RENO, Nev.—Convicted murderer and rapist James Biela grew up in a poor, abusive and “frankly bizarre” household where his father routinely beat his mother and the children cowered in fear, sometimes using a bucket in their bedroom as a toilet, jurors were told Friday.
The Washoe District Court jury trying to decide whether to sentence the 28-year-old pipe fitter to death for the killing of Brianna Denison heard testimony from a psychiatrist and his siblings about his traumatic childhood.
The seven-woman, five-man jury convicted Biela Thursday of first-degree murder, kidnapping and three counts of sexual assault in a string of attacks that began in October 2007 near the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno and culminated in Denison’s strangulation in January 2008.
At a sentencing hearing that began late Thursday and is expected to continue into next week, his public defenders tried to persuade the same jury to spare his life and send him to prison for life with no chance for parole based on mitigating factors including his difficult upbringing.
Biela’s father, Joseph Biela, engaged in daily behavior that was “unusual, abusive and frankly bizarre,” Dr. Melissa Piasecki said.
“Verbal and psychological abuse was pervasive in the house,” Piasecki said about the apartment where James Biela lived in the Chicago area with his mother, father, brother and two sisters.
In a telephone interview Friday, Joseph Biela told The Associated Press
that the testimony was filled with “lies.”
“Everything was fine,” said Joseph Biela, 61, who said he is confined to a wheel chair or a walker.
“I beat my wife but never my kids,” he said.
Asked whether the beatings were severe, he said, “That you will have to ask her.”
“I guess some of them were, I don’t know. I’m the one paying for it now … She was my best friend and I didn’t know it at the time.”
Biela’s mother, Kathy Lovell, “bore the brunt of the physical abuse,” she said, suffering broken teeth and ribs, and undergoing wrist surgery due to injuries from being bound so many times. She also said earrings were ripped from her ears and her hair was pulled out.
“They could hear her screaming and observe the beatings,” Piasecki said. “Sometimes (Lovell) would go to the children’s rooms and hide underneath their bed. They’d see their father enter the room and drag her out from under the bed.
Biela’s sisters would hold hands and sing to each other to drown out their mother’s screams, according to Kim Eastman, an older sister. She remembered she feared leaving their bedroom in the evening, even to go to the bathroom.
“We would keep buckets under my bed,” Eastman testified Friday.
Deputy District Attorney Elliott Sattler said that while the experience described in court must have been horrible, none of the siblings grew up to become a violent criminal.
Although the U.S. Marines court-martialed James Biela because he was AWOL and tested positive for marijuana, he was an average or better student through school, hard worker and provider for his girlfriend and son prior to embarking on the string of sexual assaults in the fall of 2007, Sattler said.
“All of the sudden he starts raping women, stealing their underwear, breaking into homes, violating women in the most despicable ways possible and choking women to death. How do you explain that?” he asked Piasecki. “I can’t explain that,” she answered.
“How is it 16 years removed from this horrible father he snaps and starts raping and killing people?” he asked again.
She said her profession doesn’t have a good understanding of how early experiences affect people later in life. She said there typically is more of an “association” between such events rather than a “cause and effect.” Joseph Biela told AP on Friday he hopes his son’s life is spared.
“Let him spend the rest of his life in jail,” he said. “If they let him out, he might do that again.”