A shadow over campus
Students and instructors try to carry on normally as evidence mounts of campus crimes
English professor Lorena Stookey looked out of her office window in Frandsen Hall and frowned for a moment as she gazed at the Manzanita Lake swans.
“This is hanging over the school like a pall,” Stookey said.
Stookey said that she has seen many police patrolling the area and that most students don’t seem to want to talk about it in class.
“But I’m sure there is talk about it in the halls,” she said.
A few hours later, police held a press conference on campus at their headquarters near the Church Fine Arts Building, attracting a flurry of local press and disturbing the otherwise tensely quiet Thursday evening.
After interviewing registered sex offenders living within one mile of the house where Brianna Denison disappeared, Reno police investigating the abduction say they are looking for a suspect whose DNA has been linked to the Denison crime scene as well as the scene of other attacks.
University Police Chief Adam Garcia conducted the Thursday conference at University Police Services, which is on the lower level of Fitzgerald Student Services Building adjacent to the Whalen Parking Garage. He released a composite sketch of a suspect in an October attack in another parking garage. The woman who said she was attacked came forward because of the extensive media coverage of Denison’s disappearance.
During the briefing on Thursday at the university, John Trent stood and listened to the police explain the details of the case and the recent developments.
Trent, who teaches a night class at the Reynolds School of Journalism, also works for the university’s communications department. He said that people on campus are being “vigilant, but not paranoid.”
“The girls in the journalism class that I’m teaching have been asking the guys to escort them to their cars after class,” Trent said.
The internet is always a place students go to vent and sometimes those blogs intersect with the media narrative in interesting ways as citizens have become increasingly and unusually involved in the case.
The details are well-known by now thanks to a continual rehash by media outlets that keeps the story in circulation: The 19-year-old Reno woman, a freshman psychology student at Santa Barbara City College, disappeared on Jan. 20 from her friends’ house near the UNR campus where she was couch surfing after partying at the Sands Casino the night before. The SWAT 72 snowboarding trip included a schedule that aided police in following her movements. She was on was a $300 package deal that included three nights of casino lodging, a two-day lift pass at Squaw Valley, shuttle service to and from the resort, a SWAT wristband for exclusive parties, and live entertainment by Too $hort and DeeJay O with optional bus transportation to Reno.
The friend gave Denison a blanket and 2-foot-tall teddy bear to use as a pillow before going upstairs to bed. When the friend came downstairs later that day, Brianna was gone. So was the teddy bear. There was a blood stain the size of a silver dollar on her pillow. Her purse, shoes and cell phone were still there.
But like Denison herself, the rest of the story seems to vanish at this point.
On Saturday at the school, many students migrated toward the new student union building. Yolanda Rangel, 19, was working at the front desk of the student government and said this is nothing new.
“They like the location and the change and of course you even see more people on the weekend here. There are couches and it feels a little bit more like home,” Rangel said. “But students are more alert, and they are more careful about who they are with.”
A mechanical engineering student in the parking lot said he had seen that as well. Senior Robert Olson, 22, said that there were visible group formations around school.
“You see a lot of people trying to help out and wear blue ribbons and organize events. There is definitely a lot more police patrolling and fewer girls walking around at night,” Olson said. “More groups of people.”
It’s all very reminiscent of the Feb. 24, 1976, murder of UNR student Michelle Mitchell, whose body was found in a parking garage off campus near the college of agriculture. The crime sent a tremor through the campus and prompted steps like the creation of a campus escort service.
In the wake of Denison’s disappearance, the university has expanded its program of providing help to escort students and plans more safety presentations. Campus police have increased patrols and, beginning last week, escort officers started walking students from the library in addition to their regular service.
A national rape aggression defense training program which hasn’t had had much participation may draw more interest this time around when it begins Feb. 5. National television shows have brought attention to the case—America’s Most Wanted, for instance.
According to one blog on a local television station website, forwarding a post from Facebook on the FIND BRI Wall, Jason Dorfman from Santa Barbara City College wrote, “I was with Bri Saturday night right before she went missing. The last time I saw her was around 3 a.m. when she came with a guy to my hotel room at the Sands to pick up her sweater that she left in my room earlier in the night. We did not think anything of it at the time, and he did not say a word to us. He was about 5 feet 7 inches, white, with longish brown hair. I assumed it was one of her friends from Reno, and they did not appear romantically involved with each other. I spoke with the police already, so hopefully they can find them walking out on the casino cameras. She went missing at 4, so it may be possible that this guy came into K.T’s with her, or came back shortly after. If anyone can fill in the missing pieces contact the police! What do you guys think?”
Reno Police Commander Ron Holladay said the Washoe County Crime Lab established a DNA evidentiary link between Denison’s case, the kidnap-sexual assault case from December and now the November 2007 case in which the suspect attempted to sexually assault the victim. Holladay said all three cases occurred within close proximity of each other in the neighborhood immediately west of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Evidence collected at the scene of the November attack included unopened packages of condoms. After linking the Denison disappearance to three other crimes near the University of Nevada campus, Reno police have released evidence from a November sexual assault, hoping it will help lead them to the suspect. Police say the suspect in all four cases left condoms at the scene of the Nov. 13 crime.
They hope that someone will remember this man having this brand of condoms and turn that information over to the police. Police say the condoms are Trojans with an expiration date of 5/2012, lot #TT7135WZ908. They say the condoms might have been put into circulation around October or November of 2007.
Police say a man battered and sexually groped a woman on College Drive on Nov. 13, 2007. They say on Dec. 16, 2007, the same man battered, kidnapped and sexually assaulted a woman on North Virginia Street. Police suspect that same man tried to break into the same home on North Virginia Street unsuccessfully on Jan. 19. It was 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 20 when Denison disappeared from a home on Mackay Court.
One of the victims, who is no longer living in the area, has been cooperating with the police and provided the extensive description of the suspect and the suspect’s vehicle.
The problem is that if the DNA doesn’t match up with anyone in the National Crime Database, the person in question might not even have a criminal record. There is also a huge backlog of DNA tests waiting to be done, and the police have asked for donations of money to help.
As for people with prior criminal records, all of the more than 1,700 registered sex offenders in Washoe County around Reno will be contacted as part of the investigation.
One downside to the lack of a DNA match is that it makes everybody a suspect. And that is sure to be part of the conversation in the halls around campus.