"It's in the darkest moments that we find our greatest strengths."
It was the 24th of May 2004. Brooke Wilberger had just moved to her sister’s apartment in Corvallis, Oregon, United States so she could help her and her husband out with the apartment complex which they managed. She was delighted to help and agreed to a summer job involving any maintenance and care that was required at the apartment complex.
Brooke, 19, had just completed her freshman year at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.Her boyfriend, Justin Blake, was serving as a Mormon Missionary in Venezuela so she was more than happy to help her sister out for the Summer. Brooke was a devout Mormon also and one of six children. She was very close to her family and had a great relationship with her parents, Greg and Cammy.
Brooke's sister Stephani, Greg and Cammy
On the 24th of May 2004, she volunteered to clean all the lamp posts in the apartment complex. That was the kind of thing she did daily.
She was due to meet her sister for lunch that day. But Brooke didn't show up at the restaurant and her sister thought it was unusual she went back to the apartment complex to look for her.
Inside the apartment, it appeared that Brooke had not gone far as her phone and purse were still there and her car was in the car park so her sister went to look around outside. She thought that maybe Brooke just hadn't realised the time. But , a few items left in the car park, made her aware that something troubling had taken place. Beside a lamp post in the car park, Brooke's sister found the cleaning products Brooke had been using and also her flip flops were on the ground.
One of the toe thongs on the flip flops had been ripped indicating there had been a struggle of sorts. A tenant in the apartment complex heard a woman scream but by the time they looked out the window there was nobody there.It looked as if Brooke had been taken and if that was the case, where was she and who had taken her?
Despite a huge search of the area and a big reward on offer looking for information, police did not have the answers her family had hoped for. There was no sign of Brooke and if she had been taken, they had no idea who had taken her.
That remained the case for over 6 months.
Then on the 30th of November 2004, police got the break they were waiting for.
A 22 year old student from the University of New Mexico was attacked. A man drove up to her in a two door red Honda with tinted windows and at knifepoint ordered her to get into the car. He drove her to a deserted parking lot and threatened to kill her unless she undressed and performed oral sex on him. He used shoelaces to tie her ankles together and her wrists with a scarf. He then stuffed her panties in her mouth and pinned them there by tying another shoelace around her mouth.
When he drove to a second location, she managed to untie her ankles and ran away. A woman driving with her children saw her running down the road with an unzipped jacket and her underwear around her neck.
The student ran into a Mexican restaurant but left when nobody offered her help so the woman in the car told her to get in and they would call 911. There were fresh knife wounds on her neck. As they sat in the car, the red Honda drove past them several times until the police arrived. People in the area knew of a man who spent a lot of time in car parks and by giving a good description of her attacker, the student led police to the man in question. Joel Patrick Courtney.
Joel was a native of Beaverton Oregon and a married father with three children. He had been in trouble before. His own son reported him for assaulting his mother and there were various other incidents throughout the years. One frightening incident was when he was just eighteen years old. A female friend was driving him home when he tried to kiss and fondle her. When she pushed him off and told him to stop, he punched her and dragged her out of the car and pulled off her jeans and panties. As he unzipped his jeans, she stopped fighting and that made him lose interest.
The student that Joel attacked that day was strikingly similar to Brooke. So much so that police looked into where Joel was the day Brooke went missing. He was in Corvallis. On that date, the 24th of May, he was due to attend Court for a driving matter but he never arrived. At that time he drove a green van. A green van had also been seen in the area where Brooke disappeared. A search of his van revealed Brooke’s DNA and some of her hair.
He pleaded guilty on the 12th of September 2007 to the rape and beating of the 22 year old student. As this matter had been dealt with, it allowed him to face Trial in Oregon.
Even though Brooke had not been found, he faced fourteen counts including aggravated murder, two counts of kidnapping, single counts of rape, sodomy and sexual abuse. A witness identified him as being the driver of the green van on the day Brooke disappeared. He was extradited to Benton County in Oregon on the 8th of April 2008 to face Trial.
When he realised he was facing the death penalty, he agreed to tell prosecutors where Brooke was in exchange for a life sentence. Brooke’s remains were found on private property in Benton County in the Oregon Coast Range.
On the day Joel abducted Brooke, he tried to abduct two other students but they managed to get away.
Joel said that when he saw Brooke cleaning lamp posts, he drove up beside her in his van. They were in the apartment complex at the back of the car park. He had blocked her in with the van, there was nowhere for Brooke to go.
Joel told her he was a delivery man and even had a Fedex envelope in his hand to look convincing. He then forced her at knifepoint into the van. He bound her and drove to a wooded area before stopping to get a MacDonalds and a bottle of wine. After his meal, he slept for the night. Brooke was still bound in the van. The next morning he raped her.
He told authorities he hadn’t decided whether he would kill her until she fought so hard to avoid the rape. He choked her in the woods and she was convulsing on the ground when he bludgeoned her with a piece of wood, smashing her skull. The next couple of hours were spent entombing her body under a fallen tree with limbs, ferns and other brush. He knew she would never be found. That was his intention.
Brooke’s remains were recovered on the 21st of September 2009, more than five years after she went missing. Her mother told Joel that she is grateful to him for revealing where Brooke was so that she could bring her home.
Joel is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Even after hearing all the horror that Joel inflicted on their daughter and much loved sister, the Wilberger family ensured they had the strength to see through his Trial and sentencing so that they could work with the Prosecution to offer a plea deal. This allowed them to bring Brooke back home. Without that strength, Brooke may never have been found.
The comments below have not been moderated
"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
"The effects of abuse are devastating and far reaching. Domestic violence speaks many languages, has many colors and lives in many different communities."
- Sandra Pupatello