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COVER STORY

Confession of a Child Killer

This Summer's Rash of Child Kidnappings and Murders Has Everyone Wondering, 'Why?' But When Justin Weinberger Spotted 12-Year-Old Courtney Sconce the Day He Raped and Strangled Her, He Was Thinking Something Far More Troubling: 'Why Not?'

September 15, 2002|Tim Reiterman | Tim Reiterman is a Times staff writer based in Northern California.

Soon after the news raced through the Rancho Cordova neighborhood of modest ranch-style houses, a street corner memorial cascaded across the sidewalk. Bouquets. Votive candles. Teddy bears. The street sign was festooned with ribbons and cards drawn by children. "I'll remember you like family . . . ." said one.

Townspeople in this blue-collar bedroom community about 10 miles east of the state Capitol came to "Courtney's Corner'' to mourn and remember a 12-year-old girl who vanished on her after-school jaunt to the store, and then turned up dead before nightfall on a faraway riverbank. Children and parents broke down as they clung to one another and gazed at photographs of Courtney Hannah Sconce. It was hard to believe, even harder to take, that someone could choke the life out of a winsome, bright-eyed tomboy who was always on the go, skateboarding and playing ball with the guys, running down the leafy avenues, ponytail flying.

The memorial also drew strangers who were moved by the tragedy, or who were curious. One was a lanky, clean-cut college dropout and computer buff who had saved newspaper clippings about the murder. He pulled up in his car, stopped, looked for a moment, and drove on. No one apparently noticed him that day shortly after Courtney's Nov. 8, 2000, murder, but that was not unusual for Justin M. Weinberger. He had seldom attracted much attention in his 19 years. Despite a manhunt underway for Courtney's killer, Weinberger's visit to the memorial would remain a secret until eight months later, when he was arrested for her murder.

His crime was particularly disturbing because he killed just two days after the FBI came to his home and seized his child pornography collection. FBI officials say it may be the first time that a child-porn search prompted such a tragedy, and the murder left veteran agents agonizing over their handling of the case and wondering how they might better predict when a suspect will act on his impulses.

This shy son of a state prosecutor did not seem to fit the stereotype of a pedophile, let alone a rapist and murderer. He had no lifelong rap sheet, as did the man who snatched 12-year-old Polly Klaas from a slumber party in Petaluma and murdered her in 1993. He was less than half the age of the 50-year-old San Diego County man who kept child porn on his computer and was convicted last month of killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in February. Unlike the suspect arrested in the July slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Stanton, he had not been accused of molestation before.

Weinberger pleaded guilty, so there was no trial, no public airing. The forces that drove him to kill remained a mystery. "I still cannot explain what I've done,'' he said as he was sentenced early this year to life in prison. Weinberger later refused interview requests routed through prison officials. But The Times was allowed to view his videotaped confession to sheriff's detectives. It offers not only a child killer's own account of the crime, but also insights into what caused him to destroy two lives--Courtney Sconce's and his own--and devastate both of their families.

According to the video, a letter to his best friend, and interviews with those who knew Weinberger, the ingredients for rage and violence were churning within him, mixed into dysfunction and loneliness hidden behind the veneer of suburban normalcy. And, Weinberger alleged, family secrets tormented and bent him. Says his former public defender, Carol Pulido, ''Just because you have every advantage does not mean you have a good upbringing.''

Justin Weinberger was a child of El Dorado Hills, a short drive from Rancho Cordova and a leap up the economic ladder. Since about age 6, he was raised in a three-bedroom house perched among the dusky oaks and pines. His parents made a handsome couple. His mother was blue-eyed, blond and chatty. She doted on Justin, dressed with flair and drove sporty cars. His father had a supervisory job in the state attorney general's office, a certain reticence and a ready smile. As a youngster, Justin took piano lessons and played soccer on a team his dad coached. He played chess with his best friend and sailed with his parents. He had dogs, cats and a tree fort. He was often home alone but seemed happy enough, although he had a temper.

''He was into video games and Nintendo,'' says childhood playmate Bryce Porter. "His parents gave him a lot of games. He would get mad if I beat him at Nintendo and tell me to get out of the house.''

As a teen, Justin's life became more solitary, at home and school. "He was a shy, very withdrawn person,'' recalls another former neighbor Laurel Mize, who was a grade ahead of him. "He would be out playing basketball a lot, but by himself.'' He knew computers well enough to fix them, and he once sold software through a telemarketing company. But having few friends, he spent long hours with the television and the Internet.

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