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Confession of a Child Killer

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.

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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.

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“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.

At Oak Ridge High, a pastoral campus cut by a tiny creek, he enjoyed math and shied away from extracurricular activities. He was polite, smart and showed a clever sense of humor in one-on-one situations. But he was socially awkward, with reserve that let people ignore him and stubbornness that grated even on friends. He was attracted to pretty girls who dated athletes, but he knew he stood little chance. He skipped dances and proms. He once threw a party when his parents were out of town, hoping it would make him more popular. Scores of kids descended on the house, but it was a fiasco. They trashed the place.

His lifelong buddy was a handsome football player. When he moved to a new housing tract in nearby Rocklin, Justin hung out there. But the local kids barely tolerated this nerdy newcomer who wore plaid shirts and visors. They laughed at him and called him for beer money when they were broke. “You could manipulate him so easily . . . convince him to do anything, buy something or give it to you or drive you somewhere,” says Chris Tillisch, one of Justin’s few friends willing to be quoted by name. “My friends made fun of me for hanging with him.”

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When they went clubbing, his pals sometimes ditched him, fearing he would spoil their chances of picking up girls. At parties, Justin usually was flying solo. He met some women through a dating service but the relationships did not last. He turned to prostitutes on a Sacramento street. His mother, Janice Maureen Weinberger, made rambling late-night calls to his closest buddy’s mother. “She was worried about him committing suicide,” the friend’s mother recalls. When friends confronted Justin, he told them he was depressed--but not enough to hurt himself.

Justin’s mother was grappling with her own demons. A son by her first marriage was sentenced to life in prison for a 1992 crime spree that included kidnapping. Later that year, when Justin was 11, records show the Weinbergers filed for bankruptcy after his mom lost her job. She kept tiny bottles of wine in her car, and had one conviction for driving while intoxicated, in 1997. Justin said she clashed with her husband about her drinking. Sometimes she asked neighbors for a ride to the store because she was not allowed to drive. Heaped on everything else, she was diagnosed with a blood disorder in the mid-1990s that required transfusions.

Justin respected his father, although he told detectives he found him cold and controlling. He thought his mother was lonely and pitied her. He escaped in a cloud of marijuana and other drugs. His grades dropped during his senior year of high school, yet a strong SAT score in math helped him gain admission in 1999 to San Diego State University, where he majored in computer science. The cannabis smell from his room was a running joke on his dormitory floor. He sometimes cut classes and seemed lethargic. “He mainly stayed to himself,” says Justin Rupert, who lived two doors away. “I can’t recall many times I actually saw him come out of his room.”

He partied day and night when his best friend came to visit. Home for his first winter break, he passed out during a drinking bout on Jan. 25, 2000, and his friends photographed him sprawled with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Records show that an ambulance later took him to a hospital. A month later, the scent of marijuana brought a campus cop to his room, and the cop confiscated two marijuana pipes. University officials declined to say whether disciplinary action was taken. But after two semesters, Justin said in his confession, he had failed some courses, and his father was tired of financing his fooling around at school. He left school to help care for his dying mother and began getting grief counseling arranged by his dad.

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By fall, he was spinning out of control. On Oct. 6, 2000, he threw a rock and shattered the van window of another motorist pulling onto the highway. She gave chase at high speed and got his license number. A highway patrolman later went to his home and cited him. Justin told friends he carried the rock just in case someone showed him disrespect. Respect was a big thing for someone who got so little of it.

Courtney Sconce was many things Justin Weinberger was not. Her family called her the miracle child. Her mother Cindy’s tubes were tied, yet Courtney found her way into this world. She always would be the baby, the youngest of three children born to Air Force veterans who worked as health-care industry analysts. She relished ordinary things--ice cream, her dog Tigger, roller skating, swimming in the small backyard pool. But she stood out, with spunky charisma and compassion that caused her to bring home poor classmates who seemed as though they could use a good dinner.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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A news conference was called, but Weinberger’s arrest for murder was bittersweet for the agents involved in the child porn case. They second-guessed themselves, even though they believed there was little basis to immediately arrest him and none to think he would kill a child two days after they seized his computer. “I guess I feel a little like I missed something,” Hittmeier says. “Like maybe . . we should have seen something that would maybe tip us off as to what he might have been doing or planning to do.”

After Weinberger was extradited from New Mexico, Timberlake and Minter gingerly walked him through four hours of questioning while the video camera rolled. After hearing the DNA results, he said he wanted the death penalty, waived his Miranda rights and freely told his story.

As he aimed the BMW down the highway, he said, Courtney was frightened. “She wanted to know where we were going. I didn’t really tell her anything.” He talked to her about music and school to calm her. It turned out they both liked math. He exited the highway where rice fields give way to walnut orchards hugging the Feather River. By the time they scaled the levee, Weinberger said, Courtney seemed relatively relaxed. He almost made the kidnapping sound like a date--a common fantasy scripted by molesters, experts say.

They stopped above the peaceful, green river. He said he told her to take off her clothes, then he took away her innocence. When he finished, he said she dressed and they sat watching the current and talking. She said she should call her parents and was worried about getting pregnant. She also seemed genuinely concerned when he said he wanted to kill himself. Or so he said.

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A half hour later, he wanted to have sex with her again, and they walked to the shoreline. When he began raping her the second time, he said she cried for him to stop. Anger and fear surged through him. “It crossed my mind that she could identify me . . . something told me that if I’m gonna get away with it, I’ll have to kill her.”

When Weinberger began choking her, he said she flailed and fought. He said he cried the whole time, yet he later had the presence of mind to drag her body to the water and try to wash away his DNA. He darted for cover at the sound of an approaching boat, but two fishermen pulled directly into the cove. Grabbing his shoes and some of his clothes, Weinberger said he scrambled for the car. Naked, he roared away, Courtney’s flowers still in the car.

During his confession, Weinberger painted a twisted backdrop for his crimes, blaming others without excusing himself. “I’m not trying to say it was not my fault,” he said. “It really never would have happened if the FBI had not come to my house on that Monday . . . . The way my dad was talking it made it seem like my life was over . . . . I knew my mom was going to die . . . . We were talking about committing suicide, and I guess I kind of retaliated.”

He said he first chanced upon child porn at the age of about 13 on someone else’s computer, then he later claimed that it was his parents’. But he was protective of his father, saying the older man had not looked at kiddie porn for years and had warned Justin to stay away from it because the FBI might come after him. Duree, Michael Weinberger’s friend and Justin’s former attorney, wrote, “Neither Mr. Weinberger nor his wife ever used or viewed child pornography.” FBI investigators did not turn up any child pornography on the senior Weinberger’s computer. They said they focused on Justin’s computer, the only one in the house with a high-speed Internet hookup.

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When the sheriff’s detectives asked whether Justin had been sexually molested--which experts say is common among child molesters--he said, “There was stuff between my mom and me [in his teens] . . . I know I thought it was really weird at some point.” Months later he made a similar statement in a letter that a friend shared with the FBI.

Justin’s mother is not alive to dispute her son’s allegation, and Duree flatly denies it on his father’s behalf. Her mother and two sisters say they do not discount Justin’s allegations, partly because of his mother’s sexual conduct. Kenneth Lanning, a Manassas, Va., consultant and former FBI expert on victimization of children, says, “He may have been molested by his mother, or may have been exposed to porn by his father, but [he] also can rationalize [his crime] by saying, ‘I was a victim myself.’ ”

The detectives asked Justin whether his father knew that he killed Courtney. He said the news reports of the black BMW and other evidence made his father suspicious, but said he always insisted to his father that he had nothing to do with the murder. “He told me that he had been having chest pains . . . and losing sleep over it because he thought it could have been me.”

John Duree wrote that Michael Weinberger had “no knowledge of Justin’s involvement in the Courtney Sconce homicide until FBI agents advised him of their investigation in July of 2001.” Justin’s assertions, he said, were those of a “troubled and desperate young man” who was angry that “his father had not come to his aid following disclosure of Justin’s involvement in the Courtney Sconce homicide.”

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Before Justin Weinberger was sentenced in February, many of the “victim impact” statements filed with the court called for his death. But Courtney’s parents left that decision up to the prosecutor, who in light of Weinberger’s youth and record recommended a life sentence without parole on top of a 10-year federal sentence for possessing and distributing child pornography. Weinberger waived his right to appeal, and he went off to federal prison.

Michael J. Heimbach, head of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Unit in Washington, says he knows of no other case where a search warrant for child porn triggered such violence. Field agents have been put on notice that it happened, so that they can learn from it. “The signs that we are trained to look for were not there,” he says, noting that Justin had virtually no criminal record. “It is an extremely sad situation and the agents have struggled with it internally.”

The families of the killer and his victim have struggled, too. Michael Weinberger, who continues to work at the attorney general’s office, “is torn apart by this,” his attorney says. “He is a decent and honorable person, and I think he is puzzled and wonders what he did or didn’t do that may have prevented or contributed to Justin’s conduct. Justin was not an abused kid in a terrible family. Both parents loved him.”

Mark Sconce is haunted by the question his daughter’s killer left hanging at his sentencing. “Every day and every night when I go to bed,” Sconce says, “I am thinking, ‘Why did he do it?’”

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The only remnants of the memorial at Courtney’s Corner are wax stains on the sidewalk, but she is not forgotten. At the bus stop outside her school, a spindly Chinese tallow tree with heart-shaped leaves shades a bench dedicated to her memory. A plaque on it reads: “She played hard and lived life to the fullest every minute of her short life.”


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