RENO, Nev. – Dozens of volunteers who aided in a monthlong search for Brianna Denison were among hundreds of people who gathered in the cold for a candlelight vigil Friday night next to the field where her body was found a week ago, the victim of a serial rapist.
More than 500 teddy bears and stuffed animals, hundreds of blue ribbons, dozens of bundles of flowers and blue ribbons were piled beside a white cross next to the field in south Reno where more than 500 people gathered to remember the young woman who was abducted early Jan. 20 from a friend's house on the edge of the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.
An autopsy conducted on her body found Feb. 15 near a business park about 8 miles from that house determined she'd been strangled and left there at least a week before.
Her disappearance and subsequent manhunt for the suspect who has been tied by DNA to at least two other attacks on women in the area since October has generated a huge outpouring of support from the community.
"This is amazing support," said Michelle Heinreich, one of the search volunteers that has been manning the makeshift memorial under a tent since last weekend.
"It is important for people to see Reno is not going to give up until this guy is caught," she told the crowd.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said he wanted to assure the community local police and the FBI "are doing everything we can to bring this monster to justice."
"This is a great showing that this community is not going to cower to a monster like this," he said.
Marc Klaas, the father of 12-year-old Polly Klaas who was kidnapped in 1993 from her home in Petaluma, Calif., and murdered, told the crowd they should be proud of coming together as a community.
"You came out to take a stand against injustice and look evil in the face," Klaas said. "Everyone across the country is watching how Reno has reacted to this."
At the close of half-hour vigil, the crowd raised candles in the air and chanted, "Bring Bri justice." People filed past the memorial, dropping bouquets of flowers and reading the many handwritten signs that had been left behind.
"You changed a community. You changed a nation. We will never forget you," read one sign.
Volunteers from the search signed their names to another that read: "Bri, you were your mother's daughter. Now you are our sister and daughter."
Doug Seymour, a cousin of Denison's who helped man a command center during the search, said he organized the vigil because two other vigils had been held shortly after Denison first went missing.
"We thought it would be nice for the community and all the volunteers who worked so hard to pay their respects if they wanted to for a sense of closure," Seymour said.
A formal public memorial service was scheduled Saturday night at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Denison graduated from Reno High School in 2006 and was attending Santa Barbara City College in California when she was kidnapped while visiting her hometown during winter break.
Her obituary, which ran Friday in the Reno Gazette-Journal, said she was "known for her million-dollar-smile and sparkling blue eyes, her tremendous outgoing nature and compassion."
"She was lovingly known by her mother as Breezy, because she reminded her of a breath of fresh air on a cool summer day. ... Her ability to connect with people from all walks of life became part of her radiant personality."
The search for her killer has focussed in recent days on a pair of women's panties that were found with her body. The black thong underwear with "Pink Panther" characters had DNA from a woman other than Denison as well as DNA of the serial rapist who kidnapped and strangled her.
The male was from the same man who committed at least two sexually motivated crimes against other young college women in the area over the past four months, Reno police Lt. Robert McDonald said.
Investigators are trying to determine whether the unknown DNA belonged to another woman who may have been assaulted but so far have had no one come forward to say the underwear was hers.
"Our belief is the suspect in this case left these panties there either to taunt the police, to taunt the community, or somehow didn't realize he had them and dropped them," Reno Police Chief Michael Poehlman said earlier this week.