Femme Fatale

When Brenda Denton rolled into Denver in the late '80s, she quickly made a name for herself on Capitol Hill. She was the Queen of Punk. Psycho Brenda. Brenda the Bitch. Her black leather jacket was hand-pierced with rows of fat, heavy screws that jutted out like spikes along her arms, shoulders and back. A button pinned to the collar announced, "This is what a radical feminist looks like," and patches screamed, "Assimilate my fist" and "We hate yuppies." With her foot-tall Mohawk and safety-pinned cheeks, no one would have pegged her for a Texas girl.

"She was a punk-rocker," says Spencer Krzyzek, who met Brenda when she first moved to town and joined his crowd. "We were little drinking, beat-'em-up buddies. We'd get drunk and fight with people. That's just what we did."

Brenda was headstrong and outspoken. It didn't take much to start a fight with her, and she could hold her own. The only time she asked Spencer for a hand, she already had two guys on the ground outside Gabor's. She often asked Spencer who would win a brawl between them; the fact that he was twice her size didn't seem to matter. She got her answer one night when Spencer took her to Tracks. They filled their entire table with $1.50 mixed drinks and started pounding. Spencer was talking to somebody when he felt a tap on his back. When he turned around, Brenda hit him straight in the face. "I was drunk, so I didn't bother to reference myself or anything like that. I just hit back, and it was Brenda," he remembers. "I sent her through a fence; the entire back patio fence just fell down."

Sprawled on the ground, Brenda couldn't stop laughing. "Holy crap," she told him. "I guess you would win."

Spencer lost track of Brenda when he moved to Seattle in 1994. But when he returned to Denver in 2000, he found that she had become inseparable from one of his best friends. Spencer saw a lot of Brenda after that, until she and his buddy argued and stopped speaking to each other. That was how several of her friendships ended. "I was never close enough with Brenda to concern myself with whether she had a falling-out with me," Spencer says. The last time he saw her was in 2003, after she'd enrolled at Metropolitan State College of Denver and decided to become a forensic psychologist so she could work with crime scenes. Spencer laughed at the news, telling Brenda she was already a walking crime scene.

For more than two weeks last February and March, Brenda Denton's dead body lay cold and unnoticed on her living-room floor. Already, her Capitol Hill neighbors were in a state of hysteria over Brent J. Brents's week-long rape spree. On Friday, February 11, he'd raped two women; on Monday, Valentine's Day, he'd raped a 67-year-old grandmother and her two eleven-year-old granddaughters. By Wednesday, he was holding a woman hostage in a vacant apartment at 1057 Marion Street, raping her thirteen times at knifepoint over a three-day period until Tiffany Engle, the building's manager, stumbled upon them on Friday, February 18. The police finally caught up with Brents that day, but not before he had bound Engle, choked her until she lost consciousness and then beat her repeatedly in the head with a two-by-four.

The scene of those crimes was one block from Brenda Denton's bloodstained living room in the Belcourt apartments, at Ninth Avenue and Lafayette Street. Eighty criminal charges, including one count of attempted murder, would be filed against Brents before Brenda's neighbors started phoning in complaints of a foul smell. On Tuesday, March 8, the Belcourt's maintenance man went looking for the odor's source. It was Brenda.

Blood was splattered on the carpet and walls, smudging her television and artwork. More was matted on the right side of her face and the front of her neck. She was fully clothed, all in black, but her necklace had been broken.

Brenda's body was autopsied by the Denver County Coroner's Office the next morning. Her eyelids and the center of her face had turned green. Her skull was fractured, and her head had hemorrhaged. On the front of her neck was a three-inch-by-two-inch gaping stab wound that had cut her left jugular vein and perforated her larynx just below the vocal cords. Another smaller stab wound crossed the bottom of her chin. The causes of death were blunt-force injuries to the head and sharp-force injuries to the neck. She had been slashed, bludgeoned and left to decompose.

When the news broke that a woman's body had been found at 900 Lafayette, Kathleen Donohue was in her bedroom with the TV tuned to Channel 4. She had missed most of the Brents media frenzy, having just returned from a vacation in Arizona. Before she'd left, Kathleen had gotten in a stupid fight with her best friend, Brenda, who was stubbornly refusing to return her phone calls. Though it had been weeks, she assumed her friend was either still mad or just didn't feel like talking. And then she heard the March 8 news report about a dead body. Kathleen froze at the address, but the reporter said the woman was in her late forties. It couldn't be Brenda, Kathleen thought; she was 38. She pushed her worries about Brenda out of her mind, even gossiping about the dead woman, until two days later, when she heard an update on Channel 4. The woman, whom police were now calling a homicide victim, was 38. Kathleen called the station. They hadn't released a name. She asked if it was Brenda Denton; they asked her to come on the air.