Dateline   |  April 28, 2014

Bringing Brooke Home, Part 9

Exactly one year after Brooke vanished, forensic analysts find DNA evidence linking Joel Courtney to Brooke. His sister, Dina, reveals some key information about her brother's time in Oregon. Would Courtney be held accountable for Brooke's murder?

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

>>> in the months after joel courtney had emerged as a suspect in brooke wilberger 's disappearance, brooke 's mom had desperately tried to hold on to the hope that her daughter was still alive. but her heart was finally giving in to what her head was telling her.

>> i just had this sick feeling, even though i would never give up hope, you know, my motherly hope was always there. i knew deep down that she was probably gone.

>> and it would be another mom in another state who would move the story forward. joel courtney had already been interviewed by the fbi but refused to answer any questions and when shown her photo denied ever knowing brooke . but when confronted by his own mother, courtney came perilously close to a confession.

>> she actually asked him, point blank, joel , did you do this? and he said, it's not really what it seems like and i'll never be held accountable for this.

>> he said that to your mother?

>> uh-huh.

>> they'll never hold me accountable to this?

>> uh-huh.

>> why did he say that?

>> because i don't think he feels the need to be held accountable for the things that he does.

>> power?

>> yeah, power, and doesn't have to play by the same rules that other people have to.

>> the rules, to investigators, it did seem like joel courtney thought he was playing a game. the inmate whose sister said he had above average intelligence knew that without physical evidence or brooke 's body it would be nearly impossible for investigators to charge him with murder. by the spring of 2005 , fbi scientists were working feverishly examining every inch of that green minivan joel once drove, hunting for dna evidence . on the day marking the first anniversary of brooke 's abduction, her family and police dutifully held a news conference. privately, the family had held the secret for months that the police had a strong suspect and that brooke was likely no longer alive. yet, in public, they held fast.

>> you still have that hope, though. you don't give that up.

>> one year after brooke wilberger disappeared, her tattered picture is still posted on street signs in corvallis .

>> but as local stations played the story of a christmas anniversary, some real news was about to break.

>> we were heading back to eugene and we got a call and they said, how far out of town are you? and we said well, not too far. they said, could you come back?

>> unbelievably, that very day, on the one-year anniversary of brooke 's disappearance, special agent joe boyer received a long-awaited call from the lab.

>> they told me, you're not going to believe what we found, and i said what is that? they said we found joel courtney 's dna in the van. and i said, well, that's good, but that doesn't quite get us there. and they said, we also found brooke wilberger 's dna in the carpet of the van.

>> it was the physical evidence that they had been waiting for. beneath the backseat in the carpet, they found a mixture of male and female dna , belonging to joel courtney and brooke wilberger .

>> what happens here at corvallis police headquarters when you find out?

>> that's the smoking gun. that's the nail in the coffin .

>> the wilbergers return to corvallis to get the news themselves.

>> they said, we got a dna confirmation that brooke 's dna and his dna were in the van together.

>> did you breakdown?

>> no. you get up for certain things. you just steel yourself for that. it was like yes, you know? and then, of course, i sobbed the whole way home.

>> the dna evidence revealed details no mother should ever have to hear and no witness had yet disclosed.

>> it was the nature of the dna evidence which told an even bigger story.

>> benton county oregon district attorney john haroldson.

>> the dna evidence was in the form of bodily fluids which were commingled, that told us a story in terms of what had occurred in that van.

>> the commingled dna indicated that brooke had been raped so joel courtney was charged with that crime, in addition to kidnapping and murder.

>> so you've got him in corvallis , near the point of abduction, you've got evidence that she was in his van, that he assaulted her in that van, the only thing you don't have is brooke wilberger ?

>> yes.

>> you charge him with the death penalty ?

>> yes. i believe it was justified due to the evidence we had before us.

>> news of indictment hadn't come out yet. joel courtney sat in a new mexico court hearing on that case and he has served with the oregon charges.

>> they came to court, gave it to me, i gave it to the defense attorney who gave it to courtney in the jury box with other inmates. and he starts laughing. when he's reading death penalty , death penalty , and he's laughing.

>> he's laughing?

>> he's laughing and he's showing it off to all of the other inmates like this is a badge of honor somehow.

>> what does that tell you?

>> we read him exactly right. this is something that he's proud of. i think he felt at that time, particularly because he knew in that case he knew they didn't have the body, this was something that he could enjoy because it wasn't going to affect him in the long term.

>> and from that day forward, joel courtney did everything that he could to delay and disrupt his own case. he knew that the charges here in new mexico of kidnapping and rape would have to be dealt with before he could ever be sent back to oregon . so he did all could to turn to proceedings here into a farce. that meant he sometimes didn't communicate with his own legal team. he even fired one of his own attorneys and at other times he refused to show up for court appearances and then finally joel courtney claimed that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

>> once that was brought up, when he would come into court, he would come in all bowed down, he would shuffle, only look at the floor. his whole demeanor had changed because now he wanted to be incompetent. because we couldn't try him.

>> what did you really think was going on?

>> it was absolutely inept. it was absolutely an act.

>> nonetheless, had he to be and tested by mental health experts at the mental health experts in new mexico .

>> i was concerned for the entire time he would be looking for an opportunity to escape. he was fluent in spanish. i felt that he was going to head south , cross the border where he'd live before and disappear into mexico and make it very difficult for us to find him.

>> as the fight over whether or not courtney was competent to stand trial dragged on through 2007 , brooke 's mom was struggling. for her, the mission to find her daughter was no longer a rescue mission but one of recovery and her hopes were being threatened by what many saw as the courtroom shennanigans of joel courtney .

>> i can remember one time i was near the edge. i knew that if they found him mentally incapable that that was a black hole for us. because we would never get brooke . he would never come to oregon . he would be there forever, you know, playing this game.

>> it was nearly a year before a new mexico judge finally ruled in january 2007 , nearly three years after brooke disappeared, that joel courtney was competent to stand trial .

>> we were on our way to san francisco and we got a phone call and he said, they found him mentally stable. and we got out of the car, the girls and i, and did a dance around the car. i just felt like the world was lifted and i didn't realize how close i was, maybe, you know --

>> close to what?

>> to just a breaking point. until i felt that being lifted. and then it was like, okay, we can do this.

>> later that year, in september 2007 , joel courtney would finally plead guilty to kidnapping and sexually assaulting that university of new mexico student he snatched off the street. the young woman who somehow escaped. at his sentencing, another circus.

>> it didn't take long for joel patrick courtney to tell district judge kenneth martinez, exactly what he thinks of him.

>> i have no respect for this court. this is -- you're the rudest person i have ever met.

>> i do believe, sir, that you are, again, attempting to delay this matter as you have repeatedly.

>> the judge sentenced joel courtney to 18 years in prison but not before courtney took a parting shot.

>> i would spit in your face if i was close enough.

>> time had finally run out for joel courtney . he would soon be back on his way to oregon where investigators were ready for his head games . their goal, the same as it had been for years, find brooke .

>> there was a degree of vigor. you are not going to win, joel courtney . we