Brooke Wilberger's mother today said she was grateful to Joel Courtney, the man who pleaded guilty to murdering the Brigham Young University student, for finally telling authorities where to find the young woman's remains.
Cammy Wilberger, visibly moved as she spoke at a news conference in Corvalis, Ore., said that after five years of not knowing where her daughter was, "We just want to strengthen our family and go on with our life."
Benton County authorities for the first time described what happened to Wilberger, who vanished from an Oregon apartment complex May 24, 2004.
Courtney said he abducted the blond 19-year-old college student at knife point, bound her in duct tape in his van, drove her into the woods, kept her overnight and then raped and bludgeoned her to death, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said.
In his "romanticized account of what happened," Courtney hadn't decided to kill her until he saw how hard she fought against being raped, Haroldson said, and then he hid her body in such a way that it was unlikely it would ever have been found.
"Brooke Wilberger reacted so strongly, that he decided that he had to kill her," Haroldson said. "His comment was that he was surprised that she fought so hard."
Wilberger was at least the third woman Courtney targeted in Corvallis that day, Haroldson said. He had previously attempted to abduct two Oregon State University students, but both were able to get away, the district attorney said.
Courtney's agreement to tell officials where he'd left Wilberger's body after kidnapping, raping and murdering her was part of a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, he said.
Haroldson said the Wilberger family was involved in the process and agreed with the decision, and that Courtney would have a sentence of "true life."
Courtney, 42, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
The district attorney would not disclose specifically where Wilberger's remains were found, because the recovery process was still going on, he said. The only details he would give were that the location was in the county and on private property.
Wilberger's Family 'Feel Gratitude'
He said it could take a week for the recovery to be complete.
Courtney's intent with where he left Wilberger's body was that she never be found, Haroldson said.
Before the district attorney spoke, describing how the kidnapping occurred and the final hours of Wilberger's life, the young woman's mother spoke briefly.
She thanked all the law enforcement personnel who she said never relented in their commitment to find their daughter, and also thanked the people of Corvallis, who she said supported her family throughout their tragedy.
"We just really feel gratitude, even for Mr. Courtney, that he could see fit to tell us where we could find Brooke," Cammy Wilberger said.
Haroldson said the Wilbergers "modeled what is best in all of us. They have been consistently strong in the face of tragedy."
Brooke Wilberger's disappearance made national headlines. On May 24, 2004, Wilberger, home from school for the summer holiday, had volunteered to help out her sister and brother-in-law who managed the apartment complex in Corvallis.
The 19-year-old devout Mormon was last seen cleaning lampposts in the complex parking lot. That's where her flip-flops were found after she failed to show up for lunch. With her keys and purse still in the apartment and her car still in the complex lot, her family knew something had happened to her.
Potential suspects were questioned and released, but police soon focused on Courtney, a registered sex offender, after New Mexico authorities circulated details about an abduction and rape he had been arrested for there.
The victim, like Wilberger, was a blue-eyed blonde, and the details of the crime were similar, so Corvallis police began looking into Courtney's background and his whereabouts around the time of Wilberger's disappearance.
Haroldson said today they learned that Courtney had been in Corvallis in May 2004 and owned a van that matched the description of a vehicle seen by witnesses near the scene of Wilberger's disappearance.
When they searched the van, Haroldson said, they found Wilberger's and Courtney's DNA, and he was indicted in August 2004 on 19 counts relating to Wilberger's disappearance, including aggravated murder, kidnapping, sodomy, rape and sexual abuse, even though her body had not been found.
Brooke Wilberger's Killer Tells Police Where to Find Body
Courtney was extradited to face charges related to the Wilberger case in April 2008, after he was convicted of raping a woman in New Mexico, and was already serving an 18-year sentence in prison.
At one point Courtney had been eyed as a serial killer. During his time in New Mexico, authorities there said he was suspected of being involved in other homicides involving college students.