Investigation Discovery’s ‘On the Case With Paula Zahn: Follow the Footprints’ is an episode whose official synopsis perfectly lays down the details and the gravity of the crime examined. “When the lifeless body of a young girl is found on the shore of the feather river,” it states, “police hope that following a trail of footsteps and discarded articles of clothing will lead them to her killer.” And to be honest, it did, but not before a few months had gone by, and the lengthy investigations had taken its toll on the officers as well as the young girl’s, Courtney Hanna Sconce’s, family.
How Did Courtney Hanna Sconce Die?
Born on February 11, 1988, Courtney Hanna Sconce, a 12-year-old girl, disappeared from her Rancho Cordova neighborhood, a blue-collar bedroom community about 10 miles east of the state Capitol, in California, while on her frequent after-school outing to the nearby store. It was around 3 p.m. when the locals last saw her alive walking around the area. So when she turned up dead about two hours later on a faraway riverbank, it shook their entire district to its core.
It was before nightfall on November 8, 2000, that Courtney’s body was discovered on the banks of the Feather River near Nicolaus in Sutter County. Following this, the Sutter County Sheriff’s Department, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice joined forces to investigate her murder. From her official autopsy, it was determined that the young girl had been sexually assaulted and then strangled.
Who Killed Courtney Hanna Sconce?
There were various items left behind at the scene of the crime that the investigators in charge believed to be the perpetrators, including a black Adidas sun visor and a pair of sunglasses. Upon talking to witnesses, they further learned that a black BMW 325es had fled the area near Feather River shortly before Courtney’s body was found. But even with all that, it took around eight months and the collection of over 100 DNA samples from various possible suspects before Justin Michael Weinberger was ascertained to be the assailant.
The former delivery driver had worked at several locations in the Rancho Cordova area around that time. Moreover, just two days before the November abduction and slaying of the 12-year-old Courtney, the FBI and the El Dorado County law enforcement officers had entered his home and seized his child pornography collection. Some believe that this probe is what prompted Justin to act on his impulses and commit such a heinous crime. The then-19-year-old had also bought a gun on the same day as Courtney’s disappearance.
According to reports, Justin had bought an Adidas sun visor in October of 2000, had glasses similar to those left behind at the crime scene, and even had access to a black BMW thanks to his family and connections. After the incident, Justin had fled to New Mexico, where he was charged in connection to the case, held in a local jail until he could be extradited to California. The indictment occurred in the summer of 2001, after Justin’s DNA sample, taken early in the investigation, yielded a match with the DNA left on Courtney’s body.
In the end, ten days before what would have been Courtney Hanna Sconce’s 14th birthday, her killer, Justin Michael Weinberger, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This was the direct result of him pleading guilty to the charge of murder with the three special circumstances of child molestation, kidnapping, and rape in November of 2001 to avoid the death penalty. “No matter what punishment [he] gets, my Courtney Hanna will not come back,” Cindy Sconce, Courtney’s mother, said at his hearing. “[But] one thing that cannot be taken from me is something Courtney used to tell me often – ‘I love you infinity mom.'”
Read More: Where Is Justin Weinberger Now?