February 25, 2008 12:00 PM

If nothing else, Brianna Denison was always security conscious. While back home in Reno on winter break, Denison, 19, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College, gave her mother, Bridgette, an itinerary of the parties she would be attending on the night of Jan. 19. Returning from the night out to the apartment of friend K.T. Hunter, Denison crashed on the downstairs couch around 4:30 a.m. Four and a half hours later, Hunter awoke to find the 5′, 98-lb. Denison missing. The glass-panel front door, which offered a clear view of the couch, was closed but unlocked; the only trace of Denison a bloodstain on a pillow. “Someone walked into my house and took my friend and did God knows what with her,” says Hunter, 19. “It seems unreal.”

Police quickly linked the disappearance to what appears to be a serial sexual predator who has been terrorizing women in the Reno area in recent months. Investigators have DNA evidence from two of those attacks that points to the same suspect in the Denison case (see box). Says Jennifer Bushman, a Denison family friend who is spearheading a Bring Back Bri campaign: “Every woman is in danger, every day.”

That sense of urgency is reflected in the city’s response. When it became clear that the state backlog of more sophisticated DNA tests—tests that could match the Denison suspect to a name already in the DNA registry—would mean a delay of six months, local residents and casino owners quickly raised $181,000 to clear the backlog. Investigators now expect to have the results in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile more than 2,000 volunteers have pitched in to comb Reno for any sign of Denison. A local hunt club even used its tracking dogs and riders to search the snowy foothills around the city for clues. So far they have found nothing, to the heartache of Denison’s mother. “I am scared and empty and lonely,” says Bridgette, a skin-care expert who works with a plastic surgeon. (Brianna’s father died when she was 6.) “In 19 years I have never gone 24 hours without talking to her—it’s just killing me.”

Brianna, a psychology major who has a younger brother, is the sort of selfless person who would have been out joining in the search effort. She always remembered the birthdays and anniversaries of friends and family members and made it a point to stay in touch. The last thing she did before falling asleep on the morning in question was to text-message her ex-boyfriend in Oregon. Says best friend Danielle DeTomaso: “Brianna is the friend who always calls to see how you are doing.”

Police have continued to press their investigation while acknowledging that time may now be working against them. “It is hugely important to solve a case like this in the first 24 to 36 hours,” says Reno police commander Ron Holladay. “Every bit after that reduces our chances of finding her alive.” While some students at the University of Nevada, Reno have tried to maintain a normal life, there has also been a run on pepper spray. “One friend who couldn’t find any in the stores is walking around with a pocketknife,” says Hunter, a UNR sophomore who has since moved to a gated community. “We are all terrified.”

No one of course is more anxious than Denison’s mother, who is bracing herself for the worst. “I told Bridgette I am amazed at how she is managing,” says longtime friend Catherine Farahi, “and she said, ‘Wait until they tell me they have Bri’s body, and we’ll see how strong I am.'” But, as Farahi adds, Denison’s loved ones, while running short on optimism, haven’t abandoned all hope. “Until we have a body,” she says, “Bri is coming home.”

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