On the morning of May 24, 2004, Brooke Wilberger, a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed coed who had just completed her freshman year at Brigham Young University, was washing lampposts in the Corvallis, Oregon apartment complex managed by her sister and brother-in-law. One moment she was there, the next moment, she was gone. She left behind her flip flops, a pail of sudsy water, and no witnesses to her disappearance.
Brooke, an honor student, athlete, a devout Mormon and an integral part of her church community, was last seen wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a gray Brigham Young t-shirt, dark blue jeans, small hoop earrings, maybe a silver watch, and a ring with “CTR” engraved on it (Choose The Right—a Mormon tradition). She was 5’4″ and weighed 105 pounds. She had a scar from a gymnastic accident that extended from her wrist to her elbow on her right forearm.
When police arrived at the apartment complex, they found her sandals askew, leading them to suspect a struggle. Her purse, keys and other personal items were left in her sister’s apartment, and her car was still in the parking lot.
It was clear to everyone involved that whatever had happened, Brooke did not leave the parking lot willingly.
Only one man saw something. His name was Brian, and he called the police, saying he’d seen a green minivan driving erratically. Before he could explain further, the call was disconnected, and he never called back. It was a tiny bit of information, just one of too many tips from helpful citizens.
The Community Gets Involved
Map of Oregon with Corvallis locator
The community rallied. Brooke grew up in Veneta, a very small town of only 3,000 people, thirty miles south of Corvallis, itself a university town of only 50,000. Among friends, schoolmates, hometown folk and the LDS church family, within days, over four thousand flyers with Brooke’s picture covered the area, and reached every state of the union. Being prepared for an emergency is one of every Mormon’s goals, and they were certainly prepared to get the word out about Brooke.
Her photo showed up on huge bulletin boards by the Interstate, and on buses all over the county. Public Service announcements showed up on television. Every gas station, every café, every convenience store had her flyer in the window. They held vigils. They held press conferences. They went on America’s Most Wanted television show. Brooke’s parents were featured on Good Morning America. Local real estate agents and property managers searched vacant properties and outbuildings. They held self-defense classes for women. At nineteen, Brooke was too old for the Amber Alert system for missing children, but as several high-profile cases recently have shown us, media pressure keeps the case alive. And those who loved Brooke were prepared to keep the pressure on.
Logo: America’s Most Wanted
Police received over eleven hundred tips, including four hundred from psychics. Theories abounded, stretching to the idea of Brooke being kidnapped and sold into white slavery in some exotic location.
Six hundred and fifty volunteers searched four thousand acres of field and woodlands around the Corvallis area. They searched the rivers and wetlands in canoes and kayaks. They searched the mountains on horseback.
But Oregon is vast and relatively unpopulated. There are thousands of acres of woodlands. Thousands of acres of wilderness.
A website, www.findbrooke.com was established with a downloadable flyer in a variety of languages; in the first twenty-four hours, the site received 26,000 hits. Brooke’s disappearance hit a nerve with Americans and news of her abduction spread like wildfire.
Police began to focus in on four “persons of interest,” but in the tumult, Brian’s tip, of seeing the erratic green minivan, was almost entirely overlooked.
A “Person of Interest”
Sung Koo Kim
Eventually, the eye of the hurricane focused on Sung Koo Kim, a thirty-year-old man living with his parents in Tigard, Oregon, eighty miles north of Corvallis. Kim, who graduated from Washington State University in 2001 with degrees in Genetics and Cellular Biology, had been arrested ten days before Brooke’s disappearance on suspicion of stalking an Oregon State University student. Oregon State is located in Corvallis.
The female student of his obsession was a member of the OSU swim team and frequented the Oak Park Apartments, where Brooke was staying with her sister. At first glance, the swim team member looked much like Brooke. When he was arrested, Kim had a copy of the woman’s photo and her bio from the OSU website, along with a bag of dryer lint from the Oak Park Apartments.
Oregon State University medal
That wasn’t all they found when police searched his room in his parents’ home. They also found 3400 pair of women’s panties, collected from seven different colleges in the state, 40,000 photos of violent pornographic pictures of women being tortured and raped, and 4,000 pornographic videos. According to Jeff Lesowski, deputy Washington County district attorney, while some of the pornographic images were of children, the vast majority were of women being raped, tortured, dismembered or killed.
Kim also had a file named “osu.doc” which detailed an apparent plan to rape, mutilate and strangle a girl.
Kim was out on bail when Brooke disappeared.
Kim said that he couldn’t have been in the area of Brooke’s abduction, as she was snatched between 10 and 11 a.m. on May 24. He has recorded proof that he executed a computer stock transaction at 11:14 a.m. He was also videotaped by security cameras at 12:30 p.m. buying a laptop with his father at Circuit City in Tigard.
Authorities challenged this flimsy alibi, saying not only did he have time to get from Corvallis back to Tigard in time, but that anyone could have executed that stock trade for him, as it was made from his sister’s computer.
With a clear eye toward the Wilberger case, Kim was arrested on the underwear theft charges in Multnomah County, and his bail set at $10 million. Investigators in Benton, Washington and Yamhill counties, where the other colleges are located, pursued similar charges against him. Yamhill county eventually set his bail for $4 million, $1 million in Washington county, and $100,000 in Benton county.
The shadow of Brooke Wilberger hung like a shroud over his head.
The Trail Grows Cold
Family and friends of Brooke never gave up hope, never gave up the search, but as the days, weeks and months went by, momentum was hard to sustain. Cammy and Greg Wilberger, Brooke’s parents, asked the media to give the family some space, some privacy.
“Our lives have been changed forever,” Cammy, a teacher in the Bethel School District, said in an interview with the Register-Guard in June, 2004. “Even when Brooke comes back, our lives will never be the same. The healthy thing for Brooke and ourselves is to try to be the best we can be. That includes trying to get back to some of our regular things.
“I always wondered how people could keep up hope for a long period of time,” she continued. “But time fades and you don’t even realize how much time has gone by. It seems like yesterday that Brooke disappeared.”
The LDS church family surrounded the Wilbergers who credit their faith for sustaining them.
“We believe this life on earth is but a small part of eternity,” said Marie Bell of Eugene, a former public affairs representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “In the case of the Wilbergers, we believe the family is sealed together for eternity. Every fiber in my body says they will see her again.”
And what kind of god could allow something like this to happen to a girl like Brooke?
Mormons, Bell said, believe God gives agency—free will—to people. “Given that, there are going to be people who use that agency in evil ways.”
Cammy Wilberger said she hoped people keep their eyes open for any clues to her daughter’s whereabouts, and said how touched she’s been by the considerable attention and support from friends and strangers throughout the Willamette Valley.
The reward for Brooke’s safe return hit $30,000 and kept growing.
Another Blonde Coed
On November 30, 2004, a foreign exchange student in New Mexico was grabbed at knifepoint and ordered into the back of a red two-door Honda with tinted windows. The assailant drove her to a deserted parking lot, and threatened to kill her unless she undressed and performed oral sex on him. He tied her ankles together with a shoelace, tied her wrists with a scarf, stuffed her panties into her mouth and pinned them there by tying another shoelace around her head.
Then he drove her to another parking lot. At one point, he stepped outside the car, and she wriggled her hands and ankles free and ran.
According to The Oregonian, Dana Finks, a waitress driving her three daughters to their grandmother’s house in Albuquerque, was stopped at a red light when she saw a young blonde woman, wearing only an unzipped jacket with her underwear up around her neck, come running down the street. The young woman ran across traffic and into a Mexican Restaurant.
A police sketch of the suspect
Ebony Finks, the seventeen-year-old daughter in the car, ordered her mother to pull into the restaurant parking lot, where she jumped out and met the naked girl coming out. No one inside the restaurant had offered to help her.
Hysterical, the woman got into their car and told her story in heavily accented English while Dana called 911 on her cell phone. Fresh knife marks on the woman’s neck validated her story.
The red Honda drove slowly by them in the parking lot several times before the police arrived.
The victim took police to the parking lot where she was assaulted. They found a shoelace on the ground. When they interviewed neighbors, they were told that a man named Joe hung around there a lot.
Albuquerque Police patch
With the details provided by the college student, Albuquerque police arrested Joel Patrick Courtney, a married father of three. After being treated at the hospital, the woman positively identified him as her attacker.
He was arrested and charged with first-degree criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery.
Joel Patrick Courtney of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is no stranger to the law. Just five months before being arrested for this abduction and sexual assault, his twelve-year-old son called the police on him for domestic violence against Courtney’s wife. But it had started long before.
Courtney, born June 2, 1966 in Beaverton, Oregon, attended both Beaverton and Sunset High Schools. He left school in 1984. In 1985, he was charged with attempted rape and first-degree sex abuse in Oregon’s Washington County.
Joel Courtney in 1985
On the night of that assault, he’d been drinking beer, smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine with a female friend from school. She was driving him home when he started to kiss and fondle her. When she pushed him away and told him to stop, he punched her, yanked her out of the car, threw her to the gravel, and pulled off her jeans and panties and unzipped his pants.
She stopped fighting, and he lost interest.
She went to the police when she found out he had done similar things in the past. They were both eighteen.
He pled guilty to first-degree sex abuse and received a three-month jail sentence and five years of probation. He subsequently violated probation and spent two and a half years in state prison.
According to Dianna Rodgers, LCSW, adjunct professor at the University of Oregon, “Rarely is an offender caught the first time he offends. Chances are, he had quite a juvenile record of assaultive behavior with some sexual component to it.”
Joel Courtney in 1991
His list of infractions are lengthy, including felonies, misdemeanors and various other violations, but the one that is of the most interest is his drunk driving violation in January of 2004.
A No-Show at Court
Courtney, at the time a supervisor for a construction cleaning company, was driving a green 1997 Dodge Caravan, a company vehicle, from Portland to Newport, Oregon, to appear for his drunk driving charge on May 24, 2004, the day Brooke Wilberger disappeared. He never arrived at court.
At 1:15 p.m., he called the court and left a message that he’d been delayed, was in Corvallis, and was on his way.
According to Dr. A. Nicholas Groth, in his book Men Who Rape — The Psychology of the Offender: “Rape is always and foremost an aggressive act. In some offenses, the assault appears to constitute a discharge of anger; it becomes evident that the rape is the way the offender expresses and discharges a mood state of intense anger, frustration, resentment, and rage. In other offenses, the aggression seems to be reactive; that is, when the victim resists the advances of her assailant, he retaliates by striking, hitting, or hurting her in some way. Hostility appears to be quickly triggered or released, sometimes in a clear, consciously experienced stage of anger, or in other cases, in what appears to be a panic state. In still other offenses, the aggression becomes expressed less as an anger motive and more as a means of dominating, controlling, and being in charge of the situation — an expression of mastery and conquest. And in a fourth vicissitude, the aggression itself becomes eroticized so that the offender derives pleasure from both controlling his victim and hurting her/him — an intense sense of excitement and pleasure being experienced in this context whether or not actual sexual contact is made. These variations on the theme of aggression are not mutually exclusive, and, in any given instance of rape, multiple meanings may be expressed in regard to both the sexual and the aggressive behaviors.”
Book cover: Men Who Rape
If Courtney were particularly stressed over his upcoming court date, perhaps he had an idea of what could take the edge off that anxiety.
Groth goes on to say about those who rape in anger: “Typically, such an offender reports that he did not anticipate committing a rape. It was not something he fantasized or thought about beforehand -— it was, instead, something that happened on the spur of the moment.”
So that green minivan that Brian saw “driving recklessly” at or around the time of Brooke’s disappearance took on a whole new meaning and a new priority level for the police.
A Routine Check
During a routine background check, Albuquerque police learned that Courtney had failed to show for his court date in Newport.
Corvallis, Oregon Police Department patch
The Newport officials, upon hearing of Courtney’s situation, and recalling the persistently public efforts of the Wilberger team, referred Albuquerque to the Benton County (Corvallis) police.
And there the link was made.
Sung Koo Kim was removed from investigators’ list as a suspect. He is currently awaiting trial on myriad theft charges, as his relatives are suing two cities, a county and nearly forty police officers for $11 million, claiming their home was searched illegally.
In February, 2005, a judge in New Mexico granted Corvallis police a search warrant for Courtney’s DNA—fingerprints, swabs of saliva and various hairs from his face and pubic area.
In May, Corvallis investigators asked the public for any information about a 1997 green Dodge Caravan.
They got it.
The van was recovered, though not in New Mexico and not in Oregon. Investigators are releasing no information about the van, fearing anything they say could compromise the case. No one wants this case compromised.
In July, the Benton County grand jury heard testimony from thirteen live witnesses, including Wilberger’s family and investigators, and reports from three experts, including two FBI crime lab analysts and a physician. FBI forensic DNA examiner Rhonda Craig who works for the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, testified by report as did FBI DNA examiner Constance Fisher.
The grand jury returned a 19-count indictment accusing Joel Patrick Courtney, 39 years old, of 14 counts of aggravated murder, alleged in alternative theories (in other words, one count for every theory as to how he may have murdered her), two counts of aggravated kidnapping in the first degree, one count of first-degree rape, one count of first-degree sexual abuse and one count of first-degree sodomy.
Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser
In Oregon, prosecutors do not need a body to secure a guilty verdict. And, according to Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser, his office is ready to “pursue the case aggressively. Oregon law doesn’t require recovery of the body of a murder victim.” He considered Courtney’s arrest to be a milestone in the case, yet only a first step in what promises to be a long legal process.
The Current Status
Courtney, originally held on $100,000 cash-only bond, is now held in the Bernalillo, New Mexico county jail without bond. He refused to waive extradition, which required Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski to issue a warrant to have him delivered to Oregon for prosecution. Extradition papers are in the works, but Oregon will wait until the New Mexico assault charges are adjudicated before bringing him to Oregon for trial. Then prosecutors will have 120 days to put him on trial for Wilberger’s murder.
Courtney’s sister, still living in Beaverton, has cooperated with the police. In an interview with KOIN-TV, she claims that Joel suffered a troubled childhood and has a long history of drug and alcohol problems. “If he is found guilty,” she said, “he needs to be held accountable. Justice needs to be served.”
New Mexico District Attorney Kari Brandenburg
Bernalillo County, New Mexico District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said she thinks Courtney may be linked to some other disappearances and wants investigators to examine where else Courtney may have traveled and stayed between Corvallis and Albuquerque and “see if there are any unresolved cases.”
Due to restrictions on information and evidence, little is known about the green minivan — where it was found, by whom, and what investigators found inside. One can infer from the DNA reports submitted to the grand jury and their subsequent indictments, that enough evidence was found in the van to change this case from a kidnapping to a murder.
At a press conference on August 3, 2005, local investigators thanked the community for their contribution of leads to the case, but said they would no longer need the public’s help in terms of tips or information in the case.
Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser would not release any information that might jeopardize what they consider to be a strong case. Heiser has never prosecuted a death penalty case, and would not say whether he would seek that punishment for Courtney. There are currently thirty inmates on Oregon’s Death Row.
Back to Dianna Rodgers, who has treated sex offenders in Lane County, Oregon for the past 20 years: “Typically, violent offenders require escalating violence to satiate their escalating needs. Respites between episodes get shorter, the offenders take greater risks, and unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a sadistic rapist to eventually murder.”
Joel Patrick Courtney
On August 5, Brooke’s family posted a new message on the website, thanking those who helped to search for Brooke. “Our main goal remains to find Brooke and see that justice is served. We believe families are eternal and Brooke will always be a part of our family.”
Brooke’s body has not been found. A $6,000 reward is offered by the family for any valid information leading to its recovery, and a $15,000 reward is offered for the exact location of her body, leading to recovery.