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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.

The next morning, the young man was still suicidal. The rock-throwing incident was nothing compared to federal child-porn charges, which Congress decreed are crimes of violence and carry tough sentences. So he headed out, driving his mom's black BMW to Rancho Cordova to pick up his final check at the auto parts store where he worked as a delivery driver. Then he crossed town to a gun shop, where owner Jerry Renville recognized him as a nice kid who occasionally browsed. This time Justin bought a deer rifle, but the state's mandatory waiting period prevented him from taking it.

Driving around, he later told investigators, he grew "angry at the FBI because I felt they were causing me and my dad to die for basically no reason, for child pornography." He made a chilling decision. "I never had sex with a virgin and kind of fantasized about that,'' he said. "I figured that if I had to go to jail, I should go for a crime that's worth going to jail for.''

About an hour later Justin Weinberger watched children, eager to start the long Veterans Day weekend, stream from the cinder-block classrooms of W.E. Mitchell Middle School. He spotted a pert girl with a ponytail. On that mild, sunny afternoon, Courtney Sconce was wearing a white T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. She clutched a bunch of purple flowers.

Justin eased the car to the curb and got out after he struck up a conversation with Sconce. As he recounted it, he asked directions to a nonexistent street, then asked the girl her name. She said he had a nice Beamer, her favorite make. But when he invited her for a ride, she begged off, saying she was almost home. He then said he had a gun and told her to get in. "Don't hurt me,'' he recalled her saying. He drove off, past her favorite skating rink and onto the freeway.

A couple of hours later and 40 miles away, Richard Harrington was going to see his boss at La Paz Golf Club. The maintenance worker slowed to see the dark-colored BMW parked along the Feather River levee. He was smitten with BMWs and once had owned one. The car's occupants were cresting the levee--a young man in cargo pants and a little girl in shorts. "It was weird, like they were brother and sister,'' Harrington recalls.

Courtney Sconce's parents became anxious about their child. Her father, Mark, found some Highway Patrol officers when he went to a nearby Taco Bell looking for his youngest daughter, and the search was on. As the hours passed, he had a gut feeling, a bad one. Frantic, he drove around peering into parks, behind buildings, even into dumpsters.

Sometime after midnight, sheriff's deputies told them a girl's body had been found along the Feather River. They had a Polaroid. "They showed me that terrible picture, the one that we parents hope we never see,'' Mark Sconce recalls.

Investigators converged on a sandy bank not far from a place known as Beer Can Beach. Sutter County deputies collected evidence with help from the state Department of Justice, where Michael Weinberger worked. There were footprints and tire tracks, plus things the killer left behind in haste: an Adidas visor, sunglasses, a sock, boxer shorts and a black T-shirt with a yellow skull. Pathologists later found the killer's DNA in Courtney.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Dets. Marci Minter and Lori Timberlake were assigned to the case. Timberlake had attended the same school as Courtney and knew Rancho Cordova. They thought they could solve the case in a day or two. Footprints with no sign of a struggle suggested the killer might have known the victim.

The detectives started by searching Courtney's bedroom, where a BMW poster hung on the door. There was no steady boyfriend to question. But Courtney recently had written the name of a boy on her hand. And there was a neighborhood ruffian. For three days, investigators fanned out, generating so many leads that a task force was formed. A toll-free hotline sizzled with tips that were fed into a computer. The FBI and other investigators questioned registered sex offenders and pulled over BMW owners. They visited body shops and wrecking yards looking for the car. They viewed store security camera footage. They hung out at the skate rink and Courtney's school.

Fortunately, there was a way to rule out suspects--DNA testing. Each was asked for a sample of skin cells taken from inside the cheek. Then the state lab in Berkeley compared the sample to the killer's DNA. A sex offender who owned a BMW was eliminated. So were Courtney's father, brother and many others.

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