Authorities in Corvalis, Oregon, announced yesterday that they had found and identified the remains of Brooke Wilberger, a 19-year-old BYU student who disappeared in the Spring of 2004. At the time of her disappearance, Wilberger had been helping her sister clean the lamp posts of the apartment complex her sister and brother-in-law maintained near the Oregon State University campus.
The case was unusual in that a search commenced almost immediately. Law enforcement officials usually wait a few days before searching for a missing adult because adults have the autonomy to come and go as they please, but the Corvalis authorities agreed with family members that the straight-laced BYU coed was not the sort of young woman to disappear on her own. Despite the early and large-scale search and national headlines, Wilberger was not located no one reported having seen her.
Another unusual element of the case was the fact that Wilberger’s long-time boyfriend was immediately ruled out as a suspect. Significant others are frequently prime suspects in disappearance cases, but Wilberger’s boyfriend had an iron-clad alibi: he was in Venezuela serving as a Mormon missionary.
Eventually the investigation led to Joel Courtney, who was already doing 18 years in New Mexico for the kidnapping and rape of a college student in that state. Wilberger’s DNA and hairs were found in Courtney’s van, and Courtney was to go on trial in 2010 for the kidnapping and attempted rape and murder of two other Oregon State coeds, an incident that occurred on the same day Wilberger disappeared.
Yesterday Joel Courtney entered a guilty plea for the aggravated murder of Brooke Wilberger in order to avoid the death penalty. He received a life sentence without parole. As part of his plea, Courtney disclosed the location of Wilberger’s body, which police later confirmed. Courtney’s plea provides some closure to Wilberger’s family, who have waited more than five years to know what happened to their daughter.