Dateline   |  April 28, 2014

Bringing Brooke Home, Part 11

After a personal plea from Cammy Wilberger, the governor of New Mexico signs off on a deal: Brooke's suspected killer, Joel Courtney, agrees to tell investigators where Brooke's body is if he can spend the rest of his life in a New Mexico prison rather than in Oregon. After five agonizing years, the Wilbergers finally bring Brooke home.

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

>>> so many years had passed and now that the deal was nearly done that might allow brooke wilberger 's family to bring her body home, could it all fall apart at the last minute? brooke 's suspected killer, joel courtney had agreed to tell investigators where brooke 's body was if he could spend the rest of his life not in an oregon prison, but in new mexico . oregon 's governor was set to sign the agreement. it was now up to new mexico governor bill richardson who hesitated.

>> you're talking about a convicted rapist and a man who's accused of a heinous murder. imagine you must have thought, i don't know if i want this person in our state?

>> well, that's true. he was a very bad guy and i said to my staff, let's be sure of all the facts. let's be sure that we're doing the right thing.

>> the governor wanted to hear from brooke 's family. her mother called the capitol and spoke to a top aide.

>> do you remember the words that you used in that call?

>> i remember that i said we had gone through a lot already and that we were hoping that this could be the end of it and that we would just hope that they would consider it.

>> you're appealing to their hearts?

>> i was.

>> how critical was that phone call , that personal phone call from the wilberger family to your office?

>> well, it was absolutely critical. as long as their is life imprisonment , as long as the family of brooke wilberger felt that this would bring closure, i was comfortable in signing this agreement.

>> it was done. the word police in corvallis had been waiting for.

>> i think we were all kind of on pins and needles for several days there.

>> that call finally comes?

>> yeah. i remember learning that the document was signed, the plea was done. now it's a matter of, we've got to find a way to get from him where she actually is.

>> what had happened to brooke ? her family and investigators who had spent more than five years trying to answer that question would in the coming days get their first details from her killer, joel courtney . courtney 's lawyers relayed the story to the d.a., who then told brooke 's family.

>> i thought everything had been difficult until that time but when he told us the details of the crime it's the first time that i heard some of them and it was all i could do to just sit there and just look straight ahead. and i just kept thinking, you can get through this day. you can get through this day.

>> the story told by joel a courtney was this. he said that morning in may, he was high on cocaine. when he drove up to brooke in the parking lot in his green van, asked for help delivering a package and when she came closer, he pulled out a knife and pulled her into the van. brooke began screaming as he tore her out of her flip-flops. from there, courtney said he drove west towards the town of philomath. he kept her tied up in the van for hours, even going through a mcdonald's drive through, he said, doing more drugs before night fell he raped brooke and when she fought back, he killed her by bludgeoning her in the head with a piece of wood before concealing her body in the forest.

>> but to know that she fought, you know, which didn't surprise us, it was just a really difficult time and very emotional i think for all of us as a family.

>> and in addition to those details, joel courtney provided the most critical piece of information, what brooke 's family and investigators had been waiting for.

>> he drew a rough hand sketched map that he says depicts where he took her.

>> do you know this location?

>> it's not too far away.

>> detectives drove from the police department past the apartment complex west five miles through the small town of philomath and then five miles further off the highway on to a logging road shown on the map.

>> had you been there?

>> not precisely.

>> close by searching?

>> absolutely.

>> ten miles is so close by.

>> yeah, but it may as well be an eternity.

>> we went up into the woods and we're trying again to be quiet. we don't want the world to know and we're looking and we're not finding and i remember being rather frustrated.

>> did you think he lied?

>> well, that certainly crossed our mind that he lied.

>> the team called it a night. but the next day they went back with more details supplied by joel courtney .

>> okay. it's about 9:40 a.m . on september 19th .

>> and with the help of a cadaver dog , through heavy timber, just a few hundred yards off that highway --

>> chief deputy medical examiner came back and said, i think we found her.

>> on a hillside investigators found some clothing, including a sweatshirt and before long small flags sadly marked several spots where human remains had been recovered. one of oregon 's most timeless mysteries had apparently been solved.

>> i certainly can't sit here and tell you that i wasn't choked up a few times. yeah, there were emotional times there.

>> but it would take time to identify the remains so searchers told the district attorney about one particular item found on that hillside. they wanted him to ask brooke 's family about it.

>> he texts me and said, can you describe brooke 's watch?

>> that was the watch that you gave her for christmas?

>> uh-huh.

>> that beautiful watch that brooke had wanted so badly, one one of the last gifts cammy would ever buy for her daughter now signaled the time had come.

>> so i described the watch and he said, we found her. it was like having the first day and six years and then the snowball just came down on top of you. everything landed on you.

>> brooke 's parents then told the rest of the family. the wait was over.

>> when she just said the words, they found brooke , it was -- i didn't feel excitement at all and it wasn't what i thought i would feel. i just sat there and i cried and i cried. that hope of her coming home alive was kind of torn from me.

>> in that moment i felt such a powerful wave of emotion and heaviness in my heart. as a human being , as a parent, i was just personally really, really struck at that point with what that really meant for the family. that the dream of an elizabeth smart miracle would be dashed forever.

>> the next day joel courtney pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole .

>> do you remember that day?

>> i just remember thinking, why would you have done that to that precious child? i can't imagine holding out for that long without needing to come forward and say, this is the truth. and here is your precious baby.

>> after sentencing, most of brooke 's family paid a brief visit to the site where brooke 's remains were found.

>> i could hardly breathe and it was wooded and shaded and someone made the comment that, you know, it was a beautiful peaceful place and i thought, it would be if your daughter hadn't been murdered here.

>> at the corvallis library, a number of police agencies gather at the end of a five-year effort.

>> and as the news broke that day, brooke 's mother stepped to the podium to say thank you, not only to thank those investigators that had worked so hard towards this day but also in a moment of incredible grace, to thank brooke 's killer.

>> it might be hard for you to understand but at this time we just really feel gratitude. even to mr. courtney , that he could see fit to tell us where he left brooke . and for our family, what happens to him, we are thankful that justice was served and that he will not have the opportunity for parole but now he can go on with what's left of his life and we want to strengthen our family and to go on with our life.

>> did it surprise you to hear mrs. wilberger family say thank you to joel courtney ?

>> it didn't surprise me. they are a giving and caring family. you can only hate for so long. at some point as people we have to be able to get beyond that.

>> people always throw the world closure around.

>> when people use that term, they are trying to be helpful and comforting. but i think in the death of anyone there's no closure.

>> it is the end of a horrible ordeal, one that lasted much longer that it needed to. for brooke 's killer, joel courtney , a lifetime of solitude awaits at the penitentiary of new mexico .

>> you have no sympathy for this man?

>> no. i think he's an animal. i hope he feels trapped, caged, defeated, weak. he's been beaten at his game and, like it or not, accountable.

>> and many wonder, would joel courtney have been caught if a waitress and mom in new mexico named dara hadn't taken the time to save another woman from an unknown fate.

>> what would have happened if dara hadn't stopped?

>> the victim would be dead. i have no doubt that he would have grabbed her again and we never would have found her.

>> and for brooke wilberger 's family, they keep this wrist watch of brooke 's along with their memories knowing that time is healing but only to a point.

>> i don't think that i could be 80 years old and have my entire life behind me and i don't think that i will ever reflect on what happened to her and be okay with it, you know, time is not going to make that okay.

>> she was the person you wanted to be or be like. she emulated everything that was good and she was my sister and that was -- it's just -- it was a really neat thing.

>>> you're watching " piers morgan live." [ cheers and applause ] good evening. i'm piers morgan .