Bringing Brooke HomeDateline NBC
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- 10 Dec 2020
In this Dateline classic, 19-year-old Brooke Wilberger returns home to Oregon for summer break from college. While cleaning apartments in Corvallis she vanishes, leaving behind her flip flops. Kate Snow reports. Originally aired on NBC on February 4, 2011.
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She was the person you want it to be, she emulated everything that was good.
She just yelled through the door. I love you. And I was lost last and talk to her, said first broke and he said, we can't find her. A college student vanishes at this hour. My whole body.
They asked us, well, do you have a crime scene? No, we don't. Other than flipflops in the parking lot at a community that was scared, who's going to be the next victim? A thousand miles away, another student in danger. She said he's got a knife, he's trying to kill me. There were guns and there was a girl there and there was blood. This is not the first time he's done this. One case would help solve the other one man behind two mysteries.
This was dynamite for us. That's the smoking gun. You're not going to believe what we found. I've gotten so close. I want to know where she is.
Some images are eternal. Timeless. One moment, the future seems immeasurable, the possibilities are endless.
But in an instant, you can be left with only memories to hold till the end of time. Brooke Wilberger lived as if she had all the time in the world to grow up, to marry, to create a close knit family like her own parents had to have six children.
And Brooke is number five, always wanted to have a big family. We ended up with one.
Cami Wilberger and her husband, Greg raised their children near beautiful Eugene, Oregon, a family that included Brooke's older brother, Bryce and sister Stephanie.
I mean, you just have so much fun dressing her. And she was kind of our little toy, if you will. I know. Let's dress up, Brooke, right? Yeah, she was just fun.
Little Brooke didn't speak until she was four and even then could be a bit hard to understand.
But as Brooke grew, her natural talent spoke loudly. She loved animals and forage, played basketball and ran track. She was good. She was better lost.
The rest of us at the sports that we played, she snowboarded on slopes around Oregon and as her little sister, Jessica remembers, took pride in being scrappy on the soccer field. She gave up soccer and she kind of had a black eye.
And my brother and I saw it happen. And she kind of laughed and said, I got in a fight and he goes, Hey, you didn't, Brooke, you know, get in fights. And and she laughed and said, you're right. I got hit in soccer practice. But isn't it so cool?
Brooke was also an honor student at Elmira High who loved to bake scrapbook and see the sights on the West Coast. She could be seriously silly, it's my crib, you know, or stylish, happy to shop for shoes or fashion. She was reliable, thoughtful, popular and pretty inside and out. She made people feel better about themselves.
People wanted to be with her. Yeah. And she was nice. She was intelligent and beautiful, but she was also really nice.
The minute she turned 16, when dad's rules allowed her to start dating, she knew she wanted her childhood friend Justin to be her boyfriend. And when they graduated from high school, Brooke decided to follow him to Brigham Young University in Utah. She just really wanted to. Experience life outside of our community and just kind of branch out. The girl who'd grown up saying words a little funny decided to study speech pathology. Brooke loved her new friends and BYU, but returned home her freshman year for Thanksgiving to spend time with her family and shop.
We had gone to Mayan Frank before it became Macy's and she had really liked this watch. And it was kind of a dressy watch and she was pretty classy and the things that she chose to wear. So she sees it in the case and she mentions it to you. And I really like that. Watch, Mom. Easy Christmas there was.
Six months later, in the spring, her freshman year was history. Brooke returned home to Oregon. She had a summer job in Corvallis, about 30 miles from home, working at the Oak Park Apartments, managed by her sister, Stephanie and Stephanie's husband.
And on Monday, May 24th, 2004, she left the house where her sister, Jessica, was getting ready for another day of seventh grade.
She was kind of in a rush and she walked out the door and left.
And about five minutes later, she walked back in and she just yelled through the door, I love you and walked out.
And that was that was the last time I talked to her.
By nine a.m., Brooke was at the apartments and an hour later, hard at work, I could see through our apartment to the back window facing our patio.
And Brooke was bending over, filling up a bucket of water. And that was the last time I saw her. At what point did you realize that she wasn't out there anymore? Not until probably one o'clock. I had fixed lunch for my children and for her and she hadn't shown up. What starts going through your head when she doesn't come in for lunch?
It's a large complex. There's over a hundred apartments. And so I wasn't, like, immediately worried because I thought she could be cleaning, you know, laundry room somewhere. I even said something like, well, let's take out the search party, you know, tongue in cheek and tuck my little kids out with me. And we started just kind of walking around seeing if we could see her just to tell her that her lunch was ready.
You're not in a full blown panic point. No, but before long, Stephanie would come upon Brooke's flip flops near a lamp post she had been cleaning. The little piece of plastic that goes between your toe was ripped out and one and there were muddy toe prints sliding down the actual sole of the shoe. So it was clear that she was trying to keep them. She was trying to stay put and stay grounded when she lost her shoes. You knew that right then immediately.
Still, though, no panic, no cries for help for a couple of hours until three 00, seven p.m. when Stephanie's husband placed a very calm call to 911, one one one one two year old child who's missing from the scene to find out everything from work from the manager of the department.
And this work actually happens to be my sister in law making. When is the last time anybody around 10, 30. Where had Brooke Wilberger gone? Why couldn't anyone find her? Brooke's mom was about to learn of her daughter's disappearance in a phone call with one of her sons, they said Firstbrook and he said, we don't know.
And I said, What do you mean you don't know? He goes, We don't know where she is. And I said, Spence, don't tease me. Are you talking about. And he said, no, seriously, mom, we can't find her. And right then I just stare at this chair all through my whole body.
The whole community turns out to search for Brooke while the police start their investigation by focusing on her family. Stephanie was just grilled about. Where where was she? Did you do it? And. On a sunny spring day in Corvallis, Oregon, the clock was ticking. Nineteen year old Brooke Wilberger had disappeared about ten thirty a.m. as she worked cleaning lampposts in the parking lot of the Oak Park Apartments just a block away from the bustling campus of Oregon State University.
At one p.m., her sister Stephanie, got worried when Brooke didn't show up for lunch. It just wasn't like her, you know, she was just always on time.
By 3:00, Stephanie's husband called police. We looked everywhere we could think to look for her.
Word was spreading among Brooks five siblings, their sweet but feisty little sister had disappeared. When did they call you?
It was mid-afternoon. Sometime I think we knew something was seriously wrong when when the car was. We can't find Brooke. It didn't take anything longer than that. Bryce went to pick up his mother, who was trying not to panic, a lot of people talk about that maternal feeling that sometimes you get inside. Did you get a feeling?
I just kept thinking, you know, maybe she met up with one of her friends is going to ask, you know, Brooke wouldn't do that snow, Brooke, by late in the afternoon with Brooke now missing for hours.
Cell phones started buzzing. I was sitting at my son's t ball game. And I got a phone call from one of our patrol lieutenants at the time who said, John, we have a missing girl, Captain Jonathan Sassaman and Lieutenant Tim Brewer of the Corvallis Police Department.
We're about to begin a journey unlike anything they had ever experienced.
I asked him, what do you think? Is this real? He had a natural gut instinct that this was not a walk away. This was not a runaway.
Something bad had happened when Captain Sassaman arrived at the apartments. He was struck by how few clues he had to work with.
It is a parking lot with a pair of flip flops and a bucket with soap and some water under a lamppost.
Also left behind Brooks wallet, purse, cell phone and car.
Nobody, it seemed, saw anything. But someone heard something about ten thirty that morning, a blood curdling scream.
The evidence pointed to an abduction, but investigators started with questions for the people closest to the victim. First question, where was Brooke's boyfriend, Justin? It turned out he was serving a two year mission for the Mormon Church 4000 miles away in Venezuela. Next, Brooke's family we needed to go through.
Is the family a suspect? And we had to get that work done. And we had investigators doing that.
Stephany was, you know, just grilled about, you know, where where was she? Why don't you know where she was? And did you do it?
That had to be awful. Just awful. It it was it's awful.
It was terrible. And we had made a decision that will, as a family even, and we would do anything to get Brooke back. Whatever the police asked us to do, we will do it. If they suspect us, that's OK. We don't care. We want to find up.
And soon a community came together within hours of Brooke's disappearance. Dozens, then hundreds of people showed up, many from the Wilberger Church, others concerned citizens and cops.
I suppose it could be anywhere and we just have to look everywhere. They came in droves that first evening and every day after with one goal, find Brooke.
By golly, come hell or high water, we are going to find her.
But for detectives, the sheer number of searchers presented a challenge.
As an investigator responsible for this we're looking at is our bad guy here. It is not uncommon for people who, you know, commit the crime to circle right back around, be present, learn, see what's going on.
By this time, the FBI had also entered the investigation. Supervisory Special Agent Joe Boyer's first question, had Brooke been taken by someone who lived at the apartment complex? And could that person be among the tens of thousands of Oregon State students who would soon be leaving town for the summer? Agent Boyer asked FBI profilers for help.
They asked us, well, do you have a crime scene? No, we don't. Other than flip flops in a parking lot, do you have any witnesses? No, we don't. Do you have a vehicle description? No, we don't. Do you have a body? No, we don't. And I said, frankly, there's very little we can do for you at this point. With so little evidence, investigators found themselves thinking back to another crime, a crime many here in Corvallis barely recall.
On another day in May, nearly 30 years to the day and one mile away from where Brooke disappeared, a young Oregon state student vanished. It wasn't until her body was discovered and her killer caught that people here realized this town had been visited by one of America's most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy.
Authorities in Corvallis wondered if there was now another sexual predator bold enough to abduct a young woman in broad daylight.
It was a rough day for the sex offenders in our county because there was a team who went out and put their finger on every single one of them.
How many sex offenders are there in this area?
You know, I think that was something that was very startling to to realize just how many there actually were when police told Brooke's family there may be 2000 sex offenders in the area. They were horrified when they tried it before they get into details.
And I just have to lay back on that bed because I've become nauseated. You know, just the the whole trauma of it was was too much.
It just took a couple of days, I think, to sink in that, you know, something bad had happened and that she was that she was really gone.
There seemed to be little question. Brooke was gone and in grave danger. The family took to the airwaves. Her father, Greg, if anyone has seen Brooke at all, if they were, just please call in.
Tips poured in to police hotlines. We had dozens and dozens of Brooke Wilberger sightings in practically every state. Everybody who went out for a walk, you know, in the following days, who saw someone who just looked out of the place, called us up for lose the search, expanded daily.
At times, it seemed the whole state of Oregon was pitching in to find Brooke.
Well, I have daughters that age and want help.
More search teams, dozens of square miles. What's the geography like around here? Where could someone have taken Brooke?
Limitless. I mean, we're 10 miles from Interstate five. We've got a north south highway running right through corrals. We have an east east west highway running right through gravel. So literally, you could you could drive five miles from Corvallis and be in a very remote area in the deep woods.
Absolutely. But despite the odds, within days, investigators were hot on someone's trail. A police search turns up a terrifying checklist and investigators wonder if it's the lead they've been waiting for. Either someone is planning a very heinous mutilation, sexual assault, crime and murder, or it's a fantasy.
Nearly a week into the head spinning hunt for their daughter and sister.
Hundreds of volunteers combed through the little Berger's family somehow kept their unfailing optimism afloat.
Did you think she was alive somewhere?
Yes, I think that was the overwhelming feeling that we felt. And I think that's why the focus was fine. And that's what what drove us. We know the statistics, but this is this is our family. This is Brooke. She's got to be there.
And there was reason to hope in that summer of 2004, the story of Elizabeth Smart was still fresh. She was the 14 year old snatched from her bedroom in Utah, held captive by a deranged street preacher. Then, amazingly, after nine months returned to her family alive. I would think, you know, maybe someone just had her captive in there. They'll just decide to let her go.
One day, a family friend put the Wilberger in touch with Elizabeth Smart's uncle.
Was it comforting? It was comforting. He was very positive. And because, of course, of their experience and he said, you know, never give up hope. Just keep thinking positive. She came. Right. Right. And so, you know, I just I was like, you know, I don't know how I don't know the circumstances, but I cannot give up.
And while the search continued, what seemed to be a lead emerged that burglary pointed them to this man, Zankou Kim. The name son Kim came to the attention of investigators less than a week after Brooke vanished. Kim was a reclusive 30 year old with a degree in genetics and cellular biology who still lived with his parents in a home 80 miles from Corvallis in a suburb of Portland.
He spent much of his time online trading stocks just weeks before a search of Kim's home had turned up thousands of pairs of women's underwear stolen from college dorms throughout the area. Burglary charges had been filed, and he would soon be charged with stealing underwear from a dorm at Oregon State University, just blocks from where Brooke was abducted. Police had an investigative theory based on their experience. In other cases, when you start making steps to entering other buildings and dormitories and going and stealing other people's property being the underwear, that's a progression.
Meaning what? That he could then do something that is going to be a step to there's going to be a step three.
There's going to be contacting somebody next and ultimately abducting somebody.
Then, just five days after Brooke's disappearance, another search in a dramatic middle of the night raid captured on videotape taken by police and Oregon State Police SWAT team blew open the front door of the home Kim shared with his parents.
Fifteen officers stormed inside to serve a search warrant looking for physical evidence, hair, body fluid or more evidence of Kim's possible involvement in Brooke's disappearance. They found no physical evidence, but what they did discover drew their attention on Kim's computer.
Investigators found tens of thousands of photos and thousands more videos, what police termed a vast collection of pornographic images, including a small number of staged scenes depicting tortured, raped and mutilated women.
Then there was this, a document labeled OHSU as an Oregon State University. It read like a how to guide for committing a sex crime. It included a list of supplies, hood glasses, video and digital cameras. It's more than just a checklist.
Either someone is planning a very heinous mutilation, sexual assault, crime and murder, or it's a fantasy. But either way, it's extremely important to us in our investigation, a very startling and as detectives dug deeper, they discovered this while Kim was stealing underwear from dorms and laundry rooms, he had also developed a bizarre fetish for collecting lint from clothes dryers in Kim's home. They discovered a bag of some of that lint labeled with the name of an Oregon State University swim team member like Brooke Wilberger.
She was young, blond, blue eyed, and she used to hang out a lot with other swimmers in Corvallis at the Oak Park Apartments.
So I'm imagining red flags are going off all over the place.
When you start getting this information, from our perspective, every red flag went off that we had to spend some energy looking at some cookin.
The media pounced. Any comment about being a person of interest in that is prevalent, son. Kim's life was examined from every angle. Newspaper headlines blared his new nickname, The Panty Thief. And soon Brooke Wilberger. Family heard news reports that Kim, on the day of Brooke's disappearance, had purchased cinderblocks. I thought was. Maybe if he were the person and if he took Brock, then he might have titre to bricks and dropped her in a river.
Those reports about Kim buying bricks were never substantiated. His besieged family attempted to clear his name any way they could operate.
No, he's not likely to disappear, despite all the suspicion.
Was it possible that some Koo Kim really was innocent? New information about the person of interest in Brooke's disappearance.
You put all three of those together. That's an ironclad alibi. Where would the investigation lead? Nearly two weeks after Brooke Wilberger disappeared while working outside those apartments in Corvallis, Oregon, search teams spend the 12th day surveying acres of land.
The search was winding down. The official end would soon come. Members of Brooks family expressed their gratitude.
You've given up so much.
To help, and I was thinking yesterday, Brooke, will be saying they didn't even know me, and while detectives were still busy looking at Sunchoke Kim as a person of interest, at least one of Brooke's siblings took one look and thought, no way.
Never once for a second thought he had anything to do with it. I personally didn't because I just kept thinking she could get away from him.
You know, he just he didn't look very threatening to me.
And soon more reasons surfaced to cast doubt on the idea that Kim was involved in Brooke's disappearance. He offers an alibi while offering an alibi.
And us being able to validate that alibi are two different things.
But Kim's alibi for the day of Brooke's disappearance consisted of not just one, but three pieces of evidence put together.
They showed Kim could not have been in Corvallis at ten thirty a.m. when the kidnapping occurred.
First, records show an online purchase of 500 shares of stock, with Ameritrade executed on Kim's computer 75 miles from the crime scene at 1014 a.m. Pacific. Next, a witness came forward saying Kim answered a phone call at the family home at 12:00 10 p.m. and finally there was a videotape showing Kim and his father entering an electronics store in Portland at 142 pm and a receipt showing a purchase at the same store at 111 p.m..
We put all three of those together. That's an ironclad alibi. Steven Spielberg was one of Kim's attorneys.
Prosecutors should look at that and say this is a case we simply can't charge. We've got the wrong guy. Did they say that? They didn't. In fact, they went public naming Sungkyunkwan as a person of interest in the Walburga abduction.
Investigators insist it was a lead they had to follow when it came to Sunchoke Kim.
There were moments where we were challenging each other with how much time do we spend here, resuspended over there looking for someone who didn't want to chase the red herring with one hundred percent of our resources, it was the healthiest thing for the investigation. It made sure nothing fell through the cracks.
Any comment about being a person of interest? It took months, but authorities officially cleared Kim. Kim's family filed a lawsuit claiming excessive use of force in that nighttime's SWAT raid. The state of Oregon, without admitting any wrongdoing, eventually settled with the family paying them more than 330000 dollars.
There was a lot of pressure to try and save this young woman. Undoubtedly, the officers were were hoping that they could find her and hoping they could find her alive. But they really didn't have many facts here. And the search was done in a very aggressive, I think, quite radical fashion.
Kim was eventually convicted of burglary and other charges in connection with his Pandi stealing and served seven years of an 11 year prison sentence. He was released in 2012. The summer of 2004 wore on and investigators in the Wilberger case seem to be back at square one. Members of the FBI and the Corvallis Police Department worked hard, but leads were wearing thin.
The weeks turn into month, two months, three months. How frustrating is it to not have more of a lead?
It was extraordinarily stressful. You had a community looking for answers. You had a community that was scared. Was there somebody else out there who's going to be the next victim? And we've got a family in tremendous pain and they are hurting and they are doing everything they can to support us, to encourage us, to inspire the investigators to to not give up. In what sense?
They didn't turn. They never became an adversary. They were a partner with us. And it was incredible.
But the Wilberger were feeling the strain as well. And in September, three months after Brooks disappearance, it was time to return to school. Jessica was heading into eighth grade. I always thought about it.
You know, there were days I would get up in the morning and just feel like I don't want to do this today. But you just kind of I would, you know, put a smile on my face and I'd go to school and just worry about school.
Their mother, Cami, would do the same. Returning to her job as a third grade teacher.
How did you go back to school? How did you walk in the classroom and teach little third grade? You know what? I wasn't sure if I could do it, but it actually became very therapeutic because when I walked through that school door, I was Mrs. Wilberger. And it gives you the opportunity to love little children and to be concerned about their needs. And so it was really a good therapy for me. It kept my mind busy on other things.
The Wilberger didn't know it, but before the holidays would arrive in 2004, there would finally be a legitimate break in the case of the abduction of their daughter, Brooke. Halfway across the country, a college student runs screaming from a kidnapper. I told her, get in the car that I wouldn't let anybody hurt her. A lot of people didn't stop. Nobody stopped.
Would one woman's quick thinking helped bring Brooke home and. And six months after Brooke Wilberger disappearance, police in Corvallis, Oregon, were frustrated her family's hopes were fading slim, yet steadfast.
What was that Thanksgiving like around that table? We still had a good time just because we love each other and we still were pretty hopeful. I think when we get together for myself brings a lot of joy and a lot of comfort. And so even though we missed Brooke, there was there was just comfort in being together. Police announced the reward had been doubled, hoping more money would loosen lips and shake out new leads, but even investigators felt trapped as if it were Groundhog Day.
We don't have a suspect. We don't have any clear leads. Every press conference, simply another chance to make the same. Please help us find Brooke.
The investigation had kind of gone to a point where they were still plugging away, following up on tips, still talking to people, still turning over rocks, still searching. And we were at that point just hoping for something to break, just waiting for the difficult.
And then that very week, the last week of November 2004, it happened nearly 4500 miles away in New Mexico, a place aptly known as the Land of Enchantment, the break that they had been praying for in Albuquerque in one of the city's tougher neighborhoods, a waitress named Dara Finks was driving her SUV down the street with her three daughters just after dusk when they saw a young woman there.
We're sitting at the light and the girl comes running across the street. And my daughter in the front seat says that she doesn't have any clothes on.
That's kind of weird. You see a naked woman running around.
We're watching her run into the restaurant. My daughter was ready to jump out the car. And I'm like, no, no, no, wait. We'll go over there and, you know, see what's going on. It was clear, Dara says the young woman was in trouble frantically trying to get help from someone inside the restaurant across the street.
And no one helped her because we fooled around there. My daughter got out of the car and met her at the door and brought her over to the car, to your car. And that's when she said he's got a knife. He's trying to kill me. The woman said she'd been kidnapped but had escaped. I told her, get in the car, lock the door, that I wouldn't let anybody hurt her. How scared were you there? My tires on the front seat of my car.
My kids are in the car. I'm not going to let anybody hurt us. But then the young woman saw something back out in the street that made her scream. He was back. The man who had kidnapped her was looking for her. She sees him. She pointed at him. He was sitting at the light. The person who had kidnapped her kidnapped her. It was true the man with the knife had come to find her, Dehra called nine one one.
She described the man, his red compact car. Within minutes, police were there. A lot of people wouldn't have stopped. A lot of people didn't stop. Nobody stopped. There was a lot of traffic and help from the restaurant. She was in the restaurant at the counter talking to someone. Who was this young woman, blonde, blue eyed, abducted on her neck, what she said was a mark from her kidnappers knife. She was a college student, not from Oregon, but from Russia.
And the story this 22 year old told officers was pretty incredible, that she was walking home from work near the University of New Mexico campus. She noticed a small red car parked near the curb and a man standing next to it. But she didn't think much of it walked right past. A few steps later, she felt someone grab her from behind and hold a knife to her throat. Inside the car, she was sexually assaulted, then her abductors stopped in an apartment parking lot, tied her up with her own shoelaces and went inside.
Incredibly, the woman was able to wriggle free, left the shoelaces lying in the parking lot and ran into the street with no clothes on where she was rescued by Deira thinks. What made you want to help? What made you stop? My upbringing the way we were raised, I feel God put me here for a reason to help that girl because you knew we would help her.
It was gutsy as hell. And I think she's the hero. Dara is the hero of that night.
Teresa Whately was the prosecutor who would handle the case for the Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office.
Had they not been there, he would have picked her up again. He was waiting. He was lurking right there. I mean, there's no question what he was waiting for.
But though the victim was now safe, her attacker was still on the loose. The young woman gave an incredibly detailed description of the man and of his car.
She described the car seats down to the detail. She described the tinted windows.
She described the fact the car was two door, that it was red, and the victim remembered something else, a small stuffed animal on the car's side window.
It would be for me to enter Albuquerque police officer Ed Taylor. He showed up at the scene ready to help track down the bad guy. First, stop the apartments where the victim escaped from her kidnapper. So you go to the door of the apartment who answers?
It's a female or we went inside the apartment and right off the bat, you can tell that she was not going to be helpful at all. Not cooperating, not cooperating. She did tell us she knew him as Joe and he spoke Spanish. And that was about it. The name Joe. He spoke Spanish. Would it be enough to find him and four states away? Would it be enough to help find Brooks? Police tracked down a suspect in the New Mexico kidnapping case and start to speculate about his M.O..
This is not the first time he's done this. You don't start grabbing people in broad daylight when you're almost 40.
Was it possible this wasn't his first abduction?
On a November night in 2004, Albuquerque police were on a manhunt just blocks from the University of New Mexico campus. A man had kidnapped a 22 year old student off the street and sexually assaulted her. But when he carelessly tied her up and left her in his car, she bolted, run naked into traffic and thankfully been rescued by this woman. That could be my daughter. She's a human being. She did not deserve to be run down the road with no clothes on.
Now, Albuquerque police officer Ed Taylor was among those looking for the suspect, a white male with a shaved head wearing a cap. Police had learned from a woman who lived in the apartments where the victim escaped, but the man's name was Cho, that he spoke Spanish. She would say no more. I went back to the substation. I spoke to my supervisor. I told him I believe if I went by myself, she will tell me more information.
Why? Why did you have that feeling? I thought I had a connection with him. So I return to the location and I told her, I said, this is what's going on. This is what happened. Basically, God forbid something like this were to happen to you or somebody, you know. And she reluctantly ended up telling me you might be able to locate the vehicle behind the restaurant just south of Gibson. Riding solo. Officer Taylor followed the woman's directions and found a red two door Honda parked on a dead end street, a stuffed animal stuck to the window.
So I waited a little bit and a few minutes later, I noticed three individuals walking out of. That that House, White House and walking towards me, I called out to him, was Joe Joe. And he acknowledged me. And as he got closer to your vehicle, he said, yes, I had him turn around and I placed him in custody. Did you find anything on him? I found a glass pipe used to smoke crack cocaine and a small knife.
Did he ever ask you why he was under arrest? No, I didn't say anything. He knew he was caught.
Court was Joel Patrick Courtney, soon identified by his victim and booked into jail on charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery.
Joel Courtney was 38 years old.
He lived in this Albuquerque suburb, Rio Rancho, in this home with his wife and three young children.
He'd worked as a mechanic and fisherman and had lived all over the United States.
A fluent Spanish speaker, he'd also lived in Mexico. But the man who appeared in family photos as the ever smiling, attentive father. Also had a dark side six months before his wife had taken out a restraining order against him, reporting he had choked her the first time I saw him.
I remember thinking it was as strong a reaction as I had had to Richard Ramirez Ramirez, the notorious Night Stalker convicted of murdering more than a dozen people in the 1980s.
He died in 2013, awaiting execution on California's death row.
Prosecutor Teresa Whately once crossed paths with Ramirez in a courtroom. He actually made the hair on my arm stand up because he was so evil.
The only other person who's ever done that to me is Joel. Courtney, when you first read the reports about this case, what went through your mind as a prosecutor that this is not the first time he's done this? You don't start grabbing people in broad daylight off the street and grab into your car when you're almost 40. That's not the way the criminal mind works. The New Mexico prosecutor didn't know yet how right she was. And back in Oregon, the Wilberger family knew nothing yet of these developments as they faced the holidays, still hoping Brooke would walk through the door and take her place on the stairs for the family's annual Christmas pageant.
And pictures smiling angel.
That's exactly what we kept thinking. This can't happen. This just can't happen. This is Brooke. You know, she's too full of life. She's too, too dynamic and too much a part of us. I've got to keep hoping and I've got to keep thinking positive.
This is my home. Where was, Brooke, six months had passed, was she still alive somehow, somewhere? Her sister Stephanie was dealing with a lot of guilt. Brooke was working for her when she disappeared. I was driving somewhere and just reflecting on where we were so far. And I remember thinking, gosh, I wonder I wonder what it will be like when I don't think about this every day. What could I have done differently or what if what if just this little thing had changed but something was finally about to change?
The quick thinking that led to Joel Courtney's capture in New Mexico was about to lead to more questions. And investigators would soon want to know if this father of three now charged in a daring abduction, could also be the man who took Brooke. It was not just police asking questions about Brooks case. So was the suspect's own sister. There were some similarities. And so you thought to yourself, could it be it was unthinkable. We're well into Q4, and if you've got open rolls, you're probably trying to fill them as soon as possible, indeed can help you start finding your next great hire as soon as today.
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Joel Patrick Courtney was sitting in jail in Albuquerque. It was December 2004, the married father of three was facing decades in prison if convicted of kidnapping, sexual assault and battery charges. He'd been caught carrying a knife and a crack pipe. Hours after a University of New Mexico student said Joel Courtney abducted her near campus and sexually assaulted her. Miraculously, she had escaped.
This is an incredibly brazen crime. He abducts her in broad daylight 645. It's probably just about dark. That's either incredibly stupid or insane. No, it's experienced. He knows what he's doing. He's done it before, he knows how to make it happen. He picked his spot really well. It's a very quiet street. Is dinnertime as awful as it sounds?
It's a smart move for what he's trying to do, but it didn't work.
And with Joel Courtney safely in custody, Albuquerque police began a routine background check on their suspect.
They found that in addition to New Mexico, he'd lived in several states, Alaska, Florida and Oregon.
And a detective noticed that nearly a year before, in January 2004 in coastal Lincoln County, Oregon, Courtney had been pulled over by a state trooper and charged with driving under the influence.
But Courtney had failed to appear in court, so a warrant had been issued for his arrest. And that's when an Albuquerque detective did something he didn't have to do.
He decided to dig deeper, picked up the phone and made a call to Oregon that would lead to a long awaited break. In the case of Brooke Wilberger.
He calls up Lincoln County Sheriff's Department and he gets to a detective and says, hey, what do you know about this case? This is what he did down in New Mexico. And he's relaying the circumstances.
And the Lincoln County detective having heard about Brooke's case, because everyone here, everybody knows about it, says to him, you need to call Corales Police Department.
It's that simple. And he does.
Did somebody yell out over the phone, I got it like that or not that dramatic?
There was an element of of cautious optimism with this sounds really good, but you can't jump in with both feet and just go crazy.
Sure. Because we've been down that road so many times.
As investigators began checking out this new lead on Joel, Courtney charged four states away with abducting a blond, blue eyed college coed. A call went out to Brooke Wilberger family. They had waited more than six months for news. Any news about their daughter's disappearance? Now, there was a man in custody who they thought might be able to reunite them with their daughter, just as Elizabeth Smart had been returned to her family. What are you thinking in that when you hear this?
Actually, I had prayed so faithfully all fall that whoever had done this would make a mistake. And when I heard the news, I thought. They made a mistake. They tried it again and no one else knew what I prayed because I hadn't told anyone else because it was always fine, Brooke, you know, help us to find. I guess that was a selfish prayer, you know, to help whoever had done this, to make a mistake.
And then I felt like they made a mistake.
But if this mistake could help find Brooke, investigators first had to find out all they could about this latest possible suspect. And specifically, they wanted to know more about that suspect's ties to Oregon, detectives quickly determined that Joel Courtney grew up in Beaverton, a Portland suburb about 75 miles from where Brooke disappeared. But that had been 20 years before. Police also knew he had lived in several different states. The question was, had Courtney been anywhere near Corvallis on the day of the kidnapping?
There was one person who could answer that question and many more. Her name, Dena McBride. She is Joel, Courtney's older sister. She lives in Portland.
My first thought is cute, dimpled, little blond haired, mischievous kid, you know, with a sweet little spirit and a hilarious laugh.
Days before Corvallis, police got that phone call from Albuquerque and heard the name Joel Courtney. For the first time, Dena had received a call herself. It was from Joel's wife with word of his arrest in New Mexico. Deena and her mother took in the news together.
How did your mom react? She was horrified. You know, there were very, very few details that she felt like the truth needs to come out.
But the truth was hard to figure out. In those first moments. The scowling man in the mug shot was hardly the Joel his sister knew when he was little.
I remember him coming home from the hospital. I remember him toddling. I remember all the classic childhood milestones. And we were a very, very happy family. At some point, did you see a shift when he was probably 11 ish, he started hanging out with some older kids. I remember my mom kind of backtracking and saying, you know, I think that's really when it started.
It was Joel's drug use. And before long, when Joel became a teenager, more reason to worry.
He was starting to dabble in some Satanism a little bit and kind of explaining how much power it gave him and a sense of, you know, a rush of being a control or whatever. And, you know, he was pretty good at throwing a punch here. There scare you? Yeah, hurt me. Yeah. So around the same time that he dabbles in Satanism, he starts becoming physical.
But as Joel got older and more violent, his sister says he was handsome enough, charming enough and smart enough to get away with a lot of bad behavior.
At some point in time. It was the wrong thing to have IQ testing in school. I remember not being as smart as I had hoped and hearing that he had a genius level, IQ and genius level. Did he study a lot? Did he read books? He loved to read books, but now he kind of got away with really good grades, with very little effort, which seemed monumentally unfair to me. Joel Courteney's luck would eventually run out.
He had a string of arrests for shoplifting and other offenses and was in and out of juvenile detention until he was 18. That's when Joel admitted beating and sexually assaulting a woman he had known in high school. He blamed the crime on drugs and alcohol, and a judge sentenced Courtney to probation. He never finished high school and worked various jobs as a fisherman in Alaska and as a mechanic. He got married at 23 to Rosie, who was from Mexico.
He and Rosie had three children, and eventually Courtney seemed to settle down, savouring his role as a father and building a life in that home in an Albuquerque suburb.
What kind of father was he changed diapers, he got up in the middle of the night, he made lunches, he knows there are a lot of pictures of him on the ground wrestling with the kids and, you know, laying in the grass, you know, looking at four leaf clover kind of stuff, kind of just the kind of dad that we had, that kind of dad who's involved and wanted to be there for his kids.
But now, at age 38, this seemingly loving father was facing the trial of his life, locked up, caught with a crack pipe and a knife, charged with kidnapping and sexual assault.
And given his checkered history, something maybe intuition, maybe the massive media coverage throughout Oregon of a similar crime, a young, beautiful female college student snatched off the street just months before something compelled Dina and her family to ask the question themselves, the very questions Corvallis police were just beginning to look at.
Just the details that we heard about the case in New Mexico, there were some. Similarities, and so you thought to yourself, could it be? No, I mean, you couldn't even say the whole sentence because it was unthinkable. Right.
New clues provide an answer and break Brooks case wide open. This was dynamite. The US. Time seemed to tick by so slowly during those long months when investigators were searching for clues in the disappearance of Brooke Wilberger, minutes, hours, days. But in early December 2004, more than six months after she went missing, it was as if the clock suddenly sped up. Police in Corvallis, Oregon, were struck by the parallels between Brooke's abduction and the crimes Joel Patrick Courtney was accused of in Albuquerque.
From our perspective, it's a signature crime right next to the University of Mexico campus. Young woman, you know, attractive, broad daylight abduction in a vehicle drives away. So, yeah, we're real excited that we're on the right track at that point.
By the time police learned Joe Courtney's name, Joel's sister Dina and her family had been thinking about the same connection for days.
We couldn't even say the words. I thought we actually were up to late hours of the morning going back over the calendar thinking, could he have done that? We decided to pray about it. What were your prayers? We really prayed that God would would give us wisdom that we would make the right choices, that we would speak when we needed to speak and not speak, only when it was not wise.
Dina waited, saying nothing until a week later. Corvallis police looking for information about her brother called her in that moment.
Do you know in your heart that he did something? In that moment, I did not know that I thought. Too many coincidences to automatically discount it, right? You can't just assume because he's your brother, somebody that you love that he couldn't have.
Right. What Dina told police was revealing during their first interviews, she shared some dark family secrets when she was a teenager. Her brother Joel had attacked her. He would come in in the middle of the night and put her hand around my neck and attempt to sexually assault me more than once, more than once. And I have had a great old fashioned windup alarm clock that met his head to more.
Courtney family members would soon come forward claiming Joel had raped or tried to rape them.
The further we got into the investigation, as far as the number of people we interviewed, the more sexual assaults came to light and more pieces of the puzzle were coming together quickly.
Despite their troubled past, Dina and Joel had maintained a relationship over the years.
Joel's sister now showed police photographs of Joel and his family not at their home in New Mexico, but visiting Dina's home in the Portland suburbs in May 2004, the very month Brooke Wilberger disappeared.
Joel, his wife Rosie, and three kids needed a place to stay.
Joel had gotten a job supervising a cleaning crew, a job that meant he'd be traveling all over the state of Oregon.
We were under the impression they'd be there for a couple of months. A lot of the time there would be, you know, he would bow out fairly early on. I've got to go do something for work. And so it was mostly rosy and the kids with the rest of us. So he was traveling quite a bit. That was my understanding. Yeah.
And then this bombshell, May 24th, the day Brooke was abducted, was one of those days when Joel Courtney was traveling. He had a court date, turns out over on the Oregon coast on that drunken driving charge. But he never showed up. According to court records, he called the courthouse and said he was going to be late. And that phone call was made from the very town where Brooke disappeared. Joel Courtney then disappeared for about 36 hours before returning to Dina's home in the Portland suburbs.
He walked through the door and announced kind of loudly, you'll never believe what happened. And I said, OK, where were you? I was kidnapped. There were these guys there, guns and knives. And we were in the woods and it was raining and cold. And there was a girl there and we were hiding and, you know, there was blood and it was awful at the time.
Deena chalked it up to Joel's chronic drug abuse.
He's delusional. You just think he's coming off some bad drugs. You don't call no woman. No.
Dina says she didn't feel like she was in danger in that moment, so she did not call authorities.
But all those months later, sitting with investigators, she suddenly realized how crucial that strange conversation with Joel might have been. Just as I was saying it, it it occurred to me, oh, my word. Could he have been was he talking about that?
And she remembered the very next day after Brooke disappeared, her brother Joel would visit his doctor in Portland complaining of chest pains and anxiety.
But all this information, while damning, was nothing more than circumstantial evidence of Joel's potential involvement in Brooke's disappearance without Brooke or if she were dead.
Her body detectives had no physical proof linking Joel to the crime until that is, police learned what Joel was driving the day Brooke disappeared, a green Dodge Caravan with Minnesota license plates supplied by the cleaning company he worked for the minute.
You hear green minivan with a Minnesota plate, somebody remembers it. That was one of your tips.
Well, absolutely. Actually, two separate tips pulled from the database of thousands called in to police, the first at 930 a.m. just an hour before and 100 yards north of where Brook was kidnapped. A blonde OSU student said a white male adult in a green minivan approached her and opened the back of his van to look for a map.
When she saw a blanket on the floor, she rushed off, telling the man she was late for class. Then a university athletic official called to report a man in a Dodge Caravan, possibly green with Minnesota plates, asking a female student for directions in the stadium parking lot in close proximity to where Wilberger was abducted. The witness was later asked to. Identify the man in a photo lineup and picked out Joe Courtney. I mean, this was dynamite to us.
This told us this is our guy at the moment. You know, we need to focus on him, find the van. That's our one piece of physical evidence that we've got to get now. And that's exactly what the FBI did. Agent Joe Boya found the van in Washington state and had it taken apart piece by piece and shipped to an FBI lab across the country.
We knew that if we were going to prove that Joe Courtney was responsible for this, the best chance we had was to find evidence of Brooke being in the van. The Wilberger family was informed. They wanted to know the truth, but we're almost afraid to discover more about Joe Courtney and his crimes and Googled them and passed it on to you Googled him?
Sure, yeah. What was it like to see his face? You know, I just looked at him and at that point, it was just a feeling, you know, even then I didn't feel hatred, you know, it was just I was all about getting Brooke back. I want to know what you did and where she is. But neither the Wilberger nor investigators nor Courtney's sister could ever have guessed how they would get the answer to the question.
Where was Brooke? Evidence finally implicates Joel Courtney in Brooke's kidnapping. That's the smoking gun. That's the nail in the coffin. But will that help bring Brooke home?
In the months after Joel Courtney had emerged as a suspect in Brookwell Bergers disappearance, Brooke's mom had desperately tried to hold on to the hope that her daughter was still alive. But Cami Wilberger heart was finally giving in to what her head was telling her. I just had this sick feeling, even though I would never give up hope. You know, my my motherly hope was always there.
I knew deep down that, you know, she was probably gone and it would be another mom in another state who would move the story forward. Joel Courtney had already been interviewed by the FBI, but refused to answer any questions, and when shown her photo, he denied ever seeing Brooke. But when confronted by his own mother, Courtney came perilously close to a confession.
She actually asked him point blank, Joel, did you do this? And he said, it's not really what it seems like and I'll never be held accountable for this. He said that to your mother. They'll never hold me accountable for this. Why would he say that?
Because I don't think that he feels the need to be held accountable for the things that he does power to power and doesn't have to play by the same rules that other people have to the rules to investigators.
It did seem like Joel Courtney thought he was playing a game. The inmate whose sister said he had above average intelligence, knew that without physical evidence or Brooke's body, it would be nearly impossible for investigators to charge him with murder. By the spring of 2005, FBI scientists were working feverishly examining every inch of that green minivan. Joel once drove hunting for DNA evidence.
On the day marking the first anniversary of Brooks abduction, her family and police dutifully held a news conference privately. The family had held the secret for months that police had a strong suspect and that Brooke was likely no longer alive. Yet in public, they held fast.
You still have that hope, though. You don't give that up.
One year after Brooke Wilberger disappeared, her tattered picture is still posted on street signs in Corvallis. But as local stations played the story of a grim anniversary, some real news was about to break.
And we were heading back to Eugene and we got a call and they said, how far out of town are you? And we said, well, not too far. They said, could you come back?
Unbelievably, that very day on the one year anniversary of Brooke's disappearance, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Joe Boyer had received a long awaited call from the lab. They told me that you're not going to believe what we found. And I said, well, what is that? They said, we found Joel Courtney's DNA in the van. And I said, well, that's good, but that doesn't quite get us there. And they said, we also found Brookwell Berger's DNA in the carpet in the van.
It was the physical evidence they'd been waiting for. Beneath the back seat in the minivan's carpet, analysts had found material consistent with a mixture of male and female DNA belonging to Joel Courtney and Brooke Wilberger.
What happens here at Corvallis police headquarters when you find that out?
It was sort of an amazing day. That's the smoking gun. That's the nail in the coffin.
The Wilberger returned to Corvallis to get the news themselves, and they said we got a DNA confirmation that Brooke's DNA and his DNA were in the van together to break down. No, you know, you just you get up for certain things here. You just steel yourself for that. And it was like, yes, you know, and then and then, of course, I saw it the whole way home.
The DNA evidence had revealed details no mother should ever have to hear and no witness had yet disclosed.
It was the nature of the DNA evidence which told an even bigger story.
Benton County, Oregon, district attorney John Haralson.
The DNA evidence was in the form of bodily fluids which were commingled that.
Told us a story in terms of what had occurred in that man, the comingled DNA indicated Brooke had been raped. So Joel Courtney was charged with that crime in addition to kidnapping and murder.
So you've got him in Corvallis. You've got near the point of abduction. You've got evidence that she was in his van, that he assaulted her in that van. The only thing you don't have is Brooke Wilberger.
Yes. You charge him with the death penalty, correct? I believe that was justified by the evidence we have before us. News of the indictment had not leaked out yet. As Joel Courtney sat in a New Mexico courtroom for a hearing on that case. He was served with the Oregon charges. They came to court.
They gave it to me. I gave it to the defense attorney who gave it to Courtney in the jury box with other inmates. And he starts laughing when he's reading death penalty, death penalty. And he's laughing. He's laughing and laughing and he's showing it off to all of the other inmates. Like, this is a badge of honor somehow. What does that tell you? Oh, that we read him exactly right, that this is something he's proud of.
I think he felt at that time, particularly because he knew in that case, they did not have the body, that this is just something he could enjoy because it wasn't really going to affect him in the long term.
And from that day forward, Joel Courtney did everything he could to delay and disrupt his own case. He knew that the charges here in New Mexico of kidnapping and rape would have to be dealt with before he could ever be sent back to Oregon. So he did all he could to turn the proceedings here into a farce. That meant he sometimes didn't communicate with his own legal team. He even fired one of his own attorneys. And at other times he refused to show up for court appearances.
And then finally, Joel Courtney claimed he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Once that was brought up, when he would come into court, he would come in all bowed down, he would shuffle. He would only look at the floor. His whole demeanor had changed because now he wanted to be incompetent because we couldn't try him. What did you think was really going on? Oh, it was totally an act. It was absolutely an act.
Nonetheless, Courtney had to be tested by mental health experts at the state hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The FBI now worried Courtney might try to flee.
I was concerned that the entire time he would be looking for an opportunity to escape his fluent Spanish. I felt that he was going to head south, cross the border where he'd lived before and disappear into Mexico and make it very difficult for us to find him.
And as the fight over whether or not Courtney was competent to stand trial dragged on through 2007, Brooke's mom was struggling for her. The mission to find her daughter was no longer a rescue mission, but one of recovery. And her hopes were being threatened by what many saw as the courtroom shenanigans of Joe Courtney.
I can remember one time I was near the edge. I knew that if they found him mentally incapable, that that was a black hole for us. Because we would never give Iraq, he would never come to Oregon. He would be there forever, you know, playing this game.
It was nearly a year before a New Mexico judge finally ruled in January 2007, nearly three years after Brooke disappeared, that Joel Courtney was competent to stand trial.
We were on our way to San Francisco and we got a phone call and he said they found him mentally stable. And we got out of the car. The girls and I did a dance around the car.
It was just like I just felt like the world was lifted and I didn't realize how close I was. Maybe, you know, to want to just be a breaking point until I felt that being lifted.
And then it was like, OK, we can do this.
Later that year, in September 2007, Joel Courtney would finally plead guilty to kidnapping and sexually assaulting that University of New Mexico student he snatched off the street, the young woman who somehow escaped at his sentencing, another circus.
It didn't take long for Joel Patrick Courtney to tell District Judge Kenneth Martinez exactly what he thinks of it.
I have no respect for this court. This is what the rudest person I've ever met. I do believe that you are again attempting to delay this matter as you have repeatedly.
The judge sentenced Joel Courtney to 18 years in prison, but not before Courtney took a parting shot.
I would still face if I was close enough, time had finally run out for Joel Courtney. He would soon be back on his way to Oregon, where investigators were ready for his head games. Their goal, the same as it had been for years to find Brooke. There was a degree of vigor. You are not going to win. Joe Courtney, we will.
Brooks family issues a plea to Joel Courtney to help them finally find Brooke. We just wanted her back. We just wanted her stuff. We just wanted to bring her home.
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I shop on racketing. Start shopping and earn cash back today, and Racket's in dotcom. Joel Courtney was finally in an Oregon courtroom pleading not guilty to murder charges. It was the spring of 2008, a full four years after Brooke Wilberger had disappeared. The man charged with stealing a beautiful 19 year old from her loved ones had also stolen years from their lives. He'd manipulated the legal system, forced delays in New Mexico to avoid returning to Oregon to face charges.
If he were convicted now, it could mean the death penalty.
Did you think that he deserved to die? It didn't matter. It was. We know the end result. How did it happen and where is she? And so it wasn't a feeling of revenge or a feeling of retribution. It was just, OK, what now? How do we now find her and recover her?
The family simply needed to know. Remember, thousands of searchers had covered dozens of square miles in every direction from Oregon's coastal range of mountains to its rocky coast without any success. Joel Courtney had not said a word to police or prosecutors since asking for a lawyer years before the man who had studied law books in jail had to know that despite DNA evidence linking him to Brooks rape and murder without a body, the prosecution's case would be much harder to prove. So if Courtney knew where to find Brooke, he was keeping the secret to himself.
D.A. John Haralson, you can't appeal to this man to just do the right thing, can you?
I never saw that as an incentive for him.
I felt that the incentives were probably going to be more based from the perspective of a narcissist, selfish than. Yes. What can you do for me versus what can I do for society?
And so the prosecutor thought what could be more precious to a narcissist than his own life? After consulting with the Wilberger, the D.A. offered Courtney a deal, admit to Brooke's murder, reveal the location of her body and avoid the death penalty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Actually, that was you know, that's what we hoped for, because the death penalty would draw it out years. But she wanted something in return. We wanted Brooke. We wanted her remains. Why was that so important to the family? We just wanted her back. We just wanted her still. I mean, our goal was still really the same, that we just wanted to bring her home, clearly not the way that we had hoped. But I think that it was important to us to have her just to get her back.
So the prosecutor went to Courtney with the deal and true to form, the inmate made everyone wait again for months until his defense lawyers delivered the word. Joel Courtney was not interested. He did not return a counteroffer. He outright rejected our offer.
I feels like holding her family hostage in some ways, you know? Courtney's sister, Dina, watched all this unfold, knowing a trial would mean she'd have to testify about the times Joel tried to rape her as a teenager about his unexpected visit to her Oregon home just before Brooke's abduction and about his incriminating, presumably drug induced statements. Dina knew her testimony could help put her own brother on death row.
My mom and I actually talked about this before she got sick and talked about, you know, we've always said we believe in death penalty. And here it is, your brother, my brother, her son. And so if you believe in it, for some person that you don't know, does that still hold true? If it's your loved one and you did a lot of thinking and praying about it, and we came to the conclusion that, yeah, we still did.
Dina says she was ready to testify, but what she didn't know was that the pressure was building on her brother to find another way out in New Mexico. The courts rejected his appeals, and life in Oregon's jails wasn't pleasant for a notorious inmate whose alleged crimes against women were now well known. More than once, Courtney was beaten by fellow inmates. Then there were new charges of assault after Courtney threw a fax machine at a prison doctor who wouldn't give him what he wanted.
That was the very beginning of the end.
Why do you say that? We knew that he was frustrated. He was feeling it. It was getting close because he threw the fax machine because he couldn't get some antianxiety anxiety medication. So we knew that he was feeling very anxious.
But still no sign Joel Courtney was willing to reveal the location of Brooke's body. The prosecutor was fed up. He was ready for a trial.
Still, the judge wasn't quite ready to move on. He asked both sides to try one last time to settle the case before trial. During weeks of tense talks with Joel Courtney's attorneys, the prosecutor finally discovered the one incentive that might appeal to Courtney and give the Wilberger their daughter back. Courtney wanted out of Oregon he might admit to murder and reveal the location of Brooke's remains if he could serve his prison time near his own family in New Mexico.
The Wilberger family quickly agreed anything they thought to get Brooke back.
We needed to have the approval of the Oregon governor and we needed to have the approval of the New Mexico governor. Those were the two final pieces you would think they would give their approval.
We were becoming extremely concerned that this process was taking so long that Joel Courtney was going to change his mind and walk away. And we desperately needed that approval and we needed it now.
But while Oregon's governor signed off on the deal almost immediately, New Mexico did not. Brooke's family couldn't believe it.
I was frustrated to think that something like that could stop this whole process that had gone so far. And you've come so far and we've gotten so close and here we were, you know, at this point. And then to think that it could all fall apart because of that. So Brooke's mom decided to make a personal plea to the governor of New Mexico to try to get her daughter back. This one was unusual.
I wanted full details and I wanted to be sure that I did the right thing.
I said that we had gone through a lot already, impaling to their hearts.
I was the emotional plea from Brooke's mother for the deal that would finally solve the mystery. Where was Brooke? So many years had passed, and now that the deal was nearly done, that might allow Brooke Wilberger family to bring her body home, could it all fall apart at the last minute?
Brooke, suspected killer Joel Courtney had agreed to tell investigators where Brooke's body was if he could spend the rest of his life not in an Oregon prison, but in New Mexico. Oregon's governor was set to sign the agreement, so it was up to then New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who hesitated.
You're talking about a convicted rapist and a man who's accused of a heinous murder. I imagine you must have thought, well, I don't know if I want this person in our state.
Well, that's true. He was a very bad guy. And I said to my staff, let's be sure of all the facts. Let's be sure that we're doing the right thing.
Richardson wanted to hear from Brooke's family. Brooke's mother, Cami Wilberger, called the state capitol and spoke with a top aide.
Do you remember the exact words that you used in that call? I remember that I said that we had gone through a lot already and that we were hoping that this could be the end of it and that we would just hope that they would, you know, consider it more appealing to their hearts.
I was how critical was that phone call, that personal phone call from the Wilberger family to your office?
Well, it was absolutely critical. As long as there's life imprisonment, as long as the family of Brooke Wilberger felt that this would bring closure, I was comfortable and signing this agreement.
It was done the word police in Corvallis had been waiting for.
I think we were all kind of on pins and needles for several days there.
That call finally comes. Yeah, I remember learning that the document was signed. The plea was done. Now it's a matter of we've got to find a way to get from him where she actually is.
What had happened to Brooke, her family and investigators who had spent more than five years trying to answer that question would in the coming days get their first details from her killer, Joel Courtney? Courtney's lawyers relayed the story to the D.A., who then told Brooke's family, I thought everything had been difficult until that time when he told us the details of the crime.
It was the first time I'd heard some of them. And he was just all I could tell her, to just sit there and just look straight ahead. And and I just kept thinking, you can get through this day. You can you can get through this day. The story told by Joel Courtney was this, he said that morning in May he was high on cocaine when he drove up to Brooke in the parking lot in his green van, asked for help delivering a package.
And when she came closer, he pulled out a knife and pulled her into the van. Brooke began screaming as he tore her out of her flip flops. From there, Courtney said, he drove west toward the town of fellowman. He kept Brooke tied up in the van for hours, even going through a McDonald's drive through, he said doing more drugs before night fell. He raped Brooke and when she fought back, he killed her by bludgeoning her in the head with a piece of wood before concealing her body in the forest.
But to know that she fought know, which didn't surprise us. It was just a really difficult time and very emotional, I think, for all of us as a family. And in addition to those details, Joel Courtney provided the most critical piece of information, what Brooke's family and investigators had been waiting for.
He drew a rough hand sketched map that he says depicts where he took her. Do you know this location?
It's not too far away. Detectives drove from the police department past the apartment complex where Brooke was abducted west five miles through the small town of fellowman, then five miles further off the highway onto a logging road shown on the map.
Had you been there? Not precisely. Close by searching. Absolutely.
Ten miles is so close by.
Yeah, but it may as well be an attorney. We went up into the woods and we're trying again to be quiet. We don't want the world to know.
And we're looking and we're not finding. And I remember being rather frustrated. Did you think he lied? Well, I certainly crossed our minds that he lied.
The team called it a night, but the next day they went back with more details supplied by Joel Courtney.
OK, it's about 940 a.m. on September 19th.
And with the help of a cadaver dog through heavy timber just a few hundred yards off that highway, chief deputy medical examiner came back, said, I think we're I think we found her on a hillside.
Investigators found some clothing, including a sweatshirt. And before long, small flags, sadly marked several spots where human remains had been recovered. One of Oregon's most timeless mysteries had apparently been solved. I certainly can't sit here and tell you that I wasn't choked up a few times. Yeah, there were emotional times there, but it would take time to identify the remains.
So searchers told the district attorney about one particular item found on that hillside.
They wanted him to ask Brooke's parents about it. He texted me and said, can you describe Brooke's watch? That was the watch that you gave her for Christmas.
That beautiful watch Brooke had wanted so badly. One of the last gifts Cami would ever buy for her daughter now signaled the time had come.
So I described her watch and he said we found her. It was like having the first day and six years and then the snowball just came down on top of it. Everything landed on you.
Brooke's parents then told the rest of the family the wait was over when she just said the words they found, Brooke.
It was I didn't feel excitement at all. And it wasn't what I thought I would feel. I just I sat there and I cried and I cried. The hope of her coming home alive was just kind of torn for me. In that moment, I felt such a powerful wave of emotion and heaviness in my heart as a human being, as a parent.
I was just personally really, really struck at that point with what that really meant for the family, that the dream of an Elizabeth Smart miracle would be dashed forever.
The next day, Joel Courtney pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Do you remember that day?
I just remember thinking, how could you have done that to the precious child? I can't imagine holding out for that long without. Needing to come forward and say this is the truth and here is your precious baby, after sentencing, most of Brooke's family paid a brief visit to the site where Brooks remains were found. I could hardly breathe, and it was wooded and shaded. And someone made the comment that, you know, it was a beautiful, peaceful place.
And I thought it would be if your daughter hadn't been murdered.
Here at the Corvallis library, a number of police agencies gather at the end of a five year effort.
And as the news broke that day, Brooke's mother stepped to the podium to say thank you, not only to thank those investigators who had worked so hard toward this day, but also in a moment of incredible grace to thank Brooke's killer.
It might be hard for you to understand, but at this time, we just really feel gratitude, even to Mr. Courtney that he could. See fit to tell us where he left Barack. And for our family, what happens to him, we're thankful that justice was served and that he will not have the opportunity for parole, but now he can go on with what's left of his life and we want to strengthen our family and to go on with our life.
Did it surprise you to hear Mrs. Wilberger say thank you to Joe Courtney? That it surprised me. They are a giving and caring family you can only hate for so long.
At some point as people, we have to be able to get beyond that.
People always throw the word closure around. When people use that term, they're they're trying to be helpful and comforting. But I think in the death of anyone, there's no closure.
It is the end of a horrible ordeal, one that lasted much longer than it needed to. For Brooke's killer, Joel Courtney, a lifetime of solitude awaits at the penitentiary of New Mexico.
You have no sympathy for this man? No, I think he's an animal. I hope he feels trapped. Caged. Defeated. Weak, he's been beaten at his game and like it or not, accountable. And many wonder, would Joel Courtney have been caught if a waitress and mom in New Mexico named Derek Finks hadn't taken the time to save another woman from an unknown fate? What would have happened if Darah hadn't stopped the victim would be dead? I've no doubt that he would have grabbed her again and we would never have found her.
And for Brooke Wilberger family, they keep Brooke's wristwatch along with their memories, knowing that time is healing. I don't think that I could be 80 years old and and have my entire life behind me. And I don't think that I will ever reflect on what happened to her and be OK with it. You know, time's not going to make that OK. She was the person you wanted to be or be like she emulated everything that was good, that she was my sister.
And that was it's just was a really neat thing.