Femme Fatale

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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?"

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Jessica Centers