Feb. 23, 2006 -- The FBI is investigating whether the man charged with murdering Brigham Young University student Brooke Wilberger is responsible for three other murders in Oregon.
Wilberger vanished nearly two years ago from the Corvallis, Ore., apartment complex her sister manages. Police say Wilberger, 19 at the time, was last seen May 24, 2004, while helping with some cleaning chores.
Authorities believed her disappearance was suspicious because her cleaning supplies were left behind, her flip-flops were found in the complex parking lot, and her cell phone and other personal items were left in her sister's apartment.
Her body has never been found, but Joel Patrick Courtney, 39, was indicted in August on 19 counts, including aggravated murder, kidnapping, sodomy, rape and sexual abuse in connection with Wilberger's disappearance. Police have not disclosed details of what led them to charge Courtney with murdering Wilberger.
A Serial Offender?
Courtney has been jailed in Albuquerque, N.M., since the fall of 2004, charged with abducting and raping a 22-year-old college student whom he forced into his car at knife point as she walked down the street. According to the FBI, Courtney allegedly tied her up with her shoelaces, drove to a parking lot and sexually assaulted her.
Theresa Whatley, the senior trial attorney in the Albuquerque district attorney's office, told The Associated Press that Oregon officials want the woman to complete the prosecution of Courtney on the Albuquerque rape and kidnapping charges before they try to bring him back to Oregon.
"It's a very serious case and a strong one," Whatley said. "Having a live victim makes our case much easier."
Now the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program unit is investigating whether Courtney may have sexually assaulted and killed three other young women in Oregon. "It is believed that he is a serial sex offender and killer," the FBI said in a statement. "He is inclined to abduct white females, 15 to 25 years of age, with blond hair and blue eyes, in an outside setting."
Courtney grew up in the Portland, Ore., area and moved extensively. The FBI believes there may be victims in the following areas:
Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Cocoa Beach, Fla.
Rio Rancho, N.M.
He is also known to have traveled to Mexico via Arizona.
A Fruitless Search
Following Wilberger's disappearance, hundreds of volunteers helped search for her and held several prayer vigils for her safe return. The story generated national headlines, as the case was featured on "America's Most Wanted." The family of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl who was kidnapped in 2002 and safely recovered nearly a year later, contacted the Wilbergers to give them support and advice.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent retired investigators to help local authorities with the search and released four computer-generated photos showing how Wilberger might look with various hair lengths and styles. A "Find Brooke" Web site (www.findbrooke.com) was set up to help in the search, and the Wilbergers had pink bracelets made with the Web site address and the national hot-line tip number to increase awareness of the case.
Another man was initially the focus of the investigation. Police investigated a man accused of stealing women's underwear from three different Portland-area college dormitories or laundry rooms, including an April 2004 burglary at Oregon State University's Sacket Hall, which is near the site where Wilberger was last seen. But last February, Corvallis police said they had found no evidence that linked the alleged panty thief, Sung Koo Kim, to Wilberger's disappearance.
"It was nothing earth-shattering. We just finished following all the leads and tips we had on Kim. He's a pretty complex man," Lt. Ron Noble, a spokesman for the Corvallis police department, said at the time. "We wanted to be as thorough as we could. With as much notoriety as Kim has received, we would hate for people to think that we were at a dead end, that this is a cold case. That would be far from the truth."
Courtney was charged in August. In November three news organizations filed a public records lawsuit asking the Corvallis Police Department and the Benton County District Attorney's Office to release a document containing details of the case. A judge ruled in January that the records should remain sealed because of the ongoing investigation into Courtney's crimes.
His wife, other family members and his attorney have also declined to talk about the case. But The Oregonian said court documents and interviews paint Courtney as an underemployed, angry man who at times drank too much and frightened his wife and children.
Typical Suburban Lifestyle
Courtney moved to Rio Rancho, N.M., an Albuquerque suburb, after a troubled adolescence, to start life over, according to The Oregonian.
In interviews with neighbors and New Mexico officials, the newspaper found that Courtney, his wife and their three children lived in a two-story home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a solidly middle-class subdivision. He had kept his record clean after an Oregon conviction at age 18 for sexual abuse in Washington County.
But that changed in 2004 when he was arrested and charged with drunken driving, abusing his wife and the abduction and rape for which he is awaiting trial.
A janitor, mechanic and fisherman, Courtney also faced financial pressure. When he was arrested in New Mexico, Courtney, was found with a glass pipe for smoking crack cocaine
Court records indicate Courtney spent much of 2004 on the road, traveling from Florida to Oregon and back to New Mexico. He drove cars registered to other people and companies.
The Oregonian said that Courtney and his wife, Rosy, lived in the North Hills neighborhood of Rio Rancho off and on since the mid-1990s. In June Rosy Courtney declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy; she was more than $100,000 in debt, much of it credit card charges racked up by her husband, said Ronald E. Holmes, her bankruptcy attorney.
Neighbors told the paper about their affection and respect for Rosy Courtney.
"Rosy is a good person; she works hard," said Patsy Akin, who moved next door to the Courtneys in 1997. "She and the kids are really nice, very mannerly. My granddaughter plays with their little girl."
Those warm feelings don't extend to Joel Courtney, the newspaper said. Allan Summers, a neighbor since 1997, told The Oregonian he exchanged words with Courtney just once in all those years -- when his sport utility vehicle needed a jump.
"He was very anti-social," Summers said. "He didn't talk much."
ABC affiliate KATU News in Portland, Ore., and The Associated Press contributed to this report.