It was a cold night in Reno, but that hadn’t kept the man from prowling through the neighborhoods near the university, looking for that one special girl he was hoping to find. She would be very petite, with long dark hair, and she would be vulnerable and unprotected, like the others had been. He was a very average-looking man, and he was being careful not to do anything to attract attention. He had done this before, and he didn’t expect anyone to notice him as he searched for exactly the girl he wanted.
In the area that he was checking out, looking for unlocked doors and easy access, there were a lot of possibilities. It was past three in the morning, and most houses and apartments in the area, made up primarily of student residences, were dark. He was frustrated when the first place he tried to enter was too securely locked and he was unable to break in, even after damaging the door in an attempt to force the door open. He went farther down the street in the neighborhood and tried the door at another likely-looking house, but it was also locked. He could see a faint light inside and decided that there might be someone awake; so after twisting the doorknob a couple of times, he decided to move on. The people who lived in the area were mostly students, and many of them left their doors unlocked, but the ones he’d tried so far were secured. He had to find an unlocked door, or a girl who was outside, alone.
There were plenty of places for the man to hide while he waited for the perfect opportunity. Shrubbery, trees, sheds—all afforded shadowy concealment from the streets and sidewalks. Several times he had ducked back into the darkness when a vehicle would pull up to one of the houses and someone would get out and go inside, but it was never the exact, perfect girl that he was looking for. She had to be just right.
When a car stopped at the dark-colored house down the street from where he waited in the shrubbery and two girls got out, he immediately began watching closely. He edged closer to the house to get a better look as the car pulled away and drove down the street, but the girls had already gone inside. He slowly crept up nearer to the house, taking his time. If the right girl was there, there would be no hurry. He didn’t like to rush.
There were several windows in the house, all without curtains. There was a glass door, also uncovered. He watched from outside while the girls got ready for bed. One of the girls went upstairs, but the other girl, who was getting settled in to sleep downstairs on the couch, was in full view from outside. The man’s heart raced when he got a good look at her. She was exactly what he had watched and waited for: a tiny girl with long brown hair. She was beautiful. She was vulnerable. This was the one he would take.
The man watched and waited while the girl texted on her cell phone—it seemed like forever to him. Then, after she put the phone away, he gave her enough time to get to sleep before he made his move. It was too easy, he thought; there were no curtains or blinds, unlocked front and back doors, and the perfect girl, right there, waiting for him. She wasn’t the first girl he had taken, but she would be the first he had grabbed from inside a house, the first he had taken while she slept. He reached into his pocket and gripped the thong panties he carried, fingering them while he thought about what he would soon be doing to her.
The girl had fallen asleep quickly; she was very tired and it was past four in the morning. She had been out for a long evening, and now all she wanted was to get some rest. She had just fallen sound asleep when something woke her; it was a noise or some kind of movement in the room. When she opened her eyes, all she could see was the pillow above her, coming down quickly onto her head. She opened her mouth to scream, but there wasn’t time. The pillow was pushed down so very hard against her face that she couldn’t breathe; it took only a few moments until everything went dark. Then, while she was unconscious, she was taken away, out of the house. She vanished without a trace into the dead of night....
Brianna Zunino Denison, nineteen, a beautiful and popular child psychology major who was in her sophomore year at Santa Barbara City College in Santa Barbara, California, had returned home to Reno, Nevada, for the 2007/2008 winter break. Brianna was so happy to be home for the holiday season, and she had been having a wonderful time, staying with her family at their Southwest Reno home. She had enjoyed spending time with her mother and brother, all her other family members, and visiting with her hometown friends from high school. Now she was making preparations to go back to California; she was due back at college in Santa Barbara on Monday, January 21. Brianna, who always made it a point to party responsibly, had made plans to go out for one last evening with her Reno friends on Saturday night, January 19, before heading back to school. They were going to attend some of the events associated with SWAT 72, an annual three-day college snowboarding event held at Squaw Valley USA, a popular ski resort located in California, forty-two miles from Reno, near North Lake Tahoe. SWAT, which stands for “Summer Winter Action Tours,” was a group that sponsored combined commercial snowboarding and concert events for college students by day, and concerts and parties by night in downtown Reno’s casino district. It was Brianna’s third year to attend the event, and she and several of her girlfriends had already gone to several of the activities associated with it that were being held in Reno. On that Saturday night, they were looking forward to going to a rap concert featuring Too $hort, which was also associated with the snowboarding group’s events.
Brianna had always been very responsible and considerate of her family, and she had provided her mother, Bridgette Denison, a list of the parties that she and her friends would be attending. She also told her mother that since she would be out late and because there would be some drinking involved, she would be spending the night at the home of K.T. Hunter, nineteen, one of her girlfriends from high school. K.T. lived in a rental house that was located in the 1300 block of MacKay Court, near the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), campus. Neither Brianna nor her mother had any reason to worry—they had known K.T. for several years, and the area of K.T.’s rental home, which she shared with three other girls her age, seemed to be in a safe-enough area of town.
Earlier that day, everything had seemed perfectly normal for Brianna and her family. The day began with her doing some chores and lounging around, wearing sweatpants, in her mother’s house. Later that day, she and her mother went out to the movies and saw
a “chick flick,” which they both liked. At times during the day, however, Brianna began having second thoughts about the evening of music and parties that she had planned to spend with her friends. She was nursing a cold and was not sure that she was really feeling up to going out for a long, late evening of partying. Finally, as she began to feel better later in the day, she decided that she might as well go ahead and go out to the concert, after all. Her mother had reminded Brianna how much she liked the act they were going to see, and jokingly told her daughter that she should go out that night. After all, Bridgette said, Brianna could be sick tomorrow. After gathering up the clothes, shoes, and cosmetics she would take along with her, she went into her mother’s bedroom around 8:45
and said good-bye. She gave her mother a hug and then left.
After meeting up with her friend, K.T., the two girls got dressed and went to the rap concert at the Livestock Event Center together and reportedly had a really great time. Brianna wanted to get close to the stage, so the two girls pushed their way up to the front. They had a lot of fun at the concert, and they both believed it would be an evening to remember. Sometime before 1:00
, the two girls met up with another friend, one of K.T.’s roommates, Jessica Deal. The trio left the rap concert together on a shuttle bus, which dropped them off near downtown, at the Sands Regency Casino and Hotel.
Downtown Reno has been known for some time as a place that is not very safe at night. There are a lot of drug problems, homeless people, panhandlers, and worse—meth addicts and others willing and eager to rob people to feed their habits. The girls were all drinking, but Brianna had reportedly only had a couple of drinks—she never, ever drank to get drunk, her friends said later. The girls stayed in the better areas of the casinos, carefully managing to steer clear of downtown Reno’s safety issues. After Jessica left them to go back home to the house where she lived with K.T. and the other girls, Brianna and K.T. decided to have breakfast at Mel’s Diner, part of the same Mel’s Diner and Drive-in chain that was featured in the 1970s-era movie
. The diner was located inside the Sands Regency, and they ate there before heading home to K.T.’s MacKay Court home, getting a ride with their friend Ian McMenemy. Brianna was tired and sleepy, and she knew that she would probably have to spend some time calling or texting her boyfriend, Cameron Wilson Done, before she could get some sleep. Cameron was angry that she had gone out with her girlfriends, and Brianna wanted to talk to him about what she considered his unreasonable attitude.
Brianna had spent the previous night at K.T.’s house, too. On that Friday night, she had slept in K.T.’s bedroom, on a crowded bed with K.T. and Jessica. But after returning home from Mel’s Diner and not wanting to sleep again in that uncomfortable bed with her friends, Brianna had chosen to sleep on the living-room couch, instead. She had told her friends that she and her boyfriend had been fighting, and that she might want to call him or send him text messages. She felt it would be best if she slept on the couch so that she would not disturb them. It was a decision that would cost Brianna her life, some people later said as they reflected on the case.
Fear did not surface in anyone’s mind until approximately nine o’clock the next morning, Sunday, January 20, when K.T. awoke and found that Brianna was not in the same place where she had last seen her at about four in the morning. Brianna had been on the living room’s leather sofa, where she had intended to text and sleep. K.T. had provided her with two blankets, a pillow, and a two-foot-tall stuffed teddy bear, which had been given to her by a friend, before saying good night. Brianna had wanted to use the stuffed bear to help prop up her pillow. K.T. had then gone to bed in her own room, which adjoined the room where Brianna was sleeping on the couch, and had told Brianna that if she needed anything just “come in my room.”
That morning K.T. and Jessica had gone into the kitchen and had begun making breakfast. At first, when K.T. failed to see Brianna on the couch, she just assumed that her friend had been unable to sleep and had probably gone to another bedroom upstairs. After all, Melissa Hamilton, the roommate who occupied the upstairs bedroom, was gone that weekend. A few minutes later, K.T. checked upstairs, knocked on the bedroom door, and said, “Hey, time to get up.” She received no reply and found that the door to the room was locked. She then quickly checked throughout the rest of the house—Brianna was nowhere to be found.
Although K.T. was alarmed when she discovered that Brianna was not anywhere inside the house, she became even more distressed when she noticed that Brianna’s belongings were still in the house right where she had left them when the girls came home at four o’clock. Then, when she noticed a stain that looked like blood on the pillow that Brianna had used—two reddish blotches and some spatter—K.T. became terrified. Something was terribly wrong, she knew. She began crying and decided that she should call Brianna’s mother.
Frantic and fighting back the hysteria that threatened to overtake her, K.T. called Bridgette on Brianna’s cell phone. She told her about Brianna’s mysterious disappearance and what she believed to be bloodstains on the pillow. After a brief discussion, Bridgette Denison, whose first thought upon hearing about Brianna’s disappearance was that things were “not good,” told K.T. to call the police immediately. Bridgette told K.T. that she would be there right away.
The police arrived quickly at the two-story burnt orange house that morning. Perhaps they arrived swiftly because of Brianna’s age, but more likely it was because there had been a number of sexual assaults that had occurred in recent months in the immediate neighborhood of the MacKay Court location. Officer Benjamin Rhodes, along with other officers from the Reno Police Department (RPD), was the first to arrive to take what initially had seemed like it would be a simple missing persons report about Brianna Denison. Rhodes quickly learned from questioning K.T. and the other girl that Brianna had gotten ready to go to sleep on the sofa in what the girls referred to as the “common area” of the house, only a few feet away from an unlocked glass-paneled front door. K.T. said that she and the other three girls who lived there often left that door unlocked because of all the coming and going of the residents. They locked their own individual bedroom doors, instead, when they went to bed for the night.
It was, after all, a house for college students, and K.T. said that she and the other girls basically led their own lives. None of them had seen the need to lock the common-area door, until now. Besides, she said, they treated the living room as a “hotel lobby” of sorts, and the door was left unlocked in case someone forgot their keys. Rhodes and other investigators, who became involved with the case later, quickly and easily saw that anyone looking inside from out on the street or sidewalk could have clearly seen Brianna through the glass-paneled front door as she slept, lying on the couch.
K.T. told the police that she, Brianna, and others, including roommate Jessica Deal, had gone out Saturday night, leaving the house sometime between 8:45 and 9:30
They had spent much of their time that evening at the rap concert and at the Sands Regency Hotel and Casino before going home separately. She told the officers how they had eaten an early-morning breakfast at Mel’s Diner before four male friends dropped them off back home. K.T. said that they had watched the four male friends drive away as she and Brianna entered the house through the unlocked front door. She told the officers that they had changed into their sleeping clothes shortly after arriving home, and Brianna had seemed happy when she said good night to her. K.T. said that Brianna was sober at the time, and K.T. told the officers that she had then gone into her own room, taking her dog, a female Chihuahua named Chi-Chi, with her. She locked the bedroom door behind her, got into bed, and slept until around nine in the morning. K.T. told the officers that the dog typically barked a lot, even at her and her roommates. However, on that night, either the dog did not bark at all or, if she did, K.T. had not heard it. She said that she typically woke up whenever the dog barked. K.T. concluded that if Brianna had, in fact, been abducted, then whoever had done it had been extremely quiet while they were inside the house and had not drawn the attention of the dog.
K.T. also said that she had not noticed any sign of forced entry to the house, confirming the belief that the common-area door had indeed been left unlocked that night. She also said that she had not seen any signs of a struggle having taken place. It looked like Brianna had just gotten up off the couch and left during the night, but that would not have been her style, K.T. said. She was too responsible to do something like that. Besides, she said, Brianna’s car was in the shop for repairs, and she did not have any other transportation that would have been available to her, as far as K.T. knew.
There was also the fact that Brianna had left all of her clothes and her other belongings behind. When Brianna had gone to bed that night, K.T. told the officers, she had been wearing sweatpants and a white tank top with pink angel wings, rhinestones, and
on the back. She had left behind her wallet, identification, cell phone, shoes, other clothing, and her jacket. It did not seem likely that she would have left the house, willingly or otherwise, without a jacket and shoes, especially at that time of the year. The morning that she disappeared, it was thirty-three degrees outside, far too cold to be walking around outdoors barefoot.
Strangely, however, the teddy bear that K.T. had given her to sleep with was also missing from the house. At first, K.T. said that she guessed that Brianna must have taken the teddy bear with her. It was described as a brown bear with a white belly, featuring a printed rainbow and multicolored balloons.
As the initial questioning continued, K.T. and Jessica told the police officers that they had noticed that one of the two blankets K.T. had given to Brianna hours earlier was still lying on the couch. Meanwhile, the other blanket was clearly out of place, lying on the floor of the kitchen, approximately six feet from the sofa and in line with the path leading toward the rear door of the house. Rhodes and the other cops became even more alarmed when they saw for themselves that the pillow Brianna had used was stained with a substance they believed to be blood.
Jessica confirmed that she and K.T., as well as other friends of theirs, had been with Brianna at the Sands Regency Casino and Hotel when Jessica had decided to call it a night at approximately 1:00
She explained that Brianna and the others had decided to stay behind for awhile longer and that she, Jessica, had obtained a ride home with a man, a complete stranger, whom she had met at the Sands Regency. Jessica had not been able to find a taxi at that time of the morning and needed to be at work in a few hours. She said that she could have easily walked back to the house because it was not all that far away, but it was freezing outside that morning. That was why she opted to take the ride with the stranger, she said. Jessica told the officers that the man was white or possibly Hispanic, about forty-five years old, with a medium build, and was dressed well. She said that he drove a beige or light brown Chevrolet Suburban or GMC vehicle, and she did not know his name. Jessica admitted that she was somewhat naïve and had exhibited what might have proven to be a very serious “lapse of judgment” that morning when she flagged the man down in the parking lot at the Sands Regency. Her actions were particularly risky because there had been a number of sexual assaults either on UNR’s campus or in the vicinity of the house she shared with the other girls. Jessica told the officers that since the MacKay Court house was fairly close to the Sands Regency, she had felt reasonably safe in riding with the man. Even though accepting the ride had been a “bad idea” on her part, she said, there had not been anything out of line done by the man, and he had not come into the house when he dropped her off out front at approximately 1:30
Jessica said that because he had not done anything inappropriate with her, she had no reason to suspect him of anything else. She told the officers that he appeared to be a normal person, not a shady character of any sort. Brianna and K.T., she said, had found a ride home later with some of their mutual friends.