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clock Aug 3, 2005 4:30 pm US/Mountain

Suspect Charged With Murder Of Brooke Wilberger

Joel Patrick Courtney, is in custody in Albuquerque, N.M.

(AP) CORVALLIS, Oregon Brooke Wilberger’s body has not been found, but a routine police background check has led investigators in this college town to declare they have finally found her killer.

In a room packed with reporters and the missing woman's family, officials announced Wednesday that a grand jury has indicted a New Mexico man on 19 counts of aggravated murder, kidnapping, rape and sodomy – bringing an end to a 14-month-long manhunt following the disappearance of the 19-year-old college student.

Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser described the arrest of 39-year-old Joel Patrick Courtney as a “milestone,” even though Wilberger’s body remains to be found.

Courtney, who grew up in Oregon, is in custody in New Mexico on an unrelated rape and kidnapping charge, following the alleged assault of a University of New Mexico foreign exchange student on Nov. 30, 2004. That incident, in which he reportedly forced the woman into his car at knifepoint, then bound her with her shoelaces before raping and sodomizing her, happened six months after Wilberger vanished in Corvallis, the home of Oregon State University.

Wilberger had just returned to her home state after finishing her freshman year at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The day of her disappearance, she had been cleaning the lamp fixtures at the apartment complex her sister managed in Corvallis. Among the only clues investigators found were her discarded flip-flops and a pail of soapy water.

Heiser said the main difference between the New Mexico rape and Wilberger’s case is that “the victim in New Mexico was able to get away.”

The foreign exchange student contacted police, leading to Courtney's arrest in Albuquerque, where he had been living with his wife and three children. As part of their routine background check, police in New Mexico discovered that Courtney had been arrested for a traffic offense in Newport, a small city on the Oregon coast. When Albuquerque police called Newport to learn what they could about Courtney, Newport officials told them: “You know what, the folks in Benton County might want to take a look at him,” Heiser said.

For months after Wilberger’s disappearance, police combed unsuccessfully through thousands of tips. But earlier this year, Corvallis police unexpectedly asked for the public’s help in tracking down a green minivan, which was seen driving erratically in the area the day of Wilberger’s disappearance.

Heiser said the minivan was crucial in building a case against Courtney, but refused to say whether Wilberger’s DNA or clothing were found in the car.

“The green minivan is the link,” he said. It was recovered out of state, but not in New Mexico, he said.

The case is far from over: “It’s but a milestone for us; a tremendous amount of work still needs to be done,” Heiser said.

It was a statement echoed by Cammy Wilberger, Brooke’s mother, who addressed reporters wearing a blouse adorned with a pin of her smiling daughter.

“Our main goal remains the same, to find her and see that justice is served,” she said. “We believe families are eternal and Brooke will be with our family forever.”

Hours after the indictment was announced in Corvallis, Courtney’s elder sister held a press conference in Portland to say the family worked with investigators and hopes justice is served.

“We are a family who holds faith very dear,” said Dina McBride, 41, of Beaverton. “We believe that God is the definition of love. We also know from his word, the Bible, that he is the God of justice. Because of that we know – what we know of God – we believe that justice must be served.”

Wilberger’s disappearance last May riveted this town of 50,000, which includes a student population of 18,000. Students on the campus of Oregon State University came to the press conference sporting bracelets bearing the words “Find Brooke.” A local church still had a large sign calling for prayers for her safe return. And in Veneta, the tiny Oregon town where she grew up, her missing person posters are still tacked to light poles.

“I think one always has hope,” said Lindsey Wilson, 20, who went to high school with Wilberger in Veneta. “All we can do is pray to God and hope she’s finding peace wherever she is,” she said.

(© 2005 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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