DA: Courtney high on cocaine during Wilberger abduction

Credit: State of New Mexico

Joel Courtney was extradicted to New Mexico after striking a deal that led to the remains of Brooke Wilberger. This mug shot was taken Tuesday, Sept. 22.

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by By DAVID KROUGH and kgw.com Staff

KTVB.COM

Posted on September 23, 2009 at 11:06 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 14 at 4:33 PM

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Benton County district attorney John Haroldsen told KGW in an interview that Joel Courtney was high on cocaine when he abducted Brooke Wilberger at knifepoint.

He also said Wilberger was killed by a blow to the head with a piece of wood. He had taken her to a forested area in Coast Range, about twenty minutes west of Corvallis on Highway 20.

During the abduction, Courtney, hungry, went to a McDonald's with Wilberger bound and gagged in the van.

Courtney was returned to a New Mexico prison Tuesday, one day after authorities announced the dramatic resolution to the murder of BYU student Wilberger.

Authorities announced Monday they had located the remains of the Corvallis murder victim based in information provided by Courtney. In exchange, Courtney pled guilty to murder, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The deal that led to Wilberger's remains was struck last Friday between Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Joel Courtney was processed into New Mexico's corrections department on Tuesday.

Gov. Richardson agreed that Courtney would spend the remainder of his 18-year prison sentence for raping a University of New Mexico student in exchange for a guilty plea deal with Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson, according to Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesperson for Richardson.

Wilberger remains found

Wilberger's killer, Joel Courtney was to go on trial here in February 2010. The deal allowed him to change his plea and receive a life sentence instead of a death penalty trial.

Dramatic resolution to case

In a news conference Monday investigators disclosed new details about the crime.

Wilberger disappeared on May 24, 2004 while working part-time at an apartment complex managed by her sister. She had just completed her freshman year at Brigham Young University. She graduated in 2003 from Elmira High.

The same day that Courtney kidnapped Wilberger, he attempted to kidnap two different female students but both were able to get away. More:

Courtney was first eyed as a suspect after he was arrested in New Mexico for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a college student there. He was extradited to Oregon in 2008.

Courtney's sister on Tuesday released a statement supporting the investigation, saying she loved her brother but also had to sympathize with the Wilberger family. ?Read:

Wilberger's remains were positively identified after being found in a wooded area on private property near Highway 20 in Benton County over the weekend of September 19-20. Officials said recovery efforts were still under way Monday.

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Plea negotiations unveil details

A statement issued Monday indicated Courtney told authorities where Wilberger's remains were found during negotiations over a plea agreement.

"He (Courtney) abducted her, he raped her, he murdered her and left the body in the woods." Haroldson said. "He will never be able to do this to another person again."

Courtney told detectives he was driving the van that pulled into the lot Brooke was working in and pulled a U-Turn to block the view of Brooke. He then got out of the car with a Fed Ex envelope acting as a delivery person to get close to her.

Courtney said he abducted her at knifepoint and pulled her into the van, then drove a short distance and bound her with duct tape - a method similar to the crime he was convicted of in New Mexico.

Witnesses told investigators they'd heard a "blood-curdling scream" at the time she disappeared. Witnesses later placed Courtney and his green mini-van near the scene at the time of Brooke's disappearance.

"(Brooke) was trapped at the end of a parking area with no way out and no one to see her," Haroldson said.

Haroldson said the next 24 hours, Brooke was kept alone "deep in the woods." Haroldson said Courtney left her alive in the woods, and went into town at one point, before returning, when he sexually assaulted her. He also was using drugs at the time.

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The cause of death was bludgeoning to the head, Haroldson said.

Courtney told authorities he was "surprised that she fought so hard," according to Haroldson.

Family finally gets justice

"It's been a long haul for all of us, but today we are grateful to all the law enforcement personnel who searched for so long and never gave up hope," Brooke's mother Cammy Wilberger said. "Our family's kind of likened this to an iceberg experience, although what the public sees is devastating ? just the little details the public never knows about, you live with for five-and a half years."

Cammy Wilberger thanked the D.A.s office and judicial system, expressing gratitude even to Courtney for divulging the location of the body. "We are thankful that justice will be served."

The remains were turned over to the Wilberger family.

Criminal past helps target suspect

Investigators said two students at Oregon State University were approached in a similar fashion by Courtney, but were in a more public place and were able to escape.

Courtney's in-laws told police he didn't return for nearly three days after the abduction, according to court documents. Reports suggest he never called his family or his employer while he was gone.

Courtney was serving time in a New Mexico jail in November 2004 when he was indicted for Wilberger's murder, more than six months after her disappearance.

According to the district attorney's office in Albuquerque, NM, Courtney had raped and abducted a 22-year-old college student there. The FBI said Courtney used shoelaces to tie the New Mexico student up.

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Detectives said Courtney told his family two different stories, "The first being that he had been the recent victim of a kidnapping and the second being simply that he had to get out of Oregon because the 'cops were after him'."

Investigators said Courtney's criminal history made him a likely suspect. He had been arrested nine times. Courtney's family also said he tried to sexually assault female family members as a child.

A federal civil suit was filed by Wilberger's family against Creative Building Maintenance, which briefly employed Courtney. The suit contends the firm was negligent in hiring Courtney and providing him with a van. The family also claims the company failed to properly supervise Courtney.

Courtney was scheduled to have a change of venue for the trial from Benton to Marion County. Authorities said Monday the plea agreement was reached.

One particularly tough moment Haroldson said, was calling the Wilberger family to tell them they had found a watch her parents had bought for their daughter.

In exchange for the information provided by Courtney, he will serve out his current sentence in a New Mexico prison, most likely the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe. It will then be determined where he will serve out the rest of his term, according to Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's office.

Courtney will probably have the highest level of inmate security and serve 23 hours a day in a solitary cell, and an hour in the recreation yard, New Mexico corrections officials said.

"I think it was a just result in the case," Oregon Attorney General John Kroger said. "I think it was very important to not only make sure he serves a life sentence without any chance of release, but also to make sure that the remains of the victim were found. That was extraordinarily important and I'm (glad) that that's the outcome of the case."

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KGW Reporter Kyle Iboshi contributed to this report

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