Sept. 21, 2009 -- 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.
Authorities followed that procedure in the case of 22-year-old Maura Murray, who went missing Feb. 9, 2004, after she was in a minor car accident in New Hampshire.
Authorities believed she may have wanted to disappear, but her family and friends were certain her disappearance was not by her own choice.
Like Wilberger, Murray was an excellent student. Before attending nursing school at the University of Massachusetts, she had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she met a young man, Bill Rausch, and fell in love.
After Rausch graduated West Point, he was stationed in Oklahoma as Murray finished school in Massachusetts. But that distance only seemed to deepen their commitment to each other.
Shocked and upset, Rausch called his parents after learning that his girlfriend had gone missing.
"I answered the phone, and I heard panic in his voice," his mom, Sharon Rausch, said.
But there were immediate questions surrounding Murray's disappearance. For reasons she apparently shared with no one, the 22-year-old left her dorm in Massachusetts and drove to New Hampshire.
Reporter Joe McGee covered the story for The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass.
"At a hairpin turn, she went off the road. Her car hit a tree. At that point, a person came along who was driving a bus. It was a neighbor. He asked her if she needed help. She refused. About 10 minutes later, police showed up to the scene and Maura Murray was gone," McGee said.
News of that night's events reached her father, Fred Murray, when police called at 4 p.m. the next day.
"My immediate reaction when I found out that my daughter was missing was right at the edge of panic. You found her car? She was in an accident? She's not there? Where is she? Where is the search now? You know, how far have you looked now? And as it turns out, there was no search," he said.
In this case, the initial conclusion at the scene was that Murray had probably left on her own free will. But a day and a half later, with still no sign of her, authorities investigated further.
No Signs of a Struggle
"They brought out helicopters, ground crews to search the area and dogs. But two things stood out. No. 1, there were no footprints left in the snow. And No. 2, dogs lost her scent about 100 yards away from the scene," McGee said.
Police reported that there were no signs of struggle at the scene, and their conclusion seemed to be that she had run away.
Rausch doesn't believe the woman he planned to marry would simply run away. He got an emergency leave from the Army to search for Murray.
"I kept hearing, well, she's an adult, and I was the only one out there walking up and down the street, looking over snow banks, trying to find footprints, trying to find some sign of her," he said.
"For all of us that love Maura, life is like a nightmare. I can honestly say that I can't imagine loving anyone that's not my child anymore than I love Maura," Sharon Rausch said.
Three months later, as the fact of Murray's disappearance lingered without answers, her family saw reports of another missing young woman -- Brooke Wilberger.
Sharon Rausch saw how Wilberger's community rallied around the family and joined the search, and she wanted similar action for her son's missing girlfriend.
The two families from opposite sides of the country, but with a tragic common ground, comforted each other.
"We talked about our faith in God and that we would not give up hope and that Brooke and Maura were in God's hands," Rausch said.
'She Has Everything to Live For'
Murray's father was angered by the lack of progress on the case, and complained that authorities had made up their mind that his daughter had run away and were not devoting enough attention to her disappearance.
"I don't agree with some of his observations, but I understand certainly his frustration in not knowing what happened to his daughter," said Lt. John Scarinza, commander of the New Hampshire State Police Troop F.
"It's clear to us that it was her intention to at least get away for a certain amount of time," Scarinza said, noting that his department investigates cases in which people come to the New Hampshire mountains to get away from their problems several times a year, "sometimes with the intention of harming themselves."
But that scenario still makes no sense to Murray's father.
"She didn't just wander into the woods to try to commit suicide. She has everything to live for. She was going to graduate in June into a nursing career. She was about to get engaged," he said.
However, Murray's family and closest friends have no idea what drew her to that lonely New Hampshire road. And they were surprised at some of the things police and reporters discovered.
"She took a lot of belongings and didn't tell anybody where she was going other than e-mails she sent to a professor saying that there had been a death in the family and that she needed to leave unexpectedly. And then she headed north," said McGee.
Regardless of what brought Murray to that remote area, her father wants to know where she is now. For the past four years he's traveled most weekends from Massachusetts to the lonely stretch of highway in New Hampshire where his daughter was last seen, not only searching for his daughter, but also searching for answers.
In a desperate attempt to find his daughter Fred Murray went to the state capitol and met with the governor in a closed-door meeting, demanding answers about the investigation.
"I'd have been better off if this happened in Aruba," he said, "'because the case might be closed. We'd have gotten some real action on it because in Aruba, when the locals can't handle it, they call in help."
His confrontations with the police and state officials, and his constant prowling around New Hampshire, raised speculation in some quarters that he was becoming kind of a nutty nuisance.
But Murray's relentless pursuit for answers caught the attention of Tom Shamshak, a former police chief and member of a group of private investigators who offer pro bono help in situations that capture their interest. Shamshak and his colleagues looked at the case with a fresh set of eyes.
Based on their investigation, Shamshak said, "It appears, just based on what I have reviewed with the other investigators from New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont that are part of the team, that this is something beyond a mere missing persons case. Something ominous could have happened here."
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