ABC News 20/20

September 21, 2009

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Vanished: Two Coeds, Two Horrifying Mysteries, One Finally Solved

By Donna Hunter

Five years after the disappearance of two young coeds, one family can finally begin the closure process.

The remains of Brigham Young University student Brooke Wilberger were found Monday after the lead suspect in her murder, Joel Patrick Courtney, accepted a plea deal. In return for information on the location of Wilberger's remains, Courtney pleaded guilty to aggravated murder -- avoiding a possible death sentence -- and will spend the rest of his life behind bars with no possibility of release.

While police succesfully targeted convicted sex offender Courtney in Wilberger's disappearance, there is still no suspect in the case of Maura Murray, another college student who vanished within three months of Wilberger.

Over the past five years, the families of the two students have forged an unlikely bond.

The two women were just starting their adult lives in early 2004. But too often for young people, particularly young women, that newfound independence is coupled with dangerous vulnerability.

Their stories are similar in many ways. Both were smart, beautiful young women with loving friends and family. They were active in their communities. They had boyfriends who adored them. They were on the verge of very bright futures. Then they disappeared. Figures gathered by the FBI say there are more than 21,500 active missing person cases involving people between the ages of 18 and 29. Now, one family continues to searches for answers.

Community Rallies to Search for Brooke Wilberger

The story of Wilberger's disappearance begins on the afternoon of May 24, 2004. The 19-year-old Brigham Young University student was home in Oregon visiting her family, and helping out her sister and brother-in-law at an apartment complex they manage in the town of Corvallis.

Corvallis is a picturesque Oregon city of about 54,000 people. It's a place most people would consider ideal for raising a family. But even idyllic places can be visited by crime.

"The city of Corvallis is really safe, but we're also in the real world," said Lt. Ron Noble of the Corvallis Police Department.

Wilberger was in the parking lot of the complex cleaning lampposts. When she didn't show up for lunch, her sister, Stephani Hansen, began to worry.

Wilberger's car keys and purse were in their apartment. Her car was in the lot. Her flip-flops were found, but she was gone.

"I got very nervous ... we had exhausted every possibility, we had searched all the apartments that she could possibly be working in. We looked everywhere. Then we called the police," her sister recalled.

Noble remembers receiving the call about the case. "Normally, we would wait. Because adults can come and go as they please and we would normally wait to see if she showed up maybe the next day," he said. But police officials agreed with Wilberger's sister, they sensed Brooke was not the sort of young woman to disappear on her own.

"It was amazing to us that they acted that fast, and I think one of the reasons was when they immediately did a quick check, [they saw] Brooke was a great kid," said her mom, Cammy Wilberger.

As their search began, police eliminated one usual suspect in similar cases -- the boyfriend.

The man in Brooke's life, Justin Blake, who had dated Wilberger since high school, was doing Mormon missionary work in Venezuela. Marriage was on the horizon for the couple, he said.

"I was going to propose. We just both sort of knew what was going to happen when I got back from my mission," he said.

Blake's parents called him in Venezuela to deliver the news that would shatter those plans. "They just started crying when they heard my voice and so I just started crying," he recalled.

In Corvallis, a community-wide search effort had been organized with unusual speed.

"The community of Corvallis was wonderful. That first night they had hundreds of people helping search," Cammy Wilberger said. "Our church organized it, but everyone in the community filled in."

"There were a lot of areas to search and some of it very, very heavy with heavy vegetation. In fact, I remember going home at one o'clock in the morning and there were still 300 people doing concentric circles from where Brooke was last seen," said Noble.

The first night ended with no sign of her.

In the morning, the townsfolk of Corvallis would awake to a shock of another sort -- the largest gathering of media the town had ever seen.

"We had to operate on a whole different paradigm for this investigation, because we didn't have anything to go on. So we needed the media to stay here to talk about the case so people would call in tips," Noble said.

A Suspect at Last

Despite the authorities' quick response, community support and national media coverage, it was years before a prime suspect would emerge.

The Benton County district attorney said today that it was only after police in New Mexico arrested Courtney for allegedly abducting a young woman there, that they found their suspect.

New Mexico authorities suspected that Courtney might have attacked other women, and contacted law enforcement throughout the West, asking if there were other cases that resembled the one they were investigating.

When Corvallis police started investigating Courtney, they discovered he was in the city at the time Wilberger disappeared and drove a van matching the description of the vehicle seen nearby where they believed the young woman had been kidnapped.

When authorities linked him to Wilberger, Courtney was in prison in New Mexico awaiting trial on charges that he raped a blue-eyed, blonde coed there. After receiving an 18-year prison sentence in the New Mexico case, the man charged in Brooke's abduction was extradited to Oregon.

Today, he pleaded guilty, avoiding the death penalty in exchange for finally revealing where he concealed Wilberger's body.

Abducted or a Runaway?

Wilberger was 19 when she disappeared and police began investigating immediately, against normal procedure. With missing persons over the age of 18, police are very likely to wait a few days because, authorities say, adults have a right to disappear.