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.

Kathleen barely remembers what she said to reporters, but she does recall pieces of her interview with Denver Police Department detective Jaime Castro. He struck her as kind and easy to talk to. She listed everyone she could think of who knew Brenda, and his response stayed with her: "This sure isn't a lot of people she's associated with."

As word of Brenda's murder trickled through Capitol Hill, the people who'd known her, or of her, scratched their heads. The victim was described as an over-achieving college student who volunteered at a drop-in shelter for women and children in her spare time. Was it the same Brenda Denton? The same bad-ass, punk-rock chick infamous for drunken bar fights? They didn't realize that Brenda had spent years trying to shed that image. The lover of film noir and true crime stories was going to be a different kind of femme fatale. She wanted to see that the bad guys, especially those who hurt women, got what was coming to them.

Four months after Brenda's body was found, the police released her apartment back to its owner. Her mother, Marilyn Pierce, was asked to come to Denver to take her daughter's things. She'd wanted to donate Brenda's clothes to the shelter where she volunteered, but it was difficult to make such arrangements long-distance. Marilyn decided to take family heirlooms and some mementos for herself and Brenda's daughters, sisters, nieces and nephew. The rest was left for the management company to clear out.

Spencer Krzyzek hadn't thought about Brenda for a long time when, this past summer, he found himself entranced by a painting at a friend's apartment. The man worked for a company that managed the Belcourt apartments, where a woman had been murdered a few months before. Spencer thought there was something familiar about the piece, and his friend told him it had come from the murdered woman's apartment. The artwork -- along with many of the victim's belongings -- had been left behind by the family, and he was organizing a garage sale to dispose of her stuff. At least what was salvageable; the smell had permeated most of her things. He was about to go clean out Brenda's apartment, he said.

"Brenda?" Spencer asked.

"Yeah, that's her name. Brenda Denton."

Spencer took another look at the painting he'd seen so many times on Brenda's wall. There was blood on it. "You can't wipe that off," he told his friend. "She'd rather you have it that way."

Spencer couldn't believe that no one had bothered to tell him Brenda was dead, that he'd never caught the murder victim's name until now. But news about the crime had been scant. "It was just a quick little blurb, because everybody was all hot and heavy on the whole Brent Brents thing, so nobody even heard," he says.

Before the sale, Spencer went through Brenda's things, saving her black leather jacket, some books about punk rock and old punk 45s, including one by the Alcoholocaust, a defunct band that once included Jim Clark, one of Brenda's ex-boyfriends. Among the boxes of books and records, he also found three CDs burned with what appeared to be every document, photo, program and website Brenda had ever saved to her computer.

Brenda's own writings offer clues about the woman whose life was as much an enigma as her death.

Her essays for school often dip deep into her past. In one, she wrote that from the time she was a little girl, she used novels and old movies with glamorous stars as an escape from small-town Texas, where she felt like an ugly duckling: Audrey and her sleek sophistication; long gloves, long cigarette holder, and her cat with no name. Lana, cool and crisp, leading men to their dooms with an arched eyebrow. Marlene, remote and mysterious.Š And then there was Jean Harlow. Feisty and witty, even if I couldn't match her physical beauty, I certainly could her screen persona. As my tastes matured, I related more and more to the sassy broad that could hold her own against the most manly man. She represented a budding feminism and a refusal to take any shit, and I loved her for it.

As an adult, Brenda kept a huge framed print of Baby Jean on her wall and a dozen photos of her on her computer. There was something about Harlow that touched her. The world knew Harlow as a sex symbol, the promiscuous dumb blond trophy of Hell's Angels and The Public Enemy. But in truth, Harlean Carpenter of Kansas City was an intelligent introvert who just wanted a simple life. Her mother, Mama Jean, pushed her into a film career in order to live out her own dreams. Up until her tragic death at 26, Baby Jean had spent her whole life being controlled by her mother and manipulative men.

Though Brenda empathized with Harlow's plight, her life was the opposite in many ways. No one could tame her, let alone tell her what to do. Growing up in the Dallas suburb of Garland, a smart, spunky Brenda sang in the Garland Girls' Choir and chased boys with straight pins during recess. The oldest of three sisters, she was the leader who craved being the center of attention. Teachers praised and fawned over her, and she quickly discovered that education would be her ticket to success. Curious about the world, she was never bored.

When she was eleven, Brenda saw David Bowie for the first time and fell in love with punk. At fourteen, Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics stole her heart, causing Brenda to get her first Mohawk. She was so raw and sexual and scary, Brenda wrote. She represented everything I wanted to be. Seen as a freak for her punk-rock persona in a small town, Brenda became independent and aggressive: Occasionally, I had to fight, but boys didn't pick fights with me until later. At seventeen, she left home to do things her own way, often struggling to make ends meet on minimum-wage jobs and staying in a youth shelter for a time.

At 21, Brenda got married. She and her husband, Sterling Denton, had two daughters. Being a stay-at-home mom nearly drove me mad, I felt chained, resented picking up my husband's dirty socks. Eventually, I demanded we get counseling, but he was resistant, and I had to leave because I thought I was dying inside. By 25, Brenda had divorced and left that life behind, heading for Denver. The girls stayed in Texas with their father. "She was very hurt after her divorce," says her mother. "She needed to find out about herself and live without her husband. She chose to move to a whole different place and start over again."

There's an old punk saying that Brenda liked to quote: "It's not a dress code, it's a lifestyle." In Denver, she looked and lived it. She loathed the kids who dressed punk without knowing or caring why the movement came to be; for her, the look symbolized a disregard for the conventions of society. Punk was all about anarchy. Fighting came with the territory: The violence associated with punk is justified when one considers that anger is the second reaction to pain, and these kids hurt.

Jim Clark met Brenda in 1992 while hanging out at his buddy's apartment. She had a red, white and blue Mohawk, torn-up jeans, the black leather jacket and a cast on her leg -- the remnants of a bar fight. This was a girl who knew who she was and didn't take shit from anybody, and he liked that.

He barely remembers his days with Brenda because he was so inebriated most of the time, but he recalls that her fights were always alcohol-induced, and rarely with women. "She'd have pissing contests with guys," he says. "It was always her against men."

About a year into their relationship, Jim was kicked out of the Alcoholocaust and the apartment he shared with his bandmates. He moved in with Brenda, but they found that they were very different people. While all Jim ever wanted to do was play music and skateboard, Brenda would lock herself away for hours, reading or writing in her journal. She had goals. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to be a better mom.

"She was a very smart, very intelligent girl -- when she was sober," he says. "But she loved her pills, and she loved her booze." She'd come home drunk when he was sober and want to pick a fight, or vice-versa. In her writings, Brenda describes Jim as abusive, but he recalls her as the violent one. Once, he says, she came at him with a knife. The night they split for good, she started punching him. "And me, being an asshole, I told her she hits like a girl," Jim says. "She picked a lamp up and hit me in the head, and I punched her in the face. It was the first time I ever hit a girl."

Brenda had two guns hidden in the house, and Jim got to one first, but she found the other and started loading. After Jim wrested the gun from her, he drove Brenda to the hospital and left her there. He went back to their place, packed his stuff and evicted himself. It would be years before they were friendly again.

"She burned a lot of bridges," Jim says. "I think, in the end, she really didn't have too many long-term friends or long-lasting friends."

In a strange twist of fate, it was Jim who connected Brenda to Kathleen Donohue. The first night Kathleen saw Brenda, the punk chick was smashing up a guy in a bar parking lot. As Kathleen and her then-boyfriend stood watching, Jim tried to start shit with them for making fun of his girlfriend. Kathleen thought she was going to get her ass kicked, but nothing happened. Afterward, she was curious about the couple. She called Jim and Brenda the King and Queen of Punk.

Months after Jim and Brenda's messy breakup, Kathleen started going out with the King of Punk. Their romance fizzled, but Kathleen and Brenda later developed a friendship. "You'd think I would hate her and not want to be friends with her," Kathleen says, "but it was so easy, and we really had so much in common."

The two went to shows four or five nights a week at such Capitol Hill staples as Streets of London, the Lion's Lair and Cricket on the Hill, both set on getting backstage and meeting bandmembers. But as much as she was a partner in crime, Kathleen also found Brenda to be someone she could really talk to. They both battled emotional problems, and Brenda helped Kathleen get into therapy to deal with her depression. They were roommates for a short time, but Kathleen moved out after they had an argument over something silly. The fight blew over, but the two lost touch.

"I didn't see her as an aggressive, violent person at all, but that was part of her reputation," Kathleen says. "It's nothing that she was proud of. I think she just really had some violent tendencies. What punk rocker doesn't? If you don't like violence, then you probably don't like the sound of that music."

Sometime in 1997, Brenda Denton began to re-evaluate her life. She had broken her leg and it became infected, leaving her bedridden after surgery. She used that time alone to take a hard look at herself, and she didn't like what she saw. So she decided to make some changes.

Brenda enrolled at Metro State, starting with just a couple of classes in the fall of 1998. She did well, and it made her feel good about herself. The more serious she became about her studies and her future, the more she distanced herself from the punk scene. Brenda still loved the music, but she wanted a new crowd, a new life. "I don't think she has a lot of friends who bridged that gap," says her mother. "Kathleen, I think, is one of the few who bridges the gap from both worlds she lived in."

For years, Brenda worked at the now-defunct Cafe Euphrates, a coffee shop that attracted mobs of high-schoolers who studied and smoked on weeknights and came to hear local bands on the weekends. In August 1999, she wrote in her journal about an encounter with her old friends. She'd discovered that a band she knew, one likely to bring in a rough crowd, would be playing at Cafe Euphrates. She warned her boss and volunteered to work that night.

My boss also knew that when I'd left the punk "Scene," I'd told each and every one of them exactly what I thought of them. This was over a year ago, but they were still intimidated by me: They'd watched me fight, and had called me "Psycho Brenda."

I told my boss I'd be happy to come in and help him out, assuring him that the shitbags would give him no grief while I was there; I knew that no matter WHAT I looked like, they'd show respect-I was still their surrogate big sister and I was still "punk." Like they say, "Punk's an attitude, not a dress code."

Don [who was working the door] understood why this was so important to me. I'd long-since dropped most of the accouterments of punkdom (except the earrings, which could only be removed with boltcutters), and wanted to show off to these dirty, crusty, smelly children what I'd become. I consciously wore nothing that would/could be construed as punk. I played the role of "Ice Princess," looking as sleek and stylish as I could. I donned a short, tight vintage dress and put my hair in a chignon.

I had to show them all how I'd changed. I was strong, felt my power as a woman and a person and was doing what I needed to do with my life. And I'd done all this without "selling out." I'd done it without even raising a fist.

That fall, a composition course gave Brenda the opportunity to frame a project around her saucy, misunderstood role model, Jean Harlow. She called it "Golden Goddess: Reflections of a Dream Denied." At a time when she was struggling to fit in a new mold, Brenda found a compelling dichotomy in the actress's personal and professional lives. She noted the similarities she shared with the "original platinum blonde," particularly the rough time they both had with men. Harlow's first marriage ended in divorce after two years; her second husband killed himself (though many believe the suicide story was to cover up a Mob murder); she divorced her third husband after eight months; and she died while engaged to the man that would have been her fourth.

Brenda might have been married only once, but her relationships since had turned violent. In October 1999 she obtained a permanent restraining order to get away from the abusive boyfriend she lived with. "I had hoped never to see or speak with him again, having been terrorized by him for nearly eight months (including being treated for bruised ribs after one of his rages)," she wrote to police that December, after he violated the order.

In 2000, Brenda decided to move back to Texas for a while -- to recover from an assault, she later wrote -- and shared an apartment with her youngest sister, Rachel. Before going back home, Brenda told friends, she didn't truly know her mom or realize how much she needed her, but now their friendship was the greatest gift the universe could have given her: She recognized how much danger I was in, and rescued me (not for the first time).

While Brenda was in Texas, Rachel, who suffers from a kidney disease, became ill and was hospitalized. Brenda took care of her nephew and kept everything in order until Rachel was back on her feet. Realizing how serious her sister's disease could be, Brenda offered her a kidney any time she needed it. "She was serious about that," says her mother. "That was one of the more selfless things that any of us had heard her offer in her life." Brenda left Texas in 2001, but she remained close with her sister and mother, talking to them frequently on the phone.

Back in Denver, Brenda refocused her energy on school. She had put down roots here and felt a sense of security because so many people knew and cared about her. After I had number six of my nine [knee] surgeries, the guys at the pharmacy would bring me my medicine and a Pepsi, and refuse to take tips. My apartment manager at the time found me once, pale and sweaty, unable to make it to the third floor, and carried me.

Brenda wasn't looking for an intimate relationship; she needed to work on herself before she got involved with someone again: like quit attracting sociopaths, she wrote. She valued her friendships, expecting her friends to be loyal, honest, and as gentle with me as I am with them. Her friend Mark Payson was a man of high integrity, a person whom she loved deeply, she said. He helped me get off of pain pills, chased my ex-boyfriend-stalker off, and will be at my house in five minutes if I need him.

Mark and Brenda had hit it off instantly. "She was the smartest woman I ever met in my life," he says. They would drink together -- a lot. Mark, an artist, has a piece he calls "Blackout Juice" that was inspired by the nights he and Brenda would drink a gallon of wine together. It shows a woman hiding her face behind a purple jug. "Every time, we'd both black out," he says. A charcoal sketch, titled "Brenda's Mirage," shows a wild-eyed woman's face with a wide, mischievous grin outlined in crisp, intense lines that shoot out like rays. Brenda helped Mark talk through some of his own problems, too; she loved to pick people's brains apart. "She was kind of like a psychiatrist in some ways," Mark says. But a year before Brenda's death, she stopped talking to Mark. "I just pissed her off one day, and that was it. She was like that."

Through Mark, Brenda became friends with John "Tripp" Carson. Since July 2005, Carson has been in jail, charged with hitting someone in the head with a hammer. He misses Brenda, he says: "She was so beautiful. Her soul glittered, and it was lovely." But they, too, had their disagreements. She disapproved of his drug use, and Carson thought Brenda was a drunk. "It got to the point I wouldn't be around her if she was drunk," he recalls.

In September 2003, Denton moved into the apartment at Ninth and Lafayette that would be her last home. "She liked that little apartment and loved the Capitol Hill area," says her mother. "She loved Cheesman Park. She would go over there and sit and enjoy the sunshine."

Brenda's apartment was just a block from where Kathleen lived with her mother. One day they ran into each other, picking up right where they'd left off years before. Kathleen learned how well Brenda was doing in school, how she was on the dean's list, and it intimidated her. "I'd feel like,'God, you've gotten that far in school, and over the four years, I've done shit,'" she remembers. "I didn't feel as intelligent as her, but she would just break down all those kinds of barriers and be like, 'You know stuff that I've had to learn in school.'"

Brenda wanted the world to see she had changed. And her outward appearance had -- but to Kathleen, she was still the same old Brenda. She could still shock people. She still called herself "Brenda the Bitch." She still went wild at shows, only now she curled her blond hair up like Marilyn and Harlow and dressed in a nice pantsuit instead of torn jeans and her leather jacket. The friends still went out and got drunk, but not as often as in the old days. They were content to spend many afternoons and evenings just sitting in one of their apartments, watching movies or having a few drinks, listening to music and talking. "She could just see people and see me and know what I was saying or where I was going with something," Kathleen says. "I never had more intellectual, spiritual, personal, deep conversations with people." Even though she lived only a block away, Brenda didn't feel safe walking home from Kathleen's after dark, so she'd often spend the night.

Brenda could still party hard, but she never let drinking or a hangover interfere with her schoolwork, Kathleen says. She'd often lock herself away for days studying or working on a paper. Only when the study binge was over would the drinking binge begin.

Brenda's professors found her to be an excellent, hardworking student. She received three As in Jack Hesson's psychology courses, worked as his teaching assistant for one semester and tutored in the psychology department. Brenda didn't have much patience for students who came to her unprepared, but her mom remembers her talking about one woman she helped. The student, whose first language wasn't English, was trying so hard. When she earned a B for the semester, Marilyn Pierce wondered who was more proud: her daughter or this student.

The head of Metro's criminal-justice department, Joseph Sandoval, got to know Brenda because she took charge of a bad situation when students became infuriated with the instructor of an online course. Brenda brokered a meeting and a compromise between the students, instructor and department head. She also went to Sandoval to discuss her career options when she decided she was interested in crime and the law. She asked Hesson to write her a recommendation letter for graduate school. "She wanted my help to get into a doctoral program in forensic psychology, of all things, studying murderers," he says.

"I know she had come to really want to help solve crimes," Brenda's mother remembers. "She knew that if she could pull out information that could help the police catch someone and convict them and put them in prison, that it would help the victims. She had a strong sense of justice about that."

Brenda also immersed herself in murder mysteries. Her computer was filled with articles and blog entries on the Scott Peterson and O.J. Simpson cases, including photos of Nicole and Ron's bodies at the scene. She had an extensive file dedicated to the Black Dahlia case, the infamous unsolved 1947 murder of 22-year-old Betty Short, who was found severed in half, mutilated and drained of blood beside a Los Angeles street. In an online conversation with her daughter, Brenda talked about seeing a photo of Tupac's autopsy: It's gross, but it's just a body. We're just meat once we're dead. Besides, I'm studying forensics and have to get used to stuff like that.... I had this book that had dead body pics in it (for criminal investigations) and it had this one of a "floater," a guy who'd been in the water for a while, and I grossed people out with it, asking "doesn't it look just like Marlon Brando?"

It wasn't unusual for Brenda's family and friends not to hear from her for days, even weeks, because she craved her time alone. When she didn't answer the phone, they knew that she was studying or didn't want to be bothered. She'd hide away in rollers and fluffy slippers, doing her nails while she listened to a book on tape and worked on the computer. "She just had this full life with her own company, and she could really accomplish things that way," Kathleen remembers.

Much of Brenda's time on the computer was spent talking to her daughters -- now teenagers. Even though she only saw them a few times a year, they talked and e-mailed often. Brenda saved a long Internet chat she and one of her daughters had late one night. She still loved punk, Brenda told the girl, but she missed the strong, in-your-face women who are now all dead, strung out or burned out: I think it's sad there are still so few women in the biz that you can look up to.

She told her daughter that she was gorgeous and warned her against dieting, confessing her own teenage anorexia. When her daughter, a straight-A student, listed all of her extracurricular activities, Brenda asked if she was pursuing her heart. I love you so much! she typed once out of the blue. I'm sad, and always have been, that I was too messed up to be there for all your "1sts."

Kathleen and all of Brenda's friends knew how much she loved her daughters. "I just think she couldn't be in complete control of herself all the time," Kathleen says. "She knew that over the long term they would start to see elements about her and not think she was the strong person that she wanted her children to think she was. I think she knew the way she lived was completely unhealthy for children and probably didn't know another way to live."

By the end of 2004, Brenda saw herself as in the midst of a major transition and it scared her, Kathleen remembers. She was two semesters away from graduation and trying to pick a graduate school. She wanted to go to New York City, but she didn't know if she could make it there. She'd always put all her energy into school, just working enough to fill in between loans. In Denver, she knew how to get through the month, but New York would be different. She also had an assault charge, for pushing a former landlord and scratching her across the face, that she feared would threaten her acceptance to a top school. "She just worried so much that where she came from and what she's been through and where she was going weren't going to ever fit," Kathleen says. "The past was never going to stop interfering with her."

To help counteract these feelings -- and also knowing it would look good on her resumé -- Brenda decided to volunteer at the Gathering Place. She liked the shelter's mission of assisting women and children, and would come home exhilarated after helping someone get out of a bad situation. Though the staff knew little about her personal life, they found her to be compassionate and approachable. She worked two two-hour shifts a week, twice the norm, in the computer lab, helping women look for jobs and create their own resumés.

The only time Brenda took a break from volunteering was when she had knee-replacement surgery on December 27, 2004. The operation, her tenth, was supposed to solve all of her knee problems. Her mother talked to her at the end January 2005, the day before Brenda, still on crutches, would start a new semester. "I think she was ecstatic," Marilyn says, "looking forward to a good new life."

Kathleen was supposed to help Brenda get around while she recovered. In early February, she called Brenda and rambled on about her day, neglecting to ask Brenda how she was or if she needed help. It pissed Brenda off. Kathleen tried to apologize before leaving for a vacation in Arizona, but her calls were never returned.

By the time Kathleen left, Brenda was back to her normal routine at the Gathering Place. On February 9, 2005, she worked a shift in the computer lab. She was scheduled to return on Valentine's Day, but never showed up. By the end of the month, her mother was growing concerned that she couldn't reach Brenda on the phone. On March 8, the Denver police told her why.

There was no service for Brenda in Denver. Left alone with her thoughts, Kathleen couldn't wrap her head around who might have killed her best friend. She couldn't imagine anyone overcoming Brenda. The only explanation she could think of was that because of her leg, Brenda looked like an easy target.

Jim was just as baffled. "I would have never thought in a million years it would have ever happened to her," he says. "I figured she'd go out in a blaze of glory or something. She was the type of girl that didn't take shit from anyone. I'm thinking maybe it was more than one person. One person hit her and she got overpowered. Or maybe it was one person that was tougher than her. There's so much speculation that I really, I don't know. I'm thinking she picked up the wrong person at the bar or maybe she just got too drunk."

Kathleen worries that perhaps the police or someone who witnessed something has a bias against Brenda for that reason: "I think everybody's saying, 'She would take a stranger home from the bar, and that meant she was some type of person.'" When Kathleen was interviewed by the police, she remembers, detectives thanked her for her time and said they had to go get on another case right away. She knew that Brenda's wouldn't be their only investigation, of course, but the comment got her thinking. How many cases did they have? How many people get murdered and the police never find the killer? How much evidence could vanish in two or three weeks?

As the months passed, Kathleen would occasionally call Detective Castro with the names of people she thought he should talk to or check out. She assumes he followed up, but he didn't always follow up with her. Kathleen started to think that Castro either didn't have any information or couldn't divulge what he did know. Either way, she wasn't getting anywhere, so she stopped calling last summer.

In August, five months after Brenda's body was found, Crime Stoppers fliers with her photo went up around town: "You can remain anonymous and earn up to two thousand dollars. Do you know who killed Brenda Denton?"

The fliers were already littered around Capitol Hill when Spencer Krzyzek found out that Brenda had been murdered. He called the number to see if he could be of any help. He told Castro about the ex-boyfriend Brenda had taken a restraining order out against, adding that she used to fight with a lot of people.

"The police kept on asking me what I thought of her and Brent Brents," remembers Spencer. Along with everyone else, he wondered if the killer could have been Brents; it seemed a huge coincidence that Brenda was murdered in the same neighborhood where he was hiding at the time of his rampage. But the crime didn't fit his profile: Brents was a rapist, and Brenda didn't appear to have been sexually assaulted. Then again, neither had Tiffany Engle, the apartment manager Brents nearly beat to death. But if it was Brents, wouldn't he have left some piece of evidence behind? Wouldn't he have been charged by now?

Spencer told Castro that he wouldn't put it past Brenda to pick up somebody like Brents. Not that he knew what Brents was like -- but he did know Brenda. She wasn't shy, and the stranger somebody was, the more he'd interest her.

Today, one year after the murder of Brenda Denton, the police won't discuss the investigation of the case except to say that it's ongoing. They won't say if they've ruled out Brents, who was sentenced to more than 1,300 years in prison for his violent crimes. Brenda's friends and family are left with nothing but speculation. It's the type of mystery that Brenda would have obsessed over.

Brenda's mother keeps in touch with Castro, and he's told her that if any real breaks come up, he will call. "The clues seem to be non-existent," Marilyn says. "The police I know have investigated a lot of leads and have worked very hard on it. I believe that somebody either in the neighborhood may have seen something or maybe their roommate came home disheveled and a mess and they may have suspicions. At this point, we're just still praying that the person will be taken out of society because they are evil. What they did to her was evil."

For Kathleen, the hardest thing to accept is the future that was stolen from Brenda after she'd done so much to change her life. "She didn't make it," says Kathleen. "She was so close, and that's what's so sad." The sentiment echoes Brenda's own feeling about her beloved Jean Harlow: Perhaps the saddest part of this grim Hollywood tale is that prior to her death, Jean was beginning to take control of her life.

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Jessica Centers