While hundreds of people were questioned, Justin Weinberger went about his life, even attended a friend's birthday barbecue a few days after he had killed. Although he shed tears, he was composed enough to speak at his mother's memorial service a few weeks later. But he began acting recklessly. Records show he was in a car accident--his second in nine weeks--and was stopped for a seatbelt violation. He also had violent outbursts, punching holes in a wall at a party and tangling with a friend who threw Weinberger's cat off the bed. His friends dismissed his behavior as a response to his mother's death.
Weinberger began to believe he might get away with murder. He started a job as an administrative assistant for a construction company. He enrolled in computer courses at a local junior college. And he dutifully made court appearances in the rock-throwing case. The victim in that case, hair salon owner Autom Specht, had pressed the district attorney's office to file a misdemeanor criminal complaint. But the prosecutor persuaded her to endorse a plea deal that dismissed one of the charges and allowed Weinberger to cleanse his record--if he paid restitution and underwent anger management counseling.
"I think it was busted down because of Michael Weinberger's position, because it was represented to me that he was with the attorney general's office and it would be handled at home,'' Specht says.
Weinberger served as his son's attorney in the rock-throwing case, and his state business card was stapled in the court file. Attorney general's spokesman Nathan Barankin says Weinberger's role did not violate state conflict-of-interest rules, although he says the state prosecutor did not get the required permission to represent a family member. Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Jones denied favoritism in the plea deal. No one was hurt, Justin had a clean record and he accepted responsibility. Besides, Jones added, "I . . . was advised that mom had just died of cancer and the son was reacting badly to the death.''
The federal government also unwittingly gave a break to the killer. Federal investigators and prosecutors felt that some child pornographers of roughly Justin's age and criminal history had received excessively long prison terms under federal sentencing guidelines. Instead of proceeding with federal charges that could have led to at least five years in prison, they handed Justin's case over to El Dorado County prosecutors, who filed charges on May 22, 2001. Now that he was facing state charges instead of federal charges, Justin was subject to less than a year's jail time. His was a test case, and the people who made that decision took some comfort from a psychiatric evaluation provided by his attorney, Duree, which they felt indicated that the young man was not likely to act on his sexual impulses. Justin pleaded not guilty on May 29, 2001, and was freed on $7,500 bail.
Duree says Justin received no special consideration in either case due to his father's position or acquaintances, one of whom was federal prosecutor Doug Hendricks. As head of the U.S. Attorney's violent crime unit, Hendricks, a Weinberger neighbor, says he had no role in the handling of the child-porn charges. U.S. Attorney John Vincent declined to discuss the case.
As months dragged by and Courtney's murder went unsolved, Mark and Cindy Sconce lived in the foggy hell of the unknown. They had nightmares about Courtney's last moments. Not knowing whether the killer was close to the family, they feared for their other children. They picked through Courtney's belongings for overlooked clues. They reported every dark BMW they saw. They fielded calls from reporters, tipsters and crackpots. They pleaded publicly for the killer's family to turn him in.
Other parents in Rancho Cordova were afraid to let their little ones out of sight. Children were afraid to sleep with the lights off. Some of Courtney's playmates developed emotional problems.
Mark Sconce could not cope with the questions and sympathy of people at work. He stayed away for three months and then quit. He turned to tequila to numb the pain. Finally, he packed up his family and moved away from his house full of memories that was only a few doors from Courtney's Corner. The murder had thrown the community into a cycle of monthly candlelight vigils there.
The breakthrough came when the FBI began tracing the articles the killer left behind. When Special Agent Bill Nicholson set out to track the blue Adidas visor, he feared there were a million of them. But he found out that it was a relatively new model. Using a list of local retailers from an Adidas representative, he learned that 21 visors had been purchased with credit cards in the Sacramento area. Search warrants served on the banks yielded names of purchasers.