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Hearing begins in Corvallis murder.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

CORVALLIS - Two women told a Benton County Circuit judge Monday about past sexual assaults by Joel Patrick Courtney, accused of kidnap, rape and murder in the May 24, 2004, disappearance of Veneta resident Brooke Wilberger from an apartment complex here.

And Benton County prosecutors used a map of the Oregon State University campus to show the proximity of places where witnesses said a man matching Courtney's description used a green van to approach two other young women the morning Wilberger, 19, vanished from a nearby apartment complex, never to be seen again.

The testimony marked the first day of oral arguments about the nature of evidence Judge Locke Williams will allow when Courtney's death penalty trial begins next February on charges that he kidnapped, raped and murdered Wilberger.

Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson and deputy district attorney Karen Kemper want Williams to allow evidence of Courtney's "previous acts" - including the two sexual assault convictions. They have filed a motion to consolidate the Wilberger case with the attempted kidnap, rape and murder charges Courtney faces in connection with two female OSU students he allegedly also approached on May 24, 2004.

Courtney's attorneys are opposing both motions.

Woman became uneasy

One of the alleged Corvallis victims told Williams that she "started to get uneasy" when a man pulled his van across a sidewalk to block her path, asked for directions to a fraternity she'd never heard of, then got out of the van and opened its sliding door. The man said he was looking for a map, the woman testified. But she began backing away when she saw a blanket on the floor of the van and no back seat inside.

"I decided this was not a good situation for me to be in," she said. "I told him I needed to get to class and walked away."

Associate OSU athletic director Bob Clifford then described watching with concern as a man in a green van stopped a female athletic department employee in the Reser Stadium parking lot. The stadium is just blocks from the spot of the first young woman's encounter.

Clifford said something about the interaction "did not appear to be normal," to the point that he pulled his vehicle adjacent to the van's passenger door. When the driver did not acknowledge him, Clifford said, he pulled his car in front of the van, parked and got out. Only then did the driver make eye contact, Clifford said, and the young woman walked away from the van.

Asked by Kemper to describe the van driver, Clifford pointed at the defense table where Courtney sat with his lawyers.

"He's sitting right there," Clifford said.

Courtney's attorney, Steve Gorham, questioned Clifford about the timing and manner of a December 2004 police photo lineup in which Clifford identified Courtney.

Gorham later asked Corvallis Police Lt. Jonathan Keefer about the lineup. Under Gorham's questioning, Keefer acknowledged that Clifford had expressed reservation about the identification, saying he wished all the suspects in the photos had been wearing red ball caps, as the van driver was that morning. Keefer also confirmed that Clifford's exact words at the time of the lineup were "Number 3 (Courtney) has the right look," not "It's Number 3." But, Keefer added, Clifford ended the session by signing a statement that Courtney was the man he'd seen.

Appearance now different

In court Monday, Courtney's appearance had changed from mug shots taken at the time of his arrest for the December 2004 sexual assault of a University of New Mexico student. His goatee was gone and he appeared paler and heavier. He wore black-rimmed reading glasses and a blue, button-down dress shirt and slacks. He spent much of the session bent over a legal pad, writing.

He looked up briefly at the New Mexico student he pleaded guilty to assaulting in November 2004 and at a high school acquaintance he pleaded guilty to abusing in 1984. He also appeared to glance once at Wilberger's parents and sister.

The former New Mexico student described how Courtney approached her on a sidewalk near her Albuquerque home and forced her at knife point into his car. Once she was inside, he forced her to remove her clothes and lie down on a reclining passenger seat, the woman testified in a flat voice and a heavy Russian accent. He then covered her face with his coat, bound her feet and wrists, and sexually assaulted her, she said.

Courtney had stuffed her panties into her mouth and tied the gag with one of her shoelaces before she escaped from the car when he stopped near an intersection, the woman reported. Courtney was sentenced to 18 years in a New Mexico prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping and criminal sexual penetration in that case.

Attack occurred in 1984

A 43-year-old Portland woman testified that Courtney, then part of the same circle of friends from high school, attacked her as she drove him home from a gathering with mutual friends in December 1984. She said he began touching her against her wishes, to the point of interfering with her driving. When she pulled over along a dark, rural road, the woman said, Courtney climbed on top of her with his back against the steering wheel, and struck her in the face with his fist when she resisted his advances. He then pulled her out of the car onto the roadside and pulled her pants down, she said. She briefly lost her composure as she recounted the feel of gravel against her skin and how she urged him to drive her back to their friend's house.

"I tried to convince him that would be a better place to have sex because maybe I could go back to where some people were," the woman said. She said she did not wish to have sex with Courtney, and later reported the attack to police. Courtney was convicted of sexual abuse in 1985 as part of a plea deal in which Washington County prosecutors agreed to dismiss more serious charges.
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Title Annotation:City/Region; Two women testify that they were sexually assaulted by Joel Courtney
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 5, 2009
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