doorknob was damaged and had to be replaced.

Victoria Campbell: And that's when we knew there was someone out there who was making this a habit.

Reno police were now running the biggest manhunt in city history. And perhaps the most chilling aspect to all of it? Every one of these attacks -- including Brianna’s abduction -- took place within a four-block radius. This was a predator who knew his turf.

February in Reno. Three weeks since Brianna Dennison disappeared, and the trail was getting as cold as the weather.

Just off the University of Nevada campus, near the house where Brianna was taken, students were scared.

Brianne Hamm: Any odd noise, I like look behind me. "Oh, it was just a car door.”

Owners of gun and specialty stores saw a spike in their business -- selling weapons, pepper spray and even Tasers.

Kathy Hanselman: I actually came and got pepper spray about a week after this started happening. It was kind of funny. I walked in, just like today, "so you're here for pepper spray?" All the girls in Reno are coming and getting it.

And all over the city, hundreds of searchers -- mostly volunteers -- were growing weary as they searched snowy Reno for any sign of the missing 19-year-old.

Pam Scott: And each day we go back to the command center with a heavy heart. But willing to go out the next morning and be positive for however long, whatever anybody needed.

Thanks to the DNA they found in the house where Brianna was abducted, police believed the man suspected of taking Brianna had committed at least two other assaults, but as far as anyone could tell, he wasn't a killer.

Brianna's uncle, John Zunino.

Josh Mankiewicz: And you're thinking, what, during this time? Somebody's got her? Somebody's imprisoned her?

John Zunino: Yeah, I had to actually believe that she was being held hostage and that we would find her. I believed that in my heart … That she was okay and we were going to get her back.

Her aunt, Lauren Denison.

Lauren Denison: And I never let anyone speak in past tense about her around me, because it took me into a spot that I wasn't willing to go.

By now, most of Reno was draped in Brianna’s signature color. A family friend had written a song.

Reno police had the suspect's DNA from the house where Brianna was taken, and from two other crime scenes -- all of them just a few blocks apart.

And they had a physical description that by now almost everyone in Reno knew by heart, including KRNV-TV crime reporter Victoria Campbell.

Victoria Campbell: We know he's a white male, somewhere between the ages of 28 and 40 years old. Between 5'6" and 6' tall. He drove an SUV or an extended cab pickup.

But who was he, and what could he be thinking? To try to get inside his head, Dateline brought NBC analyst and former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt to the neighborhood near the university campus that had attracted this serial sex criminal.

Josh Mankiewicz: so this is the scene of not just this crime, but a couple of crimes. And it's all incredibly compressed.

Clint Van Zandt: That's the scary thing here, that everything happened right here within a few feet, or a few blocks at most.

Josh Mankiewicz: What does the compressed nature of the crime scene tell you?

Clint Van Zandt: Well, number one, I think he's from this area. I think he probably knows this is, for him, a target-rich environment. Because there is a lot of young coeds that are here, young women, that are going to be out-and-about at all hours of the night. So if he's got a particular type of victim he's looking for -- be it the size, the length of the hair, the age, something like that, if he stays around long enough, if he walks these streets, he's going to find the right victim that he wants.

Josh Mankiewicz: So then sort of standard police procedure is that you take that sketch and the description of the guy and the description of the truck, and you hit a couple hundred houses around here and I presume they've done that. And I presume they've come back with nothing.

Clint Van Zandt: They've come back with nothing. And that's the challenge right now. Because this guy didn't just fall off a turnip truck and start doing this. He didn't just start, wake up one morning and say, "I think I’m going to go out and rape someone at the age of 30."

Josh Mankiewicz: You think this guy's had contact with the criminal justice system before.

Clint Van Zandt: Absolutely. Now, whether it's going to be some type of contact with prostitutes, whether it's going to be petty burglary, something, this guy would have had contact with the criminal justice system. But now he's moved into raping women. He's moved into kidnapping.

So, did the man who took Brianna have a criminal record?

Had he been convicted of other crimes in the past?

Investigators ran the suspect's DNA from the crime scene through the national data-base. There were no matches.

But there was more DNA here in Reno just sitting at the county crime lab -- DNA that had not yet been entered into any database.

And that meant there was a chance that police already had the suspect's DNA -- and his name -- but didn't even know it.

Jaclyn O’Malley: There was a backlog of 3,000 convicted offender samples essentially sitting on the crime lab shelf waiting to be analyzed and put into the database.

Every one of those samples belonged to a convicted felon.

Jaclyn O’Malley: The key to the case could be sitting at the crime lab.

And it could be sitting there for a long time, because the local crime lab didn't have the $150,000 needed to pay for the processing of all those samples.

So the local sheriff made a direct appeal to the people of Reno.

(Press conference, Feb. 3, 2008)

Sheriff Mike Haley: Where a government can't resolve a problem, a community can.

And the money appeared -- coming from local businesses, including some of the casinos.

Jaclyn O’Malley: Within five days, not only did they raise the $150,000, but they've exceeded it. And money is still rolling in.

But this wasn't fiction. This wasn't an hour-long TV drama.

Processing all that DNA would take weeks.

February dragged on. There was still no DNA match -- and no Brianna.

Bridgette Denison: She's out there. I know she's out there and there is no way I can finish my life without her. She has too many wonderful things to do.

It was now Feb. 14 -- Valentine's Day – 25 days since Brianna had disappeared. Bridgette went on local TV to speak to her daughter.

Bridgette Denison: I just want to say to my daughter Brianna that I love you and I miss you. Nobody's ever giving up. There are thousands of people looking for you and I don't want you to give up. I know you're hurt honey, but I really need you to hang in there.

But 24 hours later there was news.

(TV news)

Anchor: A grim discovery in south Reno today...

Was it what everyone had been dreading?

It was Friday, Feb. 15. By lunch time, the weather had turned warm, and snow started melting in this field in southeast Reno.

A man who worked in the area decided to take a shortcut through here. He stumbled across a body.

Then he called police.

Lt. Robert McDonald’s mind was racing as he headed south of town.

Officers roped off the large vacant lot.

KRNV reporter Victoria Campbell was there.

Victoria Campbell: People started walking up, "Is that Brianna?” "I was on a search team. I've been looking for her. I hope it's not her.“

On the other side of the yellow tape, police were feeling the same way.

Lt. McDonald: We had a lot of concern, from the very beginning, that Brianna was probably not alive.

And as he looked down into that gully, McDonald had a bad feeling that everyone's worst fears had come true.

Lt. McDonald: I was 95 percent certain that who we were dealing with here was Brianna … I walked out of the field, and I just had my head down and the hope was finding had left. Detectives that were there, I could see the look on their face.

Lt. McDonald and another detective drove immediately to speak to Bridgette -- Brianna’s mother.

Josh Mankiewicz: The police tell you in that first conversation that they thought it was probably her?

Bridgette Denison: Yeah. And then I kept asking about her nose stone -- or because she doesn't have pierced ears. I asked if they could tell if there was no pierced -- and the scar on her ankle. And they just said the elements, they weren't able to tell. So we had to wait for DNA.

Brianna's childhood friend, Danielle Detomaso, remembers the moment she heard.

Danielle Detomaso: I just went completely blank. It was just so shocking. And then a couple of minutes pass, and I just broke down and I couldn't just stop crying and crying … and, like, "This isn't happening. This can't be real. This can't be the end. We're going to find her. No, this isn't her." And I couldn't accept it.

The next day, police made it official.

(Feb. 16 police press conference)

Deputy Chief Jim Johns, Reno police: An autopsy today has determined that the remains of that female discovered in the field are those of 19-year-old Brianna Denison … The official cause and manner of death was strangulation … It is a sexually motivated crime.

Bridgette Denison: And all I can say to that is at least I’m not waiting four years later wondering. That's about the only positive I can get out of it.

Investigators believe Brianna’s body had been lying in the field for at least a week.

Bridgette says police told her they believe Brianna was not abducted, at least not alive. They think she was killed inside the house at 1395 Mackay Court.

Bridgette Denison: They think that he strangled her right then and there. And it was a matter of seconds. And that's all I know. I didn't want any more details.

Now it was a search for a killer. The FBI and more than 40 detectives from the Reno police and surrounding area chased hundreds of leads.

But after three more weeks, still no arrest, and still no hits from that backlog of DNA at the county crime lab.

Then, on March 6, investigators released a detail they'd been holding back: that the man police were calling a serial sex offender had left a calling card when he dumped Brianna in that field.

Police announced that two pairs of women's underwear were found intertwined and left close to Brianna’s body.

One pair in pink belonged to a woman who lived in the house at 1395 Mackay Court, where Brianna spent her last night.

Cmdr. Leigha Struffert: This pink pair of underwear has the DNA of Brianna, the suspect, and of the known owner of the underwear.

The other pair was a distinctive black thong, size small, with the cartoon character the pink panther on it.

On this pair was the DNA of an unknown woman and another unknown man, but not, police said, DNA from the man who killed Brianna.

The significance of that isn't clear. But police said it was no accident, and that the underwear was put there for them to find. They were now saying that the suspect may have an underwear fetish.

Josh Mankiewicz: This is where her body was found.

Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt says that underwear found here, and the location of this field, may reveal more about her killer.

Remember, the field is southeast of downtown Reno -- about 10 miles away from where she was taken -- and where those other assaults occurred near the University of Nevada-Reno campus.

Clint Van Zandt: We're only a minute or two off the interstate. So what the police have to consider are probably one of two things. Either this is a location on his way home, where he lives, where he works, somewhere where he had to get to that night after he murdered Brianna. Or is he so sophisticated that he would come to the opposite end of town, dispose of the body, and then head 180 degrees the other direction?

Josh Mankiewicz: What about the theory that the guy may have left the area?

Clint Van Zandt: The smart money would perhaps say he would get out of this area, but if you do that, if you've got a job, if you've got family, somebody's going to raise your hand and say, "You're gone, you're missing." And then they're going to start to put-- "Let's see, he's gone. His truck looks like this.” So the other side says, "Does he just stay right here? Does he hunker down?” But unfortunately, he's the type of guy who’s going to be out. He's going to be hunting. He's going to be stalking.

And if that underwear found in this field was placed there by the killer and meant to be found by police, would there be more victims?

Josh Mankiewicz: What do you think? Is the guy going to re-offend?

Clint Van Zandt: Well, this is the challenge. Remember, there are some who say the underwear that was found out in this field -- that perhaps he put that there intentionally, trying to challenge police investigators.

If he did that, is he going to go out and try to find another victim? I mean, right in the face of the police, saying, "I’m doing this. Neither you nor this community can stop me."

But the police were doing everything they could to stop him. By the end of February -- working off a profile of the killer -- detectives came here to the "Moonlite Bunnyranch" -- a legal brothel about 30 miles south of Reno. They spoke to the owner, Dennis Hof.

Dennis Hof: The police asked me for help. There wasn't any question about it. And I said, "Let's talk to the girls. Let's talk to the girls and see if we can find somebody that fits that profile that-- that comes into the ranch."

One of the women who works at the Bunnyranch told the police about a regular client who seemed to fit the profile.

Dennis Hof: She was scared. He had tried to choke her a few times in a party.

Josh Mankiewicz: You mean during the session?

Dennis Hof: During the session.

At the request of detectives, the woman enticed the man back to the ranch, and this time, police were there, too: undercover.

Dennis Hof: When the customer came back the next session, the girl kept the condom and she kept the glass that he drank out of. And we turned that over to the police.

The DNA was rushed to the crime lab. But it was another dead end. No match.

And on March 13, the sheriff announced that they were done processing those thousands of samples of felons' DNA that had been sitting on the shelf at the county crime lab.

Michael Haley: That review of those samples did not end in a positive result of hitting on any major homicide case.

Translation? No match there either.

It's been more than two months since Brianna was taken. The tourists still come and go from the casinos, but for the residents of Reno, the questions and the pain won't go away.

The signs around town have changed. The search for Brianna is over. The search for her killer is not.

Victoria Campbell: People are angry. They're frustrated. And when they find this man, I think that this community is going to demand the harshest possible sentence for him.

The people of Reno have made a long journey from hope to sorrow to fear.

Victoria Campbell: We're watching our children. We're urging young people to be careful. This is not something that this city is accustomed to. This is a 24 hour town. And it's usually safe here.

But it won't be--- until Brianna’s killer is caught.

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