It had just been a fun night out with friends.
While on break from Santa Barbara City College, Brianna Denison, 19, had returned to her hometown of Reno, Nevada to catch up with old pals.
The group went to a concert and headed to a late-night hot spot before finally crashing at one of their houses in the early morning hours of January 20, 2008. Brianna fell asleep on the couch in the living room, but when her friend K.T. Hunter woke up later that morning, Brianna was gone.
The only trace of her friend was a blood stain on the pillow where she’d been sleeping.
Adding to the mystery, all of Brianna’s belongings had been left behind, including her cell phone, purse, clothes, and shoes.
“Her whole life was there,” Hunter told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Hunter frantically called Brianna’s mom, Bridgette Zunino-Denison, who said she immediately knew her rule-following daughter’s disappearance was “not good” and got in her car to drive to the house as Hunter called 911.
“I need the police at my house,” Hunter told the dispatcher in a recording obtained by “Dateline.” “Um, my friend spent the night last night on my couch. She’s gone and there’s something that looks like blood on the pillow.”
Police quickly descended on the scene, but they didn’t like what they found.
“It was pretty apparent that this was not a voluntary missing person,” Reno Police Homicide Det. Dave Jenkins said.
Tests confirmed the blood on the pillow belonged to Brianna and investigators also discovered what looked like bite marks on the pillow, suggesting that someone had forcefully shoved Brianna’s face into the pillow before she disappeared.
Investigators also recovered touch DNA from a rear doorknob that belonged to an unknown individual.
There were other troubling signs as well. Just the month before, Jenkins said there had been another sexual assault and abduction in the same neighborhood.
One of Brianna’s friends, Jessica Deal, also told police that in the early morning hours of Jan. 20, 2008 she had gotten tired and wanted to head back to the house early. Rather than catching a cab, Deal flagged down a total stranger in an SUV and got a ride, introducing another possible suspect.
“I could have probably easily have walked but it was freezing so I just got a ride from the parking lot, of someone who was leaving,” Deal recalled. “It was a bad, bad idea.”
Brianna and Hunter didn’t return to the home until about 3:30 a.m. after grabbing breakfast with a friend. Brianna settled in on the living couch — just a few feet from an unlocked glass-paneled door — texted her boyfriend, and then fell asleep.
A few hours later, she was gone.
The brazen crime shocked the Reno community, who banded together to search for the missing 19-year-old, tying blue ribbons on nearly every car antenna, mailbox, and telephone pole in her honor.
“She was one of ours and we weren’t going to let her go without a fight,” Victoria Campbell, a crime reporter for KRNV, told “Dateline” correspondent Josh Mankiewicz.
Within days, the man who had given Deal a ride that morning contacted police, provided his DNA, and was cleared, leaving investigators with few other clues to go on.
They turned their attention to that other sexual attack in the area a month earlier. According to investigators, a 22-year-old foreign exchange student was attacked in a parking lot for the University of Nevada-Reno in December 2007. The woman remembered her attacker putting his hand over her mouth before she lost consciousness. She woke up in a vehicle, where she was sexually assaulted before her attacker dropped her off.
Her attacker had told her not to look at his face, but the women was able to provide police with a few clues: Her attacker was a white male with thick, “meaty” fingers, spoke English without any accent, had been driving a 2005-2006 Toyota Tacoma extended cab pick-up truck, and had kept her panties as a trophy, Jenkins said.
The theory that the two attacks could have been related was confirmed when a DNA sample from the foreign exchange student’s rape kit matched the touch DNA found at Brianna’s abduction scene.
“That’s when we knew that there was someone out there who was making this a habit and what we hoped wouldn’t become a deadly habit,” Campbell said.
The connection filled Brianna’s mother with hope as she clung to the possibility that maybe the attacker would let Brianna go as he had with his other victim.
“You know, all through the process, I pretty much had hope that we would find her,” she said. “What else do you do?”
Police released a description of her attacker and his vehicle and soon a third victim came forward. She described being attacked three months earlier in a university parking lot. The woman said she was attacked from behind and raped with a gun to her head. While she couldn’t provide investigators with any DNA from her attacker, she was able to provide a sketch artist with enough information to create a drawing of the man she said raped her.
The suspect had also kept her underwear, providing investigators with further evidence that the cases could all be linked.
Investigators tested thousands of DNA samples, interviewed registered sex offenders, and spoke to men with connections to the women, but were unable to make any arrests.
Then in February, a man took a short cut across a field in an industrial park in south Reno during his lunch break and discovered Brianna’s body. The 19-year-old had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death with a pair of panties.
Brianna’s murder investigation remained unsolved for 10 months until an anonymous tipster called investigators to report she had found someone else’s underwear in her boyfriend’s truck.
Her boyfriend, James Biela, had eerie similarities to their suspect. He had recently owned the truck described by the sexual assault victim, had a similar physical description to the sketch, worked as a pipe fitter, and had thick fingers.
Reno Police Homicide Det.Adam Wygnanski met with Biela and asked to collect a DNA sample to clear him, but Biela refused.
He said his girlfriend would be able to give him an alibi for the morning Brianna disappeared, but rather than provide an alibi, his girlfriend agreed to give police a sample of their 4-year-old son’s DNA, which ultimately showed the young boy was related to Brianna’s attacker.
In a dramatic confrontation in an interrogation room, Biela’s girlfriend tearfully asked him, “Did you do this? Oh my god. Did you? Did you?”
While Biela never confirmed his involvement in the murder, he told his girlfriend “now is not the time,” as they embraced.
Biela was later convicted of two counts of sexual assault, kidnapping, and first-degree murder. He received the death penalty.
For more on this case and others like it, watch “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.