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Traffic ticket key to suspect's arrest.

Byline: Rebecca Nolan The Register-Guard

CORVALLIS - After months of dogged police work and pleas for the public's help, it was a routine telephone call that led investigators to the man now charged with the rape and murder of 19-year-old Brooke Wilberger, who disappeared in May 2004 from a Corvallis apartment complex.

Police in Albuquerque, N.M., were performing a background check on Joel Patrick Courtney, 39, whom they had charged with kidnapping and sexually abusing a young woman there. They called police in Lincoln County - where Courtney had been ticketed for speeding Jan. 20, 2004 - to ask whether they knew of any similar assault cases that could be tied to their suspect.

Newport police didn't have any, but they told the Albuquerque cops, `folks in Benton County might have some interest in this man,' Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser said at a news conference Wednesday.

That conversation led Corvallis police to Courtney - and to a green minivan seen driving erratically in the Corvallis area on the day Wilberger vanished. Police found the minivan in another state - not Oregon or New Mexico - and have possession of it.

"The green minivan is the link," Heiser said.

Wilberger's body still has not been found.

Courtney was charged Tuesday with 14 counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and one count each of rape, sodomy and sexual assault related to the Wilberger case. Each murder count represents a different theory of how the crime occurred.

The maximum penalty for aggravated murder is death.

Heiser has never prosecuted a death penalty case and would not say whether he would seek the ultimate punishment for Courtney.

He is currently awaiting trial in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque on unrelated charges of kidnapping, rape and battery for an alleged attack on a foreign exchange student at the University of New Mexico.

Heiser said the arrest was just the first step in what promises to be a long legal process.

Albuquerque authorities may choose to prosecute Courtney on their kidnapping case before handing him over to Oregon officials.

His trial there currently is set for Sept. 6.

"This is only a milestone," Heiser said. "We still don't know where Brooke is."

Heiser refused to disclose whether Courtney was talking to police. He also would not describe evidence linking Courtney to Wilberger's disappear- ance.

A Benton County grand jury indicted Courtney on the 19 counts on July 29, after hearing testimony from 16 witnesses.

Heiser would not discuss whether police had DNA evidence linking Courtney to the crime. However, two high-profile DNA experts submitted reports for the grand jury to consider.

FBI forensic analysts Rhonda Craig and Constance Fisher both submitted written testimony. Craig works at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., and Fisher testified for the prosecution in the Scott Peterson murder trial in Modest, Calif.

Corvallis police Capt. Ron Noble said investigators had not considered Courtney a "person of interest" until learning of his arrest in New Mexico.

According to a report in the Albuquerque Tribune, Courtney is accused of kidnapping the foreign exchange student at knife point on Nov. 29 and forcing her into his car.

There, he allegedly tied her up with a shoe string and gagged her before raping and sodomizing her, according to the paper, which cited a police report.

The incident occurred six months after Wilberger disappeared.

The difference between the Wilberger case and the case in Albuquerque was that "the victim in New Mexico was able to escape," Heiser said.

Courtney grew up in Beaverton and now lives in Rio Rancho, N.M. He is married and has three children.

At age 19, he was charged with attempted rape and first-degree sex abuse in Oregon's Washington County stemming from a January 1985 incident. He pleaded guilty to first-degree sex abuse and received a three-month jail sentence and five years of probation, court records show.

He violated probation and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in state prison, records show.

At the time Wilberger disappeared, Courtney was staying in the Portland area and working as a supervisor of a commercial cleaning crew, Heiser said. He previously had worked as a mechanic. A sister lives in Beaverton.

His family is cooperating with the investigation despite "tremendous grief and guilt," Heiser said.

A Brigham Young University student in Provo, Utah, Wilberger vanished May 24, 2004, from an apartment complex her sister and brother-in-law managed near the Oregon State University campus. She had been cleaning light fixtures outside.

Police found a pair of flip-flops and a bucket of soapy water in the parking lot.

Hundreds of volunteers helped search for Wilberger in the weeks after her disappearance and the case attracted national attention.

On Wednesday, Cammy Wilberger thanked people for their prayers, support and concern about her daughter's disappear- ance.

The family will continue to search for their missing daughter, she said. She asked for privacy in the meantime.

"Our main goal remains the same: To find her," she said. "We believe families are eternal. We will be with Brooke again."

JOEL PATRICK COURTNEY

Charges:

14 counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and one count each of rape, sodomy and sexual assault

CAPTION(S):

While Corvallis police Capt. Ron Noble (left) stands nearby, Brooke Wilberger's mother, Cammy Wilberger of Veneta, speaks at a news conference in Corvallis after the announcement that a suspect was arrested in the disappearance of her daughter. "This is only a milestone. We still don't know where Brooke is." - SCOTT HEISER, BENTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY
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Title Annotation:Crime; Disappearance: Police in New Mexico make link to Brooke Wilberger's case
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 4, 2005
Words:923
Previous Article:Family: "Our main goal remains to find her and see that justice is served'.
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