Wilberger's remains recovered; Courtney pleads guilty to murder

2009-09-22T01:00:00Z Wilberger's remains recovered; Courtney pleads guilty to murderBy Rachel Beck, Gazette-Times reporter Corvallis Gazette Times
September 22, 2009 1:00 am  • 

Five years later, the search for Brooke Wilberger has finally come to an end.

With his capital murder trial just months away, Joel Patrick Courtney admitted Friday that he bludgeoned the 19-year-old to death in 2004 and told investigators exactly where to find her remains.

"He abducted her, he raped her, he murdered her, and he left her body in the woods," Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said at a Monday afternoon press conference at the Corvallis library downtown.

Courtney, 43, accepted a deal to plead guilty to aggravated murder to avoid facing a possible death sentence. Under the plea deal, he will serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murdering Wilberger.

The exact location of her body has not been revealed because searchers still are at the site, recovering remains. However, enough had been found to provide a positive identification via dental records. Jewelry and a distinctive watch also were recovered.

The site is on private property in the Coast Range in western Benton County, Haroldson said.

The mystery began on a Monday

Wilberger, a student at Brigham Young University, last was seen alive the morning of May 24, 2004, cleaning light posts outside the Oak Park Apartments, which her sister and brother-in-law managed.

Haroldson outlined Wilberger's final hours, pointing out the account came from Courtney, and that parts of it may have been "romanticized":

Courtney was en route from Portland to a court appearance on a DUII out of Lincoln County when he stopped in Corvallis. He saw Wilberger and "made a note" of her, but he didn't stop. He separately approached two Oregon State University students within a half-mile of the apartment complex. Both were young women; both later would tell police that Courtney attempted to draw them closer to his van for directions, but they got a bad feeling from him and walked away.

Courtney then went back to where he'd seen Wilberger. He made a U-turn into the apartment complex parking lot and stopped in between her and the building, blocking her from view of tenants. He got out of the van, carrying a FedEx envelope, as if to make a delivery. He confronted Wilberger and forced her into the van at knifepoint, drove a short distance and then bound her with duct tape. He drove west, to a wooded area in the Coast Range.

At some point Courtney, who was using drugs, got hungry. He claims he drove back into town with Wilberger, who was still bound. They returned to the woods and spent the night in the van. The next morning, he raped her.

"He was surprised that she fought so hard," Haroldson said.

Her resistance convinced Courtney to kill her. He struck her on the head with a "heavy chunk of wood," Haroldson said, then concealed the body.

"It's clear ... his intent was that no one find her," Haroldson said.

New Mexico assault

Courtney came to the attention of law enforcement in November 2004, when he was arrested for kidnapping and raping an exchange student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Like with Wilberger, Courtney forced the 22-year-old victim into his car at knifepoint. He ordered her to strip, bound her with her own shoe laces and sexually assaulted her. When he left the car briefly, reportedly to buy drugs, the young woman was able to escape.

Courtney was sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping and sexual assault. He was extradited to Oregon in April 2008.

During the investigation, evidence was seized from the van Courtney was driving when he abducted Wilberger. Strands of her hair were found in the floormats.

Family OK with plea deal

About 10 of Wilberger's family members attended Monday's press conference. Her mother, Cammy Wilberger, made a statement offering her thanks to the law enforcement and community members involved with the case.

She also expressed gratitude to her daughter's killer.

"It might be hard for you to understand, but at this time we just really feel gratitude, even to Mr. Courtney," she said. "Now he can go on with what's left of his life. Now we can strengthen our family and go on with our lives."

Friday, Courtney accepted essentially the same plea deal that he turned down almost a year ago.

Haroldson said he could not say what specifically changed Courtney's mind about cooperating, but he said opportunities for a deal had presented themselves "in a pretty accelerated fashion."

In July, Courtney threw a fax machine at a psychiatrist at the Benton County jail, which led to assault charges and an order that Courtney must wear a stun belt in court.

With the approval of the Wilberger family, those charges were dismissed as part of the deal. Also dismissed were the charges of attempted kidnapping, rape and murder related to Courtney's approach of the two other women on the morning he abducted Wilberger.

At the end of August, Judge Locke Williams granted part of the state's motion to introduce "other acts" at trial. Among the testimony Williams allowed was that of the New Mexico victim and the two OSU students.

Legal moves kept secret

Settlement conferences between Courtney's attorneys and the prosecution have been taking place for the past several weeks.

Courtney's trial was scheduled to start in early 2010. A change of venue order was issued in July, but the location had not been finalized as of Friday.

Courtney's sentencing took place in Marion County Circuit Court at 9 a.m. Monday and lasted about 30 minutes. Haroldson said there was a court order to keep the proceedings unpublicized.

Investigators wanted to keep the location of the recovery the remains confidential until the work is completed. Haroldson said that could take up to a week.

Courtney did not speak at the court appearance before Polk County Judge Charles Luukinen sentenced him to life in prison.

Haroldson said Courtney is being transported to New Mexico to serve out the remainder of his 18-year sentence. Presumably he will return to Oregon once that sentence has been completed.

Haroldson said his best guess as to when the recovery process would be complete was within the week. The area was not a place that had been searched before. The information about the location of Wilberger's body was revealed Friday. The first remains were found Saturday morning, Haroldson said.

'Never again'

Courtney's record of sexual crimes dates back 24 years. He was convicted of first-degree sex abuse in 1985 out of Portland after he tried to force himself on a female friend. During the Wilberger investigation, two female relatives said in affidavits that Courtney had tried to rape them when they were teenagers.

Haroldson said the plea deal puts an end to Joel Courtney's criminal career:

"He will never be able to do this to another person again."

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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