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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 impossible suddenly looked promising. On July 9, 2001, eight months after the murder, Nicholson gathered several agents in his work cubicle. He had folders with each purchaser's name, address and photo. He wanted a criminal history check, an interview and a DNA sample for each. "For instance, here's a guy who's 20 years old . . . '' he said, holding up one photo.

"I know that guy," said Hittmeier, who recognized the face from a previous child porn search. "That's Justin Weinberger.''

Hittmeier and his partner, Jeff Rinek, made tracks back to the Weinberger home. Justin was not there. His father was, and he looked drained. Normally, Hittmeier says, the agents might have just asked the father to let them know when his son returned. Instead they spelled out why they were there. "Probably . . . we treated him differently than we would anyone else because he was in law enforcement or a prosecutor,'' the agent says. "I think he would understand, and his demeanor had always been cooperative.''

Weinberger assured the agents that Justin would return later that day, and that they would be in contact. But that did not happen.

Justin was whiling away the afternoon drinking beer at Folsom Lake with the Rocklin crowd when his cell phone rang. His dad told him to come home right away because the FBI had shown up wanting his DNA. He rushed off, telling friends he needed to go to school. Once Justin got home, he said his father told him investigators had traced the visor. Things looked dismal. "I told him I was going to flee,'' Justin said, "and he said he was going to kill himself.''

During the next two hours, Justin stuffed practically everything he owned into his Honda. He told investigators that his father warned that he might get caught immediately. "I love you and always have,'' he said he told his dad, then drove away, heading east, using back roads.

At the FBI, a day passed with no word from Michael Weinberger. Sensing that something was seriously wrong, Rinek tried to reach him by phone the next day. Then he learned that Justin's best friend had received an odd voice mail from him: The FBI was falsely accusing him of something and he was fleeing. The agent raced to the Weinberger home, then contacted the attorney general's office. Rinek says a friend of Justin's father reported he had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. A missing persons notice saying Justin was wanted for questioning went out to law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Justin Weinberger made his way from Northern California to New Mexico. Grabbing another girl crossed his mind. But, feeling lonely, he picked up two male hitchhikers. After drinking and smoking pot, they created a ruckus at the Texan Motel in Raton, a hilly town on the Santa Fe Trail. The desk clerk called police, but they got away.

Two hours later, a surveillance camera captured them trying to get into a closed supermarket. This time police rounded them up and found that Weinberger was wanted for questioning in California. Within a day, Sacramento Sheriff's Dets. Minter and Timberlake flew to Albuquerque, where Weinberger had been moved. They found him amiable and articulate, but sweating profusely, his leg pumping.

He told the detectives that he did not know Courtney and was merely taking a road trip to New York. He also asked about his dad's well-being and expressed concern about his car. The detectives said they offered to check on the car and got Weinberger's permission to search it.

The next day, in a little garage in Raton, they picked through the Honda and found child porn hidden inside a Hustler magazine. But they also discovered newspapers featuring stories about Courtney's murder, photos of Weinberger wearing sunglasses like those with her body, and T-shirts and boxer shorts similar to ones found at the murder scene. Then Timberlake popped the trunk and found something that set her yelling--a blue Saucony running shoe that matched the size and pattern of sole prints at the murder site.

The detectives went back to Weinberger, but he maintained his innocence. "I'll see you in Sacramento,'' Timberlake told him. And they went home with the damning evidence and something even more important--a DNA sample earlier obtained by Raton police at their request. The sample was rushed to the state DNA lab in Berkeley. A few days later, on July 19, 2001, Timberlake was sitting in the sheriff's homicide squad room with Nicholson of the FBI when her boss came in holding a balloon. "Congratulations,'' it said.

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