"Somewhere in our community there is a wife, a mom, a girlfriend, a sister who recognizes this suspect," Deputy Police Chief Jim Johns said in February, a day after Denison's body was found in a brush-covered lot in a business district on the south side of town.
"Likely he looks like somebody you would least suspect, but that is the person who is responsible for this crime," Johns said.
On Wednesday, the profundity of Johns' words emerged when police announced the arrest of a 27-year-old Sparks construction worker.
James Michael Biela, a father and former Marine who trained in martial arts at an academy frequented by law enforcement, was arrested Tuesday afternoon while picking his 4-year-old son up from preschool.
"He seemed like a nice, normal guy," Cindy Stern, who has lived across the street from Biela for three years, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "I guess killers don't wear a sign."
Biela's arrest, police said, followed a tip — one of more than 2,200 received during their 10-month investigation — that came after Biela's girlfriend, Carleen Harmon, confided in a friend about the couple's relationship troubles and recently finding a pair of woman's underwear in his vehicle.
That friend called Secret Witness.
Biela is charged with murder in Denison's death, as well as kidnapping and sexual assault for an alleged attack on another woman in December near the University of Nevada, Reno. That victim, identified as Hsiaotzu C. in court documents, was able to give police a partial description of the suspect and a vehicle.
She also said her assailant kept her panties.
Authorities have said DNA evidence also linked Biela to another sexually motivated attack last November, where a woman was grabbed from behind and groped, but managed to get away. No charges have been filed in that case.
Another attack in October 2007, where a woman was sexually assaulted at gunpoint in a parking garage where campus police park their cruisers, may also be related, officers have said, though investigators said the victim in that case didn't immediately report the crime and no evidence was gathered.
Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was visiting her hometown over winter break. After a night out with friends, she went to sleep on a couch at a friend's rented home near UNR.
The next morning, when the household roommates woke up, Denison was gone. Her purse and cell phone were still there. There was blood on a pillow.
Hundreds of volunteers for weeks searched for Denison, at times braving heavy snow. They showed their support by tying blue ribbons throughout neighborhoods. Blue was her favorite color.
They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars — with some donations coming from as far away as Florida — to help the Washoe County crime lab process a backlog of DNA samples, hoping a match would lead to an arrest.
Denison's body was found Feb. 15. An autopsy showed she was sexually assaulted and died of strangulation. At the scene, investigators found two pair of thong underwear, intertwined.
At a news conference Wednesday, Reno Police Chief Michael Poehlman said Biela left the Reno area in March to take a job in Washington state, and sold his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck in Idaho along the way.
In September, Harmon traveled to Washington to help Biela move back to Sparks, where the couple share a home in a suburban neighborhood. Reno police Detective David Jenkins described their relationship as "tumultuous."
Police say Harmon found a pair of woman's underwear in Biela's vehicle, and when she confronted him about it, he claimed he had stolen them from a coin-operated laundry.
Detectives said Biela, when contacted Nov. 7, "respectfully declined" to provide a voluntary DNA sample.
But Harmon, investigators said, later allowed police to take a DNA sample from the couple's son. From that, forensic experts determined the child's biological father could not be ruled out as the source of DNA evidence gathered from the crime scenes.
Conversely, DNA analyst Jeff Riolo concluded "the probability of excluding a random individual as a source of (the suspect's) DNA profile in the Caucasian population as 99.98 percent," Jenkins wrote in an affidavit.
Based on that, police obtained an arrest warrant for Biela and authorization from a judge to seize a DNA sample, that investigators allege matches crime scene evidence.
Biela, who made an initial appearance in Reno Justice Court on Wednesday, requested a public defender. A preliminary hearing was set for Dec. 10.