A former Marine 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.
James Michael Biela, 27, was arrested Tuesday night and booked into the Washoe County Jail on suspicion of murdering Brianna Denison. He’s also charged with the kidnapping and sexual assault of another woman in Reno a month earlier, Reno Police Chief Michael Poehlman said at a news conference.
Detectives are investigating whether DNA evidence links Biela to other crimes in Reno or surrounding areas.
Biela was arraigned before a justice of the peace Wednesday and requested a public defender, Washoe County sheriff’s spokeswoman Brooke Keast said. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Dec. 10.
Biela was being held without bail. Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick said prosecutors have the option of seeking a death sentence in the case.
Biela provided a DNA sample that matched evidence found at the scene where Denison’s body was found in February, Poehlman said. She had been reported missing in January.
“Can you believe it?” the girl’s aunt, Lauren Denison, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “The police said the DNA came back, and it’s him.
“This is what we have been waiting for.”
Denison, 19, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was visiting her hometown during winter break when she vanished 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 almost a month later in a brush-covered lot in south Reno. An autopsy showed she was raped and strangled.
Investigators said from the beginning they believed the suspect, who taunted police by leaving two pair of intertwined women’s panties at the site where Denison’s body was found, lived in the area.
Public records show Biela has lived in the Reno area since 2002. Poehlman said Biela left the area in March as police efforts to find Denison’s slayer intensified. He took a job in Washington state, but in September returned to Sparks.
Poehlman said Biela’s girlfriend went to Washington in September to drive back to Nevada with him, found some underwear in his car and mentioned that discovery to a friend who tipped police Nov. 1. That was one of more than 2,200 tips received by authorities since Denison’s slaying.
Authorities said Biela was put under surveillance following the tip. He was questioned Nov. 7 and arrested Tuesday as he headed to a child care center to pick up his son.
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 had obtained a blue belt, one belt above a beginner, Grate said.
He said no one at the academy, which is frequented by many police officers, recalled anything suspicious about Biela.
“There was never abnormal behavior at all from anyone I can recall,” he said.