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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.

At 12, she was a strong-willed and promising student who was taking geometry in the seventh grade. She dreamed of being the first woman pro football player one week, a lawyer the next. Muscular, quick and competitive, she could hold her own on the baseball diamond and basketball court with the boys. She did not seem interested in romance and dating. After her first dance, she came home saying she was not ready for boys fussing over her. And she considered her sex education class "gross.''

Courtney was a warm child, and a number of her classmates considered her their best friend. On what turned out to be her last day of school, she hugged one of her girlfriends and parted company. "I love you,'' they told one another. Once home, she told her brother she was heading to Harry's Liquors & Food for a snack. It was just a few blocks from their home.

Four months earlier and a continent away, Peggy Grow, a Hillsborough County, Fla., sheriff's detective, had signed onto her computer late one night. Someone in a chat room was offering: "PRE/TEEN AcTion-HarDcOre, CloSeuPs . . . '' After downloading eight images of girls under 14 from the operator's computer, the detective traced the computer account through phone records to Justin's father. Michael Weinberger was just a name to the detective, but for two decades he was a respected, well-liked California state prosecutor who supervised several other attorneys and fought criminal appeals, including death penalty cases.

The porn investigation was referred through the FBI's "Innocent Images" task force to the Sacramento field office. It was a small case compared to the international child-porn ring busted last month by federal and local agencies, and the initial investigation was handled routinely by Special Agent Kenneth G. Hittmeier. The 25-year veteran was no stranger to sex-crime investigations or the power of porn. He had worked on the previous year's Yosemite rapes and murders in which the accused killer of two teenaged girls and two women offered the FBI a confession in exchange for child porn and other favors.

Hittmeier scoped out the Weinberger home, then prepared a search warrant. But one magistrate declined to sign it because he knew the senior Weinberger. Although another judge signed the warrant, alarms went off when the U.S. Attorney's office learned that a state prosecutor's home was targeted. "They said, 'You better make this search warrant airtight and bulletproof,' '' says Hittmeier. No one wanted to see a repeat of a child-porn case involving a Sacramento prosecutor that was thrown out over false statements in a police search warrant affidavit.

After more work, several agents descended on the Weinberger home with a fresh warrant on Nov. 6, 2000. They walked into what one described as a "horrible" situation. They didn't know who in the household was distributing porn, and they didn't know Justin's mother was on her deathbed. Justin answered the door and almost immediately asked to speak to an attorney. Then his father arrived home. He seemed surprised but cooperative, agents said in an interview. He told them there was porn--but not child porn--on his own computer and that he knew nothing about his son's computer. Agents carted off both machines. An examination back at headquarters later turned up numerous images of pre-pubescent girls on Justin's computer, agents say, but nothing illegal on his father's.

As Justin recounted in his videotaped confession, his father that night told him he could go to prison for years, ruining his future. He also fretted that the publicity would hurt his career. "He . . . started discussing suicide that night,'' Justin said. "We started drinking whiskey.''

Justin said they went to the garage, fired up two cars and waited for the carbon monoxide to do its work. He dropped off to sleep but awoke in the morning in his own bed, not knowing how he got there. Although Michael Weinberger declined requests for an interview, John R. Duree Jr., his friend and Justin's former attorney, insists in response to written questions that "Mr. Weinberger never encouraged or suggested suicide by Justin.''

Although their accounts of that night differ, both father and son went the following day to the Gold Rush town of Placerville for a court appearance in the road-rage incident. Coincidentally, the judge hearing Justin's case was one of Michael Weinberger's former co-workers from the attorney general's office. Justin pleaded not guilty.

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