Image: Brooke Wilberger in undated family photo.
CORVALLIS, Ore. (CBS/AP) 19-year-old college student Brooke Wilberger disappeared five years ago in an abduction that became one of the most publicized in Oregon history.
Now, the man arrested in her slaying has pleaded guilty to murder and pointed police to the spot near the rugged Oregon coast where he had dumped her body.
After years of uncertainty, Brooke Wilberger's mom, Cammy Wilberger, says she is grateful the man arrested in her daughter's abduction finally admitted his guilt and led police to her body.
"It might be hard for you to understand, but at this time we really feel gratitude, even to Mr. Courtney," Cammy Wilberger said Monday at a news conference, where Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson announced that Joel Courtney had pleaded guilty to aggravated murder to avoid a possible death sentence and would spend life in prison without any possibility of release.
"We are thankful that justice is served and he will have no opportunity for parole. Now he can go on with what's left of his life."
Courtney, 43, admitted this past weekend that he abducted Brooke Wilberger at knifepoint from the parking lot of an apartment complex in Corvallis in May 2004, bound her with duct tape, raped her and then bludgeoned her to death before hiding her body in the rugged and remote reaches of the Oregon Coast Range.
"He abducted her, he raped her, he murdered her and left her body in the woods," Haroldson said.
Photo: Brooke Wilberger.
"Our family has kind of likened this to an iceberg experience," Cammy Wilberger said. "Although what the public sees seems raised and maybe devastating, it's nothing compared to what we see on the inside."
Wilberger, who grew up in Oregon near Eugene, had just finished her freshman year at Brigham Young University in Utah. She was washing and repairing lighting fixtures outside the apartment building her sister managed near Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Haroldson said Courtney blocked Wilberger into the parking lot with his van, and waved an envelope at her to trick her into approaching before he grabbed her.
All that was left behind were her flip-flop sandals and the recollections of her screams heard by people in the apartments.
"It was a parent's absolute worst nightmare," Haroldson said.
Police found strands of Brooke Wilberger's hair among evidence collected from Courtney's van when he was arrested in November 2004 in the rape of another student in New Mexico.
Courtney also admitted he tried to abduct two other young women near Oregon State University the same day, but both became alarmed and were able to avoid being taken.
Haroldson said that Courtney has never apologized or shown any remorse.
Even though the plea deal that took a potential death penalty off the table "was not an easy decision," Haroldson said it spares the Wilberger family years of court appeals and provided them with closure by finally locating their daughter's remains.
Haroldson called it a "bittersweet day" but said it also gives the community some relief from a long and expensive trial that would have dredged up painful memories for everyone involved in the massive search for Wilberger.
Defense attorneys contacted prosecutors last Friday, and Courtney pleaded guilty to aggravated murder on Monday in Marion County Circuit Court in Salem after providing information that led police to Wilberger's remains.
The exact location was not disclosed because investigators had not completed their recovery, Haroldson said.
Courtney was convicted of kidnapping and rape for a similar crime in 2004 in New Mexico. But in that case, the University of New Mexico foreign exchange student who was attacked was able to escape and later identify Courtney after she was taken at knifepoint, stripped naked and raped.
Courtney had a history of violence and sex offenses.
His sister told investigators Courtney began using drugs at age 11, developed an interest in Satanism by the age of 15, and once had to be hit over the head with a clock to prevent him from raping her.
He served time in jail in Oregon for a 1991 sex abuse conviction in Washington County, the suburban Portland area where he grew up.
He spent much of his adult life moving around, including Alaska, Florida and New Mexico, working at times as a fisherman, mechanic and janitor.
He eventually married and settled in Rio Rancho, N.M., an Albuquerque suburb.
As part of the plea deal announced on Monday, Courtney will be returned to New Mexico to serve the remainder of his 18-year sentence there, and then will be returned to Oregon to serve the life sentence.