The abduction and killing of 19-year-old Brianna Denison has spread fear on the University of Nevada campus and in its neighbourhood.
The woman's body was found in a field on Feb.15, nearly a month after she vanished from a home at the edge of the University. Police said Denison had been abducted and strangled and suspect it to be a case of sexually motivated crime.
Denison was a student at Santa Barbara City College in California. She was visiting her hometown over winter break and was last seen sleeping on a couch at a friend's rental house just off the Reno campus. She was last seen at 4:30 a.m. Jan. 20. In the morning there was a spot of blood on the couch where she had slept. Her body was found about 8 miles away.
Reno Deputy Police Chief Jim Johns has described the suspect as a serial rapist and expressed fear that "he may re-offend."
The hope is that a pair of women's panties could help solve the case. The undergarment, dotted with pink panthers and hearts, was found next to Denison's body.
The crime has stunned Reno Police Detective Lt. Bob McDonald. "I've worked here for 29 years, and I can't remember the last time that we've had a serial rapist that has progressed to the point of abducting a young woman out of a residence and ultimately murdering her," he said.
DNA testing revealed the garment belonged to another woman. It also had traces of DNA from the possible suspect. Police hope the unusual pattern of panthers and hearts may prompt someone to come forward with information.
The evidence linked Denison's kidnapping to two other attacks on women near the university late last year, police said. An earlier campus attack also could be related. In that incident, the attacker brazenly raped a woman at gunpoint in a garage where campus police park their cruisers.
"We want to get the message out to any potential victims out there that may have lost this underwear during a sexual assault or attack," McDonald said. "They may not be comfortable reporting that, but we will handle it with dignity, and it will remain confidential with us," he added.
Since her abduction, law enforcement, Denison's family and friends and the community have been on a manhunt to find the killer of Denison who was studying to become a child psychologist.
And a vigil was conducted Friday night. Hundreds gathered. Handwritten posters said "We love you Bri" and "Shine on us Bri."
Mark Klaas, father of 12-year-old Polly Klaas who was kidnapped in 1993 from her Petaluma, Calif., home and murdered, told the crowd of mourners that children who had been stolen from their homes had this commonality: their home had been unlocked. Denison was abducted from her friend's unlocked home.
Klaas encouraged all residents to be vigilant and make sure their windows and doors are locked.
"The history of this community has now changed," he said, adding that Denison is now an angel sitting on God's shoulder watching down on the community.
Klaas praised the community's unity on finding justice for Denison and said the rallying was one of the highest attainments of mankind.
After Denison's body was found on Feb. 15, mourners delivered candles, flowers, teddy bears and signs to a makeshift memorial near the discovery at Double R Boulevard and Sandhill Road.
Ali Weiss, 20, met Denison at Santa Barbara City College when she was randomly assigned as her roommate.
"My first impression was that she was a sweet little innocent girl and very kind-hearted," Weiss said. She said the first impression lasted, but Denison was no wallflower.
"She could be loud and she could be goofy," Weiss said. "She was fun."
She said Denison could usually be found in her dorm room with her nose in a book or making flashcards as study aids. "School was her priority," Weiss said.
Last year, Denison put in 135 hours at Kinko's Early Learning Center working with children and monitoring their progress.
"She would come home with these little boxes and things the kids made for her and she'd talk about the children she was working with," Weiss said. "She so wanted to help children."
Julie Smith, an assistant professor of early childhood education at Santa Barbara City College, said Denison was "really good at building relationships with children. She loved giving back."
Smith said Denison was driven by the memory of losing her own father at such an early age. She wanted to do trauma and grief counseling for children.
"She came in and talked to me several times," Smith said. "She was driven to help children with grief and loss issues. ... Some students go through college and don't make a big impression. Not Brianna. She had a real strong connection with students and staff."
During winter break, Denison came back to Reno and reconnected with old friends. She invited several of them to join her at a concert event Jan. 19 at the Sands Hotel Casino.
She wasn't immune to the slings and arrows that all teenagers face: The day she was abducted, a boyfriend had broken up with her and sent her a mean text message.
But Brianna Denison was determined to move forward, have fun.
"She never let anyone bring her down," Weiss said. "She wasn't confrontational. If something bad happened, she'd let it go. She never wanted to hurt anyone or even make them feel uncomfortable."
Meantime a 22-year-old woman has recalled the time when she was groped near the varsity campus in November last. She said she was listening to her iPod while walking along 11th Street between Buena Vista and The Strand about 4 p.m. when a man approached her from behind, reached across her right shoulder and grabbed her breast. She screamed and the man fled.
University President Milton Glick issued a statement urging students to take precautions. The attacks have led to expanded campus patrols and escorts, seminars on personal safety and the distribution of whistles to female students.
"University police advise that you remain aware of your surroundings and avoid situations that put you at risk, such as walking alone at night or leaving doors and windows unlocked," Glick said.
As authorities announced that a serial rapist was on the loose, pepper spray began replacing iPods as the hot item on campus at the University of Nevada-Reno. All the local stores are sold out.
Freshman Britany Maxwell now has six canisters of pepper spray, supplied by her mother. She holds one by her side when she walks on campus at night.
"I carry it with me everywhere," said Maxwell, who no longer feels safe walking alone. "I'm scared. I feel like he could be watching me or my friends at any given moment, deciding to attack again. It's horrible."