Remains of missing Oregon woman Brooke Wilberger found after suspect enters guilty plea

By William Mccall, AP
Monday, September 21, 2009

Remains of missing Oregon woman found

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Five years after college student Brooke Wilberger disappeared, a man pleaded guilty Monday to her murder and led police to her body.

The developments ended one of the most publicized murder investigations in Oregon history and put away a man who also was convicted of raping another student in New Mexico.

Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson made the surprise announcement in the case of Wilberger, a Brigham Young University sophomore who vanished in May 2004 from an apartment building near the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.

Defendant Joel Courtney avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to aggravated murder and revealing the location of Wilberger’s remains, Haroldson said.

Courtney, 43, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after entering the plea in Marion County Circuit Court in Salem.

The prosecutor, who once vowed to seek the death penalty in the case, declined to discuss further details about the plea deal or the investigation until a news conference later in the day in Corvallis.

Wilberger’s family had said they would support a plea deal if Courtney would reveal the location of the her remains.

Courtney was convicted of kidnapping and raping a foreign exchange student at the University of New Mexico before he was extradited to Oregon.

The victim of that attack resembled Wilberger — young, pretty and blonde.

The 19-year-old Wilberger was working at her summer job scrubbing lighting fixtures outside an apartment complex managed by her sister when she disappeared on May 24, 2004. Nothing but her flip-flop sandals were left behind.

Wilberger, the cheerful, smart and beautiful daughter of a loving family, had just completed her freshman year at Brigham Young after graduating in 2003 from Elmira High School.

A massive search that included family, friends and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turned up nothing, and investigators struggled to find a lead.

Then a detective in the New Mexico case called Oregon investigators, and a troubling picture of Courtney emerged, linking him to Wilberger.

Courtney’s sister told investigators Courtney began using drugs at age 11, developed an interest in Satanism by the age of 15, and once had to be hit over the head with a clock to prevent him from raping her.

He served time in jail in Oregon for a 1991 sex abuse conviction in Washington County, where he grew up.

It was luck, bravery and the sheer determination of the student victim in New Mexico that tripped up Courtney when she escaped and called police.

Court documents show Courtney grew up in the Portland area before moving to Alaska, Florida and New Mexico, working at times as a fisherman, mechanic and janitor.

He eventually married and settled in Rio Rancho, N.M., an Albuquerque suburb. It seemed he was living a quiet life until details emerged from the investigation suggesting he was a secretive, angry man who drank too much, used crack cocaine and frightened his wife and three children.

The first major break in the Wilberger case came in 2004 when an Albuquerque police detective made a call to Oregon to check on Courtney’s criminal record.

Evidence quickly accumulated indicating Courtney was in Corvallis the day of Wilberger’s disappearance.

After his return to Oregon, Courtney was also charged with attempted murder, attempted kidnapping and attempted rape involving two former Oregon State students the same day Wilberger disappeared.

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