Dateline   |  April 28, 2014

Bringing Brooke Home, Part 8

It's not long before good police work connects Joel Courtney to Oregon on the day Brooke Wilberger disappeared. But would it be enough to connect him to her disappearance?

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> time seemed to tick by so slowly during those long months when investigators were searching for clues in the disappearance of brooke wilberger . minutes, hours, days. but in early december 2004 , more than six months after she went missing, it was as if the clock suddenly sped up. police in corvallis , oregon, were struck by the parallels between brooke 's abduction and the crimes joel patrick courtney was accused of in albuquerque. from our perspective, it's a signature crime. right next to the university of new mexico campus, young woman , attractive, broad daylight, abduction in a vehicle, drives away. yeah, we were real excited that we were on the right track at that point.

>> by the time the police learned joel courtney 's name, joel 's sister dina and family had been thinking about the same connection for days.

>> we couldn't even say the words out loud. we were up till the late hours in the morning going over the calendar thinking, could he have done that? we decided to pray about it.

>> what were your prayers?

>> we really prayed that god would give us wisdom, that we would make the right choices, that we would speak when we needed to speak and not speak when it was not wise.

>> dina waited, saying nothing, until a week later, corvallis police , looking for information about her brother, called her.

>> in that moment, do you know in your heart that he did something?

>> in that moment i did not know that. i thought too many coincidences to automatically discount it. right? you can't just assume because he's your brother, somebody that you love, that he couldn't have, right?

>> what dina told police was revealing. during their first interviews, she shared some dark, family secrets . when she was a teenager, her brother joel had attacked her.

>> he would come in in the middle of the night and put a hand around my neck and attempt to sexually assault me.

>> more than once?

>> more than once, yeah. and i have had a great old-fashion wind up alarm clock that met his head.

>> two more courtney family members would soon come forward claiming that joel had raped or tried to rape them.

>> the further we got into the investigation as far as the number of people we interviewed, the more sexual assaults came to light.

>> and more pieces of the puzzle were coming together quickly. despite their troubled past, dina and joel had maintained a relationship over the years. joel 's sister now showed police these photographs of joel and his family, not at their home in new mexico, but visiting dina 's home in the portland suburbs, in may 2004 , the very month brooke wilberger disappeared. joel , his wife rosie and three kids needed a place to stay. joel had gotten a job supervising a cleaning crew, a job that meant that he would be traveling all over the state of oregon .

>> we were under the impression that he would be there for a couple of months. a lot of the time there would be -- you know, he would bow out fairly early on, i've got to do something for work. so it was mostly rosie and the kids with the rest of us.

>> so he was traveling quite a bit.

>> that was my understanding, yeah.

>> and then this bombshell. may 24th , the day brooke was abducted, was one of those days when joel courtney was traveling. he had a court day, it turns out, over on the oregon coast on that drunken driving charge, but he never showed up. according to court records, he called the courthouse and said he was going to be late and that phone call was made from the very town where brooke disappeared. right here in corvallis . joel courtney then disappeared, for about 36 hours , before returning to dina 's home in the portland suburbs.

>> he walked through the door and announced kind of loudly, you'll never believe where i've been. and i said okay, where were you? he said, i was kidnapped. there were these guys, there were guns and knifes and we were in the woods and it was rainy and cold and there was a girl there and we were hiding and there was blood and it was awful.

>> at the time, dina chalked it up to joel 's chronic drug abuse .

>> he's delusional?

>> uh-huh.

>> you just think he's coming off some bad drugs?

>> uh-huh.

>> you don't call 911?

>> no.

>> dina says she didn't feel like she was in danger at that moment, so she did not call authorities. but all those months later, sitting with investigators, she suddenly realized how crucial that strange conversation with joel might have been.

>> just as i was saying it, it occurred to me, oh, my word. could he have been -- was he talking about that? and she remembered the very next day after brooke disappeared, her brother joel would visit his doctor in portland complaining of chest pains and anxiety but all of this information, while damning was nothing more than circumstantial evidence of joel 's potential involvement in brooke 's disappearance. without brooke or if she were dead, her body, the detectives had no physical proof linking joel to the crime. until, that is, police learned what joel was driving the day brooke disappeared. a green dodge caravan with minnesota license plates supplied by the company he was working for.

>> the minute you hear green minivan with a minnesota plate, somebody remembers that was one of your tips?

>> absolutely.

>> two separate tips pulled from the database of thousands called into the police . the first, 9:30 a.m ., 100 yards north of where brooke was kidnapped. a blond osu student said a white male adult in a green minivan approached her and opened the back of his van to look for a map. when she saw a blanket on the floor, she rushed off, telling the man she was late for a class. then a university athletic official called to report a man in a dodge caravan , possibly green, with minnesota plates, asking a female student for directions in the stadium parking lot , in close proximity to where wilberger was abducted. the witness was later asked to identify the man in this photo lineup and picked out joel courtney .

>> this was dynamite to us. this told us, this is our guy at the moment. we needed to focus on him and find the van. that's our one piece of physical evidence we've got to get now.

>> and that's exactly what the fbi did. agent joe boyer found the van in washington state and had it taken apart, piece by piece , and shipped to an fbi lab across the country.

>> we knew that if we were going to prove that joel courtney was responsible for this, the best chance we had was to find evidence of brooke being in the van.

>> the wilberger family was informed. they wanted to know the truth, but were almost afraid to discover more about joel courtney and his crimes.

>> i googled him and passed it on to you.

>> you googled him?

>> yeah. sure.

>> what was it like to see his face?

>> i just looked at him and at that point was just a numb feeling. even then, i didn't feel hatred. it was just all about getting brooke back. i wanted to know what you did and where she is.

>> but neither the wilbergers nor investigators nor courtney 's sister could ever have guessed how they would get the answer to the question where was brooke ?