10 years later: Brianna Denison's legacy

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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) January 20, 2008 Brianna Denison was enjoying college break crashing at a friends' home near the University of Nevada, Reno. By morning she had disappeared. There was immediate reason to fear the worst.

Brianna Denison.

"When she didn't contact her mother the next day one of the girlfriends called and said 'Something's wrong because there's definite evidence of foul play," remembers her aunt, Lauren Denison.

She had left behind the kinds of things a young woman was unlikely to forge, including her cell phone and shoes. Reno Police had one other reason to suspect the worst.

"This neighborhood was kind of the epicenter of prior kidnappings and sexual assault just two blocks from here," says retired detective Dave Jenkins.

Concern and attention only grew in the days that followed. As the area was searched, there were rallies and vigils. Billboards kept her face before the public. The national media took notice. Friends and family launched an effort that would eventually become a foundation. Ribbons of blue, her favorite color, were seen everywhere.

Meanwhile investigators had matched DNA left on the door knob and couch where she was last seen, to that from previous attacks on women near the university. They knew they were looking for a serial rapist.

Then nearly four weeks later, her body was found in an empty field in south Reno. Bring Brianna Home became Bring Brianna Justice.

Justice came nearly a year later when a call to Secret Witness gave a potential name to that DNA evidence. Twenty-seven-year-old James Biela was arrested and charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. Convicted, he received the death penalty and is today on death row at the maximum security prison in Ely.

But Brianna's family wasn't done. Forensic science had made the case, but it had come late. Biela had a previous felony arrest for domestic violence, but no DNA was taken.

"The real irony is if the law had evolved with technology ten years ago it's entirely possible that Mr. Biela would have been in custody for the original kidnapping and assault and would not have been in a position where he could have taken Brianna," says Jenkins.

A chance was needed, but the cause needed a face and a story so the family took it on. It would require years more of painfully recounting their loss at legislative hearings, but Denison says it was a step they determined to take.

"We knew for future victims that it was the best thing we could do,and lend Brianna's name to and that would be her legacy."

In May 2013, Brianna's law was signed into law. Anyone arrested on a felony charge in Nevada must now submit a DNA sample and pay for its processing.

"There will be people who don't become victims because of that change in the law," says Jenkins, "and that would be a wonderful legacy."

Lauren Denison agrees. "We turned something that was so horrific into something that was worth a cause."