Dateline | April 28, 2014
>>> joel courtney was finally in an oregon courtroom, pleading not guilty to murder charges. it was the spring of 2008 , a full four years after brooke wilberger had disappeared. the man charged with stealing a beautiful 19-year-old from her loved ones had also stolen years from their lives. he had manipulated the legal system, forced delays in new mexico to avoid returning to oregon to face charges. if he were convicted now, it could mean the death penalty .
>> did you think that he deserved to die?
>> it didn't matter. it was -- we know the end result, how did it happen and where is she? and so it wasn't a feeling of revenge or retribution. it was just, okay, what now, how do we find her and recover her?
>> the family simply needed to know. remember, thousands of searchers had covered dozens of square miles in every direction from oregon 's coastal range of mountains to its rocky coast without any success. joel courtney had not said a word to police or prosecutors since asking for a lawyer years before. the man who had studied law books in jail had to know that despite dna evidence linking him to brooke 's rape and murder, without a body, the prosecution's case would be much harder to prove. so if courtney knew where to find brooke , he was keeping the secret to himself. d.a., john haroldson.
>> you can't appeal to this man to just do the right thing, can you?
>> i never saw that as an incentive for him. i felt that the incentives were probably going to be more based from the perspective of a narcissist.
>> yes. what can you do for me versus what can i do for society.
>> and so the prosecutor thought, what could be more precious to a narcissist than his own life? after consulting with the wilbergers, the d.a. offered courtney a deal. admit to brooke 's murder, reveal the location of her body, and avoid the death penalty in an exchange of life in prison without patrol.
>> actually, that's what we hoped for, because the death penalty would draw it out years.
>> but you wanted something in return?
>> we wanted brooke . we wanted her remains.
>> why was that so important to the family?
>> we just wanted her back. our goal was still really the same. that we just wanted to bring her home, clearly, not the way that we had hoped but i think that it was important to us to have her back, just to get her back.
>> so the prosecutor went to courtney with the deal and true to form, the inmate made everyone wait again, for months. until his defense lawyers delivered the word.
>> joel courtney was not interested. he did not return a counteroffer. he outright rejected our offer.
>> feels like holding her family hostage in some ways, you know.
>> courtney 's sister dina watched all of this unfold, knowing a trial would mean she would have to testify about the times joel tried to rape her as a teenager, about his unexpected visit to her oregon home just before brooke 's abduction, and about his incriminating, presumably drug-induced statements. dina knew her testimony could help put her own brother on death row .
>> my mom and i actually talked about this before she got sick and talked about, you know, we've always said that we believe in the death penalty and here it is --
>> your brother.
>> -- my brother, her son. and so if you believe in it for some person that you don't know, does that still hold true if it's your loved one? and we did a lot of thinking and praying about it and we came to the conclusion that, yeah, we still did.
>> dina says she was ready to testify but what she didn't know was that the pressure was building on her brother to find another way out. in new mexico , the courts rejected his appeals and life in oregon 's jails was not pleasant for a notorious crimes against women were well known. more than once courtney was beaten by fellow inmates as you can see in this jailhouse video in which courtney is being tended to by medical staff after one particularly brutal beating. then there were new charges of assault after courtney threw a fax machine at a prison doctor who wouldn't give him what he wanted.
>> that was the very beginning of the end .
>> why do you say that?
>> we knew then that he was frustrated. he was feeling it. it was getting close because he threw the fax machine because he couldn't get some anti-anxiety medication. so we knew that he was feeling very anxious.
>> but still no sign joel courtney was willing to reveal the location of brooke 's body. the prosecutor was fed up. he was ready for a trial.
>>> still, the judge wasn't quite ready to move on. he asked both sides to try one last time to settle the case before trial. during weeks of tense talks with joel courtney 's attorneys, the prosecutor finally discovered the one incentive that might appeal to courtney , and give the wilbergers their daughter back. courtney wanted out of oregon . he might admit to murder and reveal the location of brooke 's remains if he could serve his prison time near his own family in new mexico . the wilberger family quickly agreed. anything, they thought, to get brooke back.
>> we needed to have the approval of the oregon governor , and we needed to have the approval of the new mexico governor. those were the two final pieces.
>> you would think they would give their approval.
>> we were becoming extremely concerned that this process was taking so long that joel courtney was going to change his mind and walk away and we desperately needed that approval and we needed it now.
>> but while oregon 's governor signed off on the deal almost immediately, new mexico 's did not. brooke 's family couldn't believe it.
>> i was frustrated to think that something like that could stop this whole process that had gone so far.
>> and you've come so far.
>> and we had gotten so close and here we were at this point and then to think that it could all fall apart because of that.
>> so brooke 's mom decided to make a personal plea to the governor of new mexico to try to get her daughter back.
>> this one was unusual. i wanted full details and i wanted to be sure that i did the right thing.