RENO — Police said Sunday a DNA link between the disappearance of a 19-year-old woman and the December sexual assault of a college student leads them to believe a sole attacker was responsible for both cases.
DNA taken from the scene where Brianna Denison was last seen Jan. 20 matches DNA gathered after the Dec. 16 sexual assault of a University of Nevada, Reno student who lived several blocks away, police commander Ron Holladay said.
Police believe a white male in his 30s is responsible for Denison’s disappearance and the attack, Holladay said.
“Our chances of capturing the suspect are exponentially increased now because of the DNA,” he said. “We believe that the person may be in the area. It’s still my hope that Brianna is alive, and we’re expending every resource possible to get her back safely.”
Holladay said that the victim of the earlier attack was interviewed again after the DNA match was made and that a more detailed description of the suspect was developed.
That victim was abducted outside her home on Dec. 16, taken to another location and sexually assaulted, then brought home by her attacker, Holladay said.
She also was the victim of a Jan. 19 attempted burglary at her home that might be connected to the attacker, Holladay said.
Investigators are trying to determine whether the Nov. 13 fondling of another UNR student in the same neighborhood could be tied to the other cases, he said.
“The time of day and the close proximity of the locations would lead us to believe that the person either frequents this area, perhaps works in this area or at least knows their way around this area,” Holladay said.
He added that Denison’s abduction and the December crimes occurred between 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m.
Crime lab technicians have determined that a small stain on a pillow at the house where Denison vanished is the blood of Denison, a student at Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College, who was visiting her hometown over winter break.
Holladay said the blood could indicate someone used the pillow to restrain Denison or to try to suffocate her.
“People who know the suspect may not believe that he is capable of committing this type of crime, and he may not necessarily have a violent criminal history,” he said.
Police today plan to search for Denison around Reno, including along the Truckee River and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Family members said they’re still holding out hope she will be found alive. They have offered a $100,000 reward in the case.
“As more days go by, we are getting anxious,” her aunt, Lauren Denison, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “But we are going to keep searching until we find Brianna and bring her home.”
Last week, a police dog was unable to help detectives, and a search of the neighborhood turned up nothing.
Holladay said investigators now are more optimistic.
“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to locate the person and bring the case to a successful conclusion,” he said.
“There’s a chance he fled the area, but if he’s in the area, we hope the public helps us find him. The nature of the crimes are increasing in volatility.”
Investigators think someone entered through an unlocked door of the house rented by a Denison friend and three others. Denison, who was sleeping on a couch near a door, was last heard from at 4:20 a.m.
A Denison photo has been featured on casino marquees, fliers and businesses around town.